NAGANO GAMES COME TO A CLOSE
February 23, 1998
As the Nagano Olympics ended this past weekend, U.S. performances are reviewed. This years Olympics recieved the lowest TV ratings in over 20 years. Reasons behind the lack of public interest are discussed, and the problems CBS might encounter as they cover the games in the future. NewsHour's Elizabeth Farnsworth is joined by Cindy Nelson, Richard Lapchick, and Frank Deford.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After 16 days and 68 events, Winter Olympians gathered before 50,000 stadium spectators yesterday to close the winter games in Nagano.
SPOKESMAN: I now declare closed the 18th Olympic Winter games.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Twenty-five hundred athletes from seventy nations participated in the games, the most ever. They were also the most expensive ever: With $12 billion in new construction and operating costs. There were plenty of highlights: American freestyle skier Johnny Moseley and his flawless helicopter iron cross grab; American alpine skier Picabo Street's super giant slalom victory in the tightest finish in Olympic history--she won by one one-hundredth of a second; record-setting Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Dahlie's 20-minute wait at the finish for unlikely competitor Philip Boit of Kenya. (Music in background) Gold for the U.S. women's hockey team in the sport's Olympic debut; Austria's Hermann Maiers' two gold medals just days after surviving a horrific 60 mile-per-hour crash during the men's downhill; and in the most dramatic duel for the gold, Tara Lapinski and Michelle Kwan became the first women from one country in forty-two years to finish and second in women's figure skating. At 15, Lapinski is the youngest Olympic skating champion in history. But there were low-lights too: In the most unexpected performance of the games the U.S. men's hockey team did not even qualify for a medal; they lost three of the four games and then before leaving town some U.S. team members trashed three Olympic Village apartments. And although some 3 billion people watched the games worldwide, fewer Americans tuned in than CBS expected. The network paid $375 million for the rights, and it beat its competitors in prime time each night the Olympics were on. But the ratings were lower than promised to advertisers. Poor weather caused delays for some key events, including the men's downhill on opening day. Blizzards, fog, and rain all but washed out downhill skiing. But the athletes--with or without a medal--still return home as winners for participating in Nagano. And many are looking ahead to 2002 and the next winter games in Salt Lake City, Utah.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more we're joined by Olympian skier Cindy Nelson, who won a bronze medal in 1976 and a silver in 1980. She analyzed this year's game for a Detroit TV station. Frank DeFord is a sportswriter and a columnist for Newsweek. And Richard Lapchick is director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. Thank you all for being with us. Cindy Nelson, what was most impressive and memorable to you about the Nagano games?
CINDY NELSON, Silver Medalist, Skiing, 1980: Well, I think for me from my point of view watching the women's hockey I was very thrilled with how exciting the games were, as well as how much those gals played from their heart, and the fact that they won the gold medal I think really bodes well for what will happen in women's hockey and sports for young girls.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There were lots of strong women performances, weren't there? Is it unusual that the women won four of the six gold medals?
CINDY NELSON: Is it unusual? I don't know.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I don't have the comparisons.
CINDY NELSON: Yes. I don't have it on the top of my head either. I can make a few comparisons for Alpine skiing. The women have always been strong in Alpine skiing. This year, however, we only picked up one medal in Alpine skiing, and that was Picabo Street's gold in the super G.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Frank DeFord, what athletic performances impressed you most?
FRANK DEFORD, Newsweek: I think, Elizabeth, more than anything else, I'd like to be in Prague tomorrow morning. I mean, you talked about how the United States didn't even get a medal and Canada didn't even get a medal, but I think it's just as exciting that the Czechs came through to win. I mean, that was one of the great upsets of these games, and possibly the most heartwarming. I'd like to be there in Prague tomorrow morning when the team comes home.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Richard Lapchick, what stood out for you?
RICHARD LAPCHICK, Northwestern University: Well, for me, it was the women's hockey gold medal also. Northeastern University, where I work, has a great women's hockey tradition, and the coach of the team was the former Northeastern coach. It was thrilling to watch the excitement around the sport and the development of the sport, and I think the future of the sport, which a couple of years ago was unpredictable. I think it's now secure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cindy Nelson, did you find these games as riveting as other games? As you know, there's been some criticism, in fact, even by a top CBS producer, that they were boring; that there weren't enough really charismatic performers and athletes in them.
CINDY NELSON: Oh, I don't know about there not being enough charismatic performers or great athletes. I think we here in this country did suffer a bit of a delay in catching the wave of the Olympic spirit because for the first couple of days after the opening ceremonies when normally you'd come in with a bang with the men's Alpine skiing, with the big event of the winter games, which is men's downhill--it's so heavily watched--and Mother Nature took it away, canceled it, and postponed, postponed, postponed. So then you're waiting and waiting and waiting. And some of the only performances or competitions that could run on schedule were the in-door ones. So the first days of the competition the United States didn't have any medals at all. So it made it very difficult for us in this country to catch that wave that we all anticipate. As the Olympic games are nearing, we anticipate the excitement that comes with them. And they opened the games, but we didn't catch that wave. And it wasn't until about the fourth or fifth day that I really felt some Olympic spirit and some momentum going forward.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Frank DeFord, did you see that problem too, and were there bigger problems?
FRANK DEFORD: Well, I think there are much bigger problems, Elizabeth. I'll be fascinated to see what NBC does because they've got the next four Olympics, and how they handle not only the time problem, which they're going to have in Sydney in two years, but also I suspect--I sort of sense that the interest in the Olympics has paled a little bit. It's--it's drying up. And we've had an awful lot of this stuff thrown at us for years, and it's all been done with sort of the Roone Arledge package, which he developed at ABC back in the 1960's. And I'm afraid that that has kind of run its course and that television has got to find a new way to present these games. One of the things they've done, curiously enough, is they've said for so long all the networks, this is for women, this is for women, this is for women, and what it's done is essentially it's turned off the men. And that was the audience that they really lost this year.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Frank, explain the Roone Arledge package.
FRANK DEFORD: The Roone Arledge package was you don't show things live, and you tie things up with a neat little ribbon. You present very cleverly and very well. You introduce a character. You almost make it into a soap opera, unlike other sports, which everything is done live, and it's the game that matters. Here it's the drama that matters. And I think that that has, as I say, paled through the years, and it's particularly so--you know--everything moves so fast now. And as excited as I was, for example, about seeing Picabo win, I'd known it for twelve hours or twenty-four hours, and so it loses an awful lot of that drama. And I think NBC's got to figure out a new way to do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cindy Nelson, you watched the coverage, I think, back-to-back, and you also watched the coverage on Canadian television, right? How would you judge the coverage?
CINDY NELSON: Well, for me, I was very happy that I had the additional opportunity to watch CBC, because they did a great deal of coverage and more thorough coverage than I thought CBS or Turner did. I watched all three, so I felt like I was a bit better educated or more aware of really what was going on over there when it was happening because CBC carried a lot of things live, where, of course, with Turner and CBS it was taped and delayed. So it's pretty difficult for me to say, you know, whose coverage was better about what because when I'd be watching CBC, I might be missing something on Turner and vice versa.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Richard Lapchick, do you agree with Frank DeFord that the interest just may be diminishing in the Olympics, and if so, if you believe that, why? Why do you think it's happening?
RICHARD LAPCHICK: I think it's part of a bigger issue even that I think we can watch all pro sport and college sport and see the viewership on television and in the arenas has been going down for several years now. I think that fans are turned off by a lot of the things that they're seeing in sports, from free agency to teams moving from one city to another, from college athletes leaving early. I think the introduction of the NHL players in this possibly took away what was considered to be maybe the last pure element of amateurism in sport, which was the Winter Olympics, as opposed to the Summer Olympics, where it had evaporated many years ago. So I think this in some ways fell into that pattern. And I think that there's also a situation with the Winter Olympics that doesn't exist in the summer, and that is you've got almost all white athletes being watched by almost all white people. And I think until that diversification takes place, it's going to be hard to build up additional interest in the sport.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Mr. Lapchick, you think this is a bigger problem than coverage or weather or whether momentum got going?
RICHARD LAPCHICK: I think it's involved with sports in general. And, as we see athletes who have gotten in trouble and people make the assumption that it has something to do with sport, I think that also turns off the general fan and the behavior of the American hockey team after they were eliminated, I think reinforced that feeling for a lot of people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Frank DeFord, what do you think about this, and especially about the aspect of the Olympics becoming more professional?
FRANK DEFORD: Well, I'm not so disturbed by the professionalism, because I think the whole point of the Olympics is to let's see who wins, who's best in the world, and never mind whether they make money or not. Part of the problem in the past was the deceit, the hypocrisy of people who were called amateurs and weren't, in fact, amateurs at all. So I think it's almost better to lay it all on the table. I think another element--to talk about what Rich was just saying--is that people see an awful lot of hypocrisy and sham in the Olympics. They pose--it's almost sort of a quasi religion. There's the Olympic hymn and the Olympic oath, and all this posturing, and yet people are pretty aware that it's just sort of a greedy Gilbert and Sullivan opera, with Juan Antonio Samarant as absolute dictator running these games. And so I don't think we buy into this Olympic movement, which is what we hear all the time, and we know, in fact, it's just a game show. It's closer to Jeopardy or something like that than it is to the movement that we hear so much about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cindy Nelson, do you agree with that, and do you think that it's changed--whether you agree or disagree, has it changed a lot since you started your involvement with the Olympics?
CINDY NELSON: Well, it's changed a great deal. I made my first Olympic team in 1972. I didn't ski in the Olympics because I was injured a week before. Then I competed in '78, '80, and '84. Since 1972, till now, it's changed a great deal, and we do now have professionals, rather than amateurs. There were some amateurs--and I can speak from Alpine skiing--there were actually quite a few amateurs competing at the Olympic level in the early 70's. Now, I'd say zero. So from a professional--from a financial point of view, it has greatly changed. The other thing that I would say that I've seen that has changed, is it--and through the television coverage it is commercial eyes, and I think there has been a great many complaints about, oh, there's too many commercials, it's too commercialized, you know, that the viewer or the fans, the sporting fans that are watching the Olympics, waiting to see the finest competition happen in that particular sport at this moment in the world. They're waiting for that, and they don't feel they're getting it. So somehow I think this is what Frank was saying, NBC is going to have figure out how to get the real Olympic spirit, that competitive spirit, and share it with the public, the viewing public.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But, Cindy Nelson, you would say that some of these changes and some of the commercialism explain the lower ratings. I just saw that these are the lowest rated Olympics since 1968, or do you think that's another problem?
CINDY NELSON: Well, I think it's--the ratings are a result of quite a few difficulties that CBS had to deal with. We mentioned the time change. Yes, we've had other world events that have suffered the same time change, and NBC is going to be looking at that in Sydney in a couple of years, so they'd better figure that one out. I think that was part of it. I think the cancellations were just death for the beginning of the games because it prevented us catching that wave, as I spoke of a little bit earlier. The commercialism for the viewer who maybe doesn't know that sport intimately will be bothered by it because they want to get right down to the competition. They want to learn something about these athletes; they want to know, you know, what they can expect to see out of this competition; and they're waiting for that. They want, you know, to watch the best athletes in the world go after gold, silver, and bronze.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Richard Lapchick, in the few seconds we have left, what's your response to Frank DeFord's point about the games having a kind of quasi-religious feeling but their really being very commercial?
RICHARD LAPCHICK: Well, I think he's absolutely right, and that religious feeling, I'm afraid, is permeating sport worldwide, but I think the Olympics are the pinnacle of that feeling that here is something bigger than anything else we have that has the hypocrisy that Frank talked about that has to be dealt with very soon before they lose more fans.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Well, thank you all very much. nsibility fulfilled our responsibility by trying to rid the world of this danger. Thank you.