February 4, 2014

Olympics Interview: Marc Ryan, author of From Berlin to Beijing and London: A Look at TV and the Olympics

Once again it's time for the quadrennial gathering of the nations to engage in friendly competition upon the playing fields of youth.  In other words, the Winter Olympics.  The Sochi Games officially kick off on Friday with the Opening Ceremonies, and I thought this would be a good time to talk again with my friend Marc Ryan.  Back in November we chatted about television coverage of the JFK assassination; today the subject is his book From Berlin to Beijing and London: A Look at TV and the Olympics.

It's About TV: Well, here we are again Marc, talking television.  First the JFK assassination and now how TV covers the Olympics.
Marc Ryan:  This is my honor.  I'm always happy to talk TV with you!

Why does television love the Olympics?
TV grew the Olympics and the Olympics helped TV grow. The Olympics are less about sports than story telling. Sometimes, the story is how the athlete overcame the odds. Other times, the story is the loving family back home or, the archaic rules, the uncooperative bureaucracy or faceless judges.

I think people will be surprised to find out just how far back television coverage of the Olympics goes.  The title of the book kind of gives it away - tell us about when the Olympics first came to TV.
The Olympics have always been an opportunity for the host country to show off.  The first Olympics on TV were Berlin, 1936. The Nazi government controlled the media and was eager to show it was a world power and technology innovator.  No Berliners had a TV, of course. Public viewing areas gave people a chance to see this futuristic wonder. In some places, you could get a beer while watching competition. Credit the Third Reich with inventing the first sports bars.

The cameras were massive, the image was primitive.  The New York Times wasn’t impressed: “You cannot see the Olympics by television yet. All you can see are some men dressed like athletes but only faintly distinguishable like humans in a milk bath.”

Still, you have to imagine this was exciting!

Just as all late night talk shows can be traced to Steve Allen, all Olympic TV can be traced to Roone Arledge. He went past TV’s challenge to cover events and showed how TV can tell a story. ABC Sports in the 1960’s and 70’s was built on Wide World of Sports and the Olympics.  Just poking around tonight, I came across this interview with Arledge - it's almost 40 years old and still fascinating.  [I'll insert link to interview.]

You suggest that 1960 is a kind of milestone in the evolution of TV coverage of the Games.
ABC was to carry the 1960 winter games of Squaw Valley, only because ABC wanted to please Walt Disney, who produced the opening ceremony. ABC didn’t even have a sports department!  When ABC backed off, CBS picked up the games. Again, CBS had its eye on Disney programming. (Lousy pun unintended but I will leave it in.)

The 1960 Olympics marked the first same-day TV coverage, produced by CBS News and the lead anchor was Walter Cronkite. For the summer games from Rome, Jim McKay anchored from a New York studio; tapes were flown across the Atlantic. –TV via satellite was 4 years away!

NBC carried the summer, 1964 Tokyo games. NBC was eager to use “LIVE and in Color” to sell RCA color TVs. The commitment though, was weak. Satellite transmission was expensive and the time difference was a killer.

Television cameras at the 1936 Summer Olympics*
As TV matured and cable built platforms, TV needed content. Plus, when the Olympics changed networks, the new TV outlet had to outdo what was on TV four years earlier. This year, NBC will have live coverage on the NBC cable channels, channels dedicated for one sport and mobile device ability. For the person who doesn’t care for sports but wants to applaud skating, there’s glitzy, commercial-laden prime time network coverage.

I’ve got an issue of TV Guide from 1967 in which Stanley Frank says that television has corrupted every sport it has touched “with the sole exception of the Olympic Games, conducted by an international organization beyond its control.” Safe to say that this is no longer the case?
Wow, that quote is priceless!  When he says “television has corrupted”, I think he means the third party that paid to be there, the accompanying technicians and announcers and, millions watching around the world.

Yes, that can’t help but influence things. But the “Olympic Ideal “is just that, an ideal.  The original idea of amateur athletes taking part is from 19th century thinking: only the rich could afford sailing or equestrian sports. Then, Avery Brundage comes along and injects his vision of amateurism: no logos on skis, no cash under the table. And no political messages! Jessie Vetter, the goalie for the USA’s women’s hockey, has to remove an image on her mask because it is political. Good golly, dividing teams by country is political!

Which leads to what you call in your chapter on Calgary and Seoul, the "Boardroom Games." 
It took the IOC until 1985, 25 years to realize US TV money was not a supplement but a necessity. The IOC went Gordon Gekko: “Greed is good.”

I seems (to me at least) that the Olympics today are as much soap opera as sports.  Was there a moment when the coverage changed from sporting event to human interest story?
I think it begins with 1968, Grenoble and Mexico City. Certainly, there were great stories with Cassius Clay and Rafer Johnson at Rome and the US Hockey in 1960. In 1964, there are skiers Billy Kidd (what a name for TV!) and Bud Werner. Billy Mills and Donna de Varona in Tokyo. But by 1968, all Olympics are in color and TV presentation becomes more backstory-oriented. Plus, Peggy Fleming and Jean Claude Killy were incredibly good looking -

I had such a crush on Peggy Fleming during the Olympics.
I met Peggy Fleming when I was at CNN (mind you, this was around the time Reagan was first sworn in) and my heart  rate has still not returned to normal.

1968's heroes: (L) Peggy Fleming, (R) Jean Claude Killy
But I digress.  As you point out, there were incredible stories at the 68 Summer Games as well.
At Mexico City, you have Bob Beamon’s long jump. He broke from earth orbit before two months before Apollo 8 {space nerds will love that} and John Carlos and Tommie Smith with gloved fists. For anyone still reading this, I direct them to my e-book.  ;)

In 1976, ABC really begins to lay it on thick with “Up Close and Personal” features, and that's defined the model for coverage to this day.]

Speaking of that, is there a particular sport (such as women's figure skating or curling) that has benefited thanks to that approach?
Women skaters have been a female ideal since Sonja Henie in 1928! You have the story of each skater to project “rugged individualism” as well as “the girl next door”.  Figure skating provides television an opportunity to frame an event, both visually and for a narrative.  Skating possesses the ingredients for a miniseries, which is what the Olympics are.  ESPN aired a magnificent “30 for 30” on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. For Sochi, NBC’s Mary Carrillo has worked on an hour long presentation for the 20th anniversary.  Now ask yourself who won the gold medal that year?  [Ed: it was Ukranian Oksana Baiul.]

Did television have anything to do with the expansion of the winter games to cover the more extreme types of sports?
None other than Bob Costas said the IOC president could be Johnny Knoxville, what with all the X-games influence.  The IOC wants to build an audience. I taught at Keen State in New Hampshire for eleven years and it wasn't until I came to New Hampshire I realized how big skateboarding and snowboarding and BMX biking is. You can bet they’ll get a younger demographic!

Out of the memorable moments that television's covered in the Olympics, what really stands out for you?
One of the biggest, most engrossing TV events EVER is the USSR-USA hockey game from Lake Placid, 1980. College players who’d been together for months beat a team of professionals, Communists.  And, it was tape delayed! That game was played in the afternoon, telecast in prime time. ABC had wanted to move the game start time but was turned down.  Al Michaels was never better than Lake Placid. He asked “Do you believe in miracles?” and then, he shut up.

On the other hand, the 1960 upset of the Soviets by the USA team was huge but who has seen video of that? I wonder how big the fuss would be.  And then Franz Klammer's downhill victory in 1976 was breathtaking. (And that’s from someone who has never wanted to ski!)

Why did coverage get so big, to where we're talking about hundreds of hours rather than the hour or two each night back in the 60s? Is there too much coverage nowadays? 
Too much coverage compared to then and now? Yes. But there are more options now. Don’t forget NBC’s Vancouver coverage was topped by American Idol.

What has been the biggest recent change to television coverage? And where does it stop – is there anything you can imagine happening in the next few Olympiads that would mark a dramatic change, or have we gone as far as we can with TV coverage?
Well, there we go with technological determinism again! Just since the 2002 Salt Lake games we have streaming coverage, smart phones and tablets. What is next, Google glass?

What are some of the stories to watch for this year?
A month ago, it was announced Lindsey Vonn would miss the Olympics. Then, it’s Olympic toilets and the threat of terrorism. What will be the big story on February 7th, what will we be talking about February 23rrd??

It's kind of sad that the Olympics, which were always envisioned as peaceful competition between nations, have provided television with some of the most memorable news moments in its coverage of terrorism.
Munich was the first time terrorism was televised. Think about that. Terror is ephemeral, an emotion.     Black September chose Munich because they knew they would capture worldwide TV.  Almost everything of that attack was off-camera and yet, people stayed up late to watch Jim McKay give us the news.  A rescue attempt was ditched when authorities realized the international TV picture of rescuers, disguised in athletic gear, was seen by the terrorists on live television.  As soon as that was realized, TV to the Olympic village was cut.

The Olympics as a target was something no one imagined in 1972. We saw video of the bombing in 1996 from Atlanta; it was live on ARD as Janet Evans was interviewed. Sadly, no one can imagine a Super Bowl/World Series/World Cup/Olympics without the possibility.

Also, the Olympic venues are under the control of the IOC. Once the games begin, it’s Putin’s baby. The whole world will be watching, not just for sports.

Will you be watching the Sochi games? Don't tell me you're not a Winter Olympics fan!
Competition and people conjure stories. Who captures our attention, affection or scorn is what draws me. Does that athlete end up on a cereal box on supermarket shelves or, forgotten? To paraphrase Naked City:  “There are eight million stories in Sochi…”

Have you got another book in the pipeline? What will that be about?
I was going to add a chapter for Sochi. Then I asked myself: “What would Brian Boitano do?”

Whether I’ll add a section or start something new depends on what happens with Sochi. I would love to add photos. However, the IOC charge$ and is most litigious.

*Marc adds: I am including this photo from the 1936 games. It is on many websites. I spent MONTHS checking with image banks, the IOC, AP, UPI, German news agencies. I even consulted a lawyer. It came down to being the property of the Third Reich so, I haven’t sweated it.


My thanks again to Marc Ryan for taking the time to talk with me.  It's always a pleasure for me to talk with a fellow TV historian.  As always, whatever there is great about this interview is due to his insight and observation.  Anything the interview lacks is due entirely to the interviewer himself.


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  2. What a great column as a prelude to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Thank you Marc and Mitchell !!
    Cynthia Wallace

  3. Here’s the final Minute of the "Miracle on Ice" and the immediate aftermath

  4. Marc Ryan is an amazing guy! I remember so much about his class and he still continues to teach me today even after not having been my professor for 3 years! Great interview!

  5. The story I once read was that CBS won the rights to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, and ABC, believing that they needed both the Winter and Summer Games to make a profit on the 1960 Olympics, sold the rights to Squaw Valley to CBS.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!