As 16-year-old Megan Quann ascended the podium Monday night to get the gold medal she'd just earned in the women's 100-meter breaststroke, could it get any better for
For a network that prides itself on story-telling at the Olympic Games, this was some story. Here was a brash-talking, fresh-faced young American teenager who had said she would win, and did.
Now it was her moment. NBC's too. Really, could it get better? Yes, it could: "Come on, cry for us," Tom Roy, executive producer of NBC Sports, hollered at the bank of monitors in the production truck
just outside the Sydney International Aquatic
Quann stepped onto the podium, received her medal and the "Star-Spangled Banner" started to play. No tears. The anthem played all the way through. No tears. "Arrgh," Roy said, turning to leave the truck. "Swimmers are too tough to cry."
On a memorable night in Olympic swimming history--the night Quann backed up her boast, a nice young man from Studio City by way of Ukraine named Lenny Krayzelburg was a winner but Australian sensation Ian Thorpe came in second--NBC granted The Times exclusive access to its production of the event.
The races took place between 7 and 9 p.m. Monday in Sydney--meaning between 1 and 3 a.m. Monday in Los Angeles. They were aired in prime time Monday night in L.A.
The ground rules for this story, agreed on in advance, were simple. The Times was granted unrestricted, uncensored access to the announcers and crew.
This is what happened behind the scenes:
It's 25 minutes to showtime. The NBC chow tent, one of a bank of trucks and tents parked just outside the enormous swimming arena, is dishing up garlic beef, eggplant, fries, onion rings, salad, fruit, cheesecake and more.
Many of those on hand are downing a last few gulps of coffee. From Starbucks. NBC--apparently unwilling to gamble on Australian java--shipped to Australia 16,000 pounds of Starbucks coffee, enough for 320,000 cups.
"Kick ass tonight, my man," Ed Feibischoff, who produces swimming and diving for the network, says to Rowdy Gaines, who won three swimming gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and now serves as NBC's swimming analyst.
Feibischoff and Gaines make fists and touch knuckles. Gaines, wearing a red shirt with the NBC logo in front, turns to sprint up a dirt path to the arena.
Feibischoff, a muscled 43-year-old from New York, is one of NBC's most experienced producers. He did last year's NBA finals. This is his fourth Olympics.
Tonight he's set to work with director Andy Rosenberg, also one of NBC's best. Rosenberg, 50, who sports big glasses and a bald head, is decisive and quick. At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, he made the decision to go live to a moving trackside camera to follow sprinter Michael Johnson around the homestretch of his record-breaking 200-meter sprint--producing perhaps the lasting video image of those Olympics.
At their disposal will be 30 cameras, 16 tape machines for replays and two editors editing tape around the clock.
Though the action--like all of the Games on NBC--will be shown in the States on tape-delay, in Sydney the entire team does the job as if the broadcast was live.
In the arena, Dan Hicks, the lead commentator, and Gaines will call the races as they happen. In the production truck, Rosenberg will bark out the various camera shots he wants as the swimmers churn down the pool. Feibischoff will sit next to Rosenberg in the truck, talking with the announcers; after the races are done, it will be his job--overnight in Australia--to cut and splice the action with pre-produced features to create the familiar NBC package.
Features on Quann and Krayzelburg were completed weeks before. NBC also has on hand a quickie recap of the two gold medals Thorpe won Saturday night.
Hicks walks into the tent. "Welcome," he says in a booming voice, "to the night of the Thorpedo!"
Headphones on, Hicks and Gaines are perched near the top of the press box, looking down on the finish line and, on a desk directly in front of them, at four TV monitors.
It's so loud you can't hear the person next to you.
The two announcers are flanked by aides. In back, standing on a platform, are two U.S. swimming officials, Jim Wood and Jonty Skinner. They're there to tape the races on their own camcorders. Because of their connections, however, they sometimes help the NBC crew with logistical or technical questions; in return, the two officials get a plank of wood to stand on.
Thorpe's race, the 200-meter freestyle, is second on the agenda. First is the women's 100-meter backstroke. American B.J. Bedford finishes sixth. She was in the race through 75 meters, Gaines tells his audience, but simply "did not have enough to come home."
Thorpe appears to thunderous noise. Gaines is working from a printed cheat sheet and from his own notes, scribbled in black ink on a yellow legal pad. One reads: "The concern for Thorpe should be not to let V. get too far ahead the 1st 100."
V. is Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands, who had broken Thorpe's world record in the event during Sunday's preliminaries.
When the race begins, the noise gets even louder. Gaines and Hicks stand so they can see better; they have to yell to be heard, even with headphones. As the swimmers make the first turn, Gaines screams into the microphone that Thorpe can't let the Dutch swimmer get too far ahead.
He stays close. But at the end Van Den Hoogenband touches first.
A few moments later, off the air, Gaines shakes his head in disbelief, calling the result one of the "top three or four upsets in Olympic [swimming] history."
Speaking of Thorpe, Gaines says: "He just did the Olympic panic. He panicked when Van Den Hoogenband went out so fast."
He adds: "This does take some of the dust off. The only way you measure champions is by gold. The old saying goes, gold is gold and silver is last. As unfair as that sounds, that's the way a lot of people think come the Olympic Games."
Below, the next race is getting ready to go--a semifinal heat of the women's 200-meter freestyle. Summer Sanders, who won four swimming medals in 1992 and now works as an NBC broadcaster, is standing next to Hicks in blue flip-flops, peering through binoculars.
"Has anyone seen Mr. and Mrs. Krayzelburg?" she asks.
NBC cameras are scanning the crowd for Yelena and Oleg Krayzelburg. NBC aides are running up and down the aisles looking for them. No luck.
The U.S. swim officials standing behind the announcers pull out their cellular phones. "Section 204, Row 26!" goes out the call.
Bedford, the sixth-place finisher in the first race of the night, trudges up the stairs in a blue football jersey to get a consoling hug from Skinner.
"You OK?" she is asked.
"Yeah," she says.
Sanders still can't find the Krayzelburgs. The plan is for NBC to lead in to the 100-meter backstroke with the feature, come back with a shot of the parents in the stands, then go to the race.
Ten minutes to go, and still the parents are nowhere to be found. Off the air, Hicks and Gaines talk about what they want to say when they go back on in their lead-in to the race.
Stress that Lenny is likable and humble, Hicks says.
All of a sudden, the parents show up on all four monitors. Lenny's father, Oleg, has his face buried in his palm--the very picture of nerves. His mother, Yelena, is sporting an enormous stars-and-stripes hat.
"How did we not spot that hat?" Wood asks.
In the truck, Rosenberg can't believe the horror that almost overtook them. Without the parents, NBC's story line would have sunk. "We spent a half-hour looking for them," he says, still in disbelief at the close call.
The race is a sprint up and down the pool. At the end, Krayzelburg throws his body toward the wall and wins.
"Yes! Yes!" Gaines exults on the air.
"He has come through! Oh, yes!" Hicks says.
The monitors show Oleg Krayzelburg pumping his fist in the air. Hicks motions to Gaines, look at that.
A few seconds later, they go back off the air. Gaines slumps back in his chair. He holds out his left hand. It's shaking.
At a network seminar in May in Salt Lake City, Gaines recounts, "The one thing they hammered home to us is: Do not become a cheerleader."
He says he has tried his best not to let his feelings show through on the air. But after spending time with the U.S. swim team last year at a meet in Sydney and virtually the entire last month with the team at practices in Pasadena and then in Brisbane, "Lenny is a friend," he says, truly likable and sincerely humble.
Since becoming a broadcaster, Gaines says Krayzelburg is only the fourth swimmer he has really cheered for--the others being Sanders, Pablo Morales and Jeff Rouse, all of whom are Olympic medalists.
"I certainly didn't say, 'Go, Lenny, go!' but certainly in my heart I was screaming, 'Go, Lenny, go!' " Gaines says.
"Humility is easy to cheer for," he says. "That's what we were trying to convey on the air. That's why the Olympics are so cool. It may be a cliche, but it's all about telling stories." Ruefully, he adds: "It's why no one cares about swimming except every four years. You don't have the stage for the stories."
After a few minutes, Krayzelburg steps onto the medal stand. Hicks gives Gaines a high-five. They both clap as Krayzelburg gets the gold. "Anybody who meets Lenny Krayzelburg once would [cheer] for him," Hicks says.
Down in the truck there are 68 video monitors on a wall in front of Feibischoff, Rosenberg and a few others.
Some are for replay machines, others for graphics, for special effects and for the multiple camera angles. The two in the middle of the bank are the two that matter most.
One says underneath it, "Program." That's what viewers will see at home.
Another says, "Preview." That's the shot viewers will see next.
The truck is cramped, chaotic and loud, with Rosenberg barking out a staccato series of instructions for the camera angles he wants.
It's a two-step order--get ready, then switch to a particular camera. For instance, "Ready 9--take 9!" Like a fighter pilot scanning instruments, he must constantly scan the screens for the shot he thinks will paint the best picture.
As Quann swims for the wall, Rosenberg's voice grows even louder. She wins--but there is confusion in the truck over who placed second.
"Stay on her. I don't care about anyone else!" Rosenberg shouts.
Quann climbs out of the pool. She is still panting when she comes over to talk to NBC reporter Jim Gray.
Years of hard work went into this, she says, explaining that she just wanted to race as fast as she possibly could and win the gold. Gray asks about going back to high school: "I'm so excited to go back to school!" she says and walks away.
Not so fast. Because of a "little problem" with the equipment, Gray has to do the interview all over. Quann looks at him closely but, after a pause, indicates she's game.
This time she ends by saying, "I'm so excited! Ohmigosh! I won!"
In the truck this is cause for ecstasy. Feibischoff tells an aide to see if Quann would like to talk the next afternoon with Bob Costas, the network's Olympic host.
"We'll arrange for a car to pick her up," he says.
A few minutes later, Quann is back on screen, walking to the medal stand. The camera angle shifts ever so slightly to the other medalists, Leisel Jones of Australia and Penny Heyns of South Africa.
"What are you doing?" Rosenberg yells into the mike. "I don't care about some other girl. Do we care about some Australian girl when our girl has won?"
He adds, "Put it in her face, 9."
During the playing of the U.S. anthem, the camera stays tightly focused on Quann's face.
There's no crying. Afterward, Rosenberg says of the camera work, "Very nice."
Feibischoff, meantime, is getting ready for his all-nighter. "Every night we're producing the Super Bowl," he says. "That's what it feels like. Except it's for 16 straight days."
* BILL PLASCHKE
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* TAKING THE FIFTH
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Mike Penner U2
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