NBC deserves dunce cap in Smith attack

Media Watch

July 23, 1996|By MILTON KENT

Janet Evans' failure to keep an eye on the clock cost her a shot at history and denied NBC a gorgeous story for the opening of its telecast last night, but it did give the network an opportunity to sink its teeth into the first real controversy of the Olympics and into an Irish swimmer.

Evans, a four-time gold-medal swimmer, needs just one more gold to match speed-skater Bonnie Blair as this country's most-decorated female Olympic athlete, and NBC was heavily counting on her to reach the finals of the 400-meter freestyle last night, so much so that the race was scheduled for the very top of the prime-time telecast.

Evans, who was the feature of a commercial that ran twice in the first 40 minutes of the night-time telecast, finished second in her qualifying heat yesterday morning, but that time was ninth-best overall, and she missed the eight-person field for the final in the event.

Almost immediately, the NBC crew -- from midday host Greg Gumbel to commentators Dan Hicks and Summer Sanders -- began looking for excuses, and they latched on to the late entry of Ireland's Michelle Smith, who won the 400-meter individual medley Saturday.

To be sure, Smith's entry had touched off protests from other nations besides the United States, but Hicks and Sanders seemed most vexed that Smith, who had earned the first gold medal ever won by a Irish female swimmer, had denied an American sweetheart a chance at gold.

To her credit, Evans made no excuses in a post-race interview with Jim Gray (though she did play the victim in later media interviews). On NBC, She blamed herself for failing to swim fast enough to get to the finals. But that wasn't good enough for the network.

By the time the evening telecast had rolled around, Hicks had unearthed some nebulous rumors about Smith reportedly taking performance-enhancing drugs. Her weight-thrower husband had been suspended for a similar offense, so NBC tried a little guilt by association.

Worse yet, Hicks ducked behind the cowardly pose of presenting the unproven charges against Smith by attributing them to "other journalistic" outlets.

The usually solid Gray tore into Smith after her win last night, pressing her on her late entrance and the drug allegations.

She answered both with good humor, calling the drug allegations against her "very funny," saying she was "the most [drug-] tested Irish athlete ever."

Sanders uttered the inanity that the questions were tough, but had to be asked. Oh? If we assume that to be true, then where were these questions Saturday night, when Smith first won gold against an American competitor.

It was an ugly and truly embarrassing television moment.

Speaking of the inexplicable, one of NBC's solid pros, Charlie Jones, has seen his Olympic profile lowered, from track and field in Seoul in 1988 to swimming in Barcelona in 1992 to rowing this year, but he continues to shine, with a distinctive voice and enthusiastic, but never homer-like call.

In the best play-by-play tradition, Jones has wisely set up his analyst, Bob Ernst, to deliver blunt and entertaining opinions. They are a good pair, though you can't help wondering why Jones isn't at the pool.

Pub Date: 7/23/96

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