A sense for Games' sights, sounds

Television: Presentation producer Christy Nicolay oversees the behind-the-scenes shots viewers see from Athens.

Athens 2004

August 17, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - Two years ago, Christy Nicolay was introducing largemouth bass to television viewers across the country.

This summer, she is the behind-the-scenes host for the millions of spectators at the 35 Olympic venues in and around the city.

Whatever fans hear or see beyond the athletic pursuits themselves - from videos describing sports and introducing competitors to the music and announcements - started with Nicolay, the executive producer of sport presentation.

Add it up and it's 151 announcers, a play list of 1,900 songs and a library of 600 videos.

That responsibility means "I have Post-it notes for my Post-it notes and sometimes I write on my hand," says the woman who directs a multilingual staff of 600.

Throwing intimate parties for the immediate world is not a career for the faint of heart. You won't find it listed in the help wanted ads, either.

Work, it seems, finds Nicolay, who also did the electronic decorations at the Salt Lake City Olympic venues two years ago.

The Oregon native has been a flight attendant, a park ranger in charge of surfing competitions and manager of a Ritz-Carlton Hotel fitness center. A Caribbean vacation with her mother led to a chance encounter with an MTV production crew. A job followed.

From MTV to VH1 to the Discovery Channel, Nicolay learned the production business from the bottom up. ESPN hired her to produce the X Games.

Her big break came when she produced the "Jonny Moseley Down Under" segment for NBC in which the 1998 Winter Games moguls gold medalist partied and played his way around Sydney during the 2000 Summer Games.

This year's job presented itself during a cell phone call as Nicolay drove through Manhattan last November. "Please hold for the chief operating officer of Athens 2004," an operator said to her.

Suddenly, Marton Simitsek was making her an offer.

"`I need you to come to Athens,'" says Nicolay, recalling his greeting.

"I'm sorry?" she replied.

"You come," he insisted.

"I'm in the middle of moving to California. Let me think."

"What is there to think about?" he asked.

"What do you want me to do?"

"You do the same thing you did in Salt Lake City, but not so loud," he said, ending the job interview and starting her employment.

Nicolay arrived in Athens on Jan. 5, about two years later than she felt she should have been in place. From then on, it was a sprint and a marathon all in one.

The first step, however, was letting her predecessor know that she had been hired. Like many pieces of unfinished business at these Summer Games, he had not been reassigned before Nicolay showed up at the office.

"Luckily, he was a really nice guy and didn't try to poison me," she jokes. "That was the first indication that I was in a different country."

The next step was making Athens a quieter Salt Lake.

Summer Games organizers wanted to let humans, rather than sound systems, pump up the excitement.

At the Salt Lake Olympics, Nicolay took some heat for using live bands and hyper announcers at the venues as a way to pump up the crowds for NBC.

Traditionalists - mostly older fans and visitors from Europe - called the presentation "Ameri-canned," and a "happy-clappy" travesty.

Nicolay makes no apologies. "It was the first Olympics after 9/11. We were in America, and for America, it was just right."

Like the last Olympics, there remains an announcer don't list: Don't dog a bad performance, don't play favorites, don't second-guess the judges.

Still, she made adjustments, using "Music of the World" and ditching mega-watt announcers.

"We're definitely airport voice," she says of the subdued tone.

Certain sports will remain high energy. The NBA is bringing the Slam Dunk Team. Beach volleyball fans will be entertained by dancers from Spain.

But Nicolay, 37, has been in foreign lands before.

Just after the Salt Lake Olympics, ESPN hired her to produce the show around the Bassmaster Classic, the world series of bass fishing.

Nicolay knew little of the sport, so she moved to Montgomery, Ala., the headquarters of B.A.S.S., from her suburban New York City home and immersed herself in the world of angling.

"She said, `I want to know the history before I talk about the future,'" says Dean Kessel, the ESPN vice president in charge of B.A.S.S. "She's very respectful of the sport and wouldn't do anything that would damage it just for a cheap stunt."

To make the weighing of fish exciting for in-stadium fans and viewers of ESPN, she borrowed a little from the Olympics (a bald eagle soared through the arena) and a little from the Iron Chef (silhouetted performers on pedestals). Then added a lot of lasers and fireworks.

Despite her show biz background, Nicolay says she hasn't lost sight of the historical importance of these Games.

"All of the sudden you look up and there's the Acropolis," she says. "And you remind yourself that it's unlikely the Olympics will ever be here again in our lifetimes. You have to do it right. It's a very humbling feeling."

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