Well set for the Games

Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- The Games can’t help but pass through the “Today” show set, situated in the heart of the Olympic complex.

Of course, it is not merely a happy coincidence. NBC and its massive, nearly-billion-dollar Olympic infrastructure starts its broadcast day with Matt, Meredith, Ann and Al, live from Beijing, from the same set that went with them to Athens and Turin and served as a makeshift home in Rockefeller Center while their New York set was being reconstructed for high-definition conversion a couple of years ago.

On the road with “Today” is nothing new. Its original host, Dave Garroway, took viewers to Paris and Rome and on board an Air Force B-52. “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” is now a “Today” show staple, as is the Olympics.

On this evening, as the show broadcasts at its usual morning hour at home, the 90-member cast and crew welcome the bronze-medal-winning U.S. men’s gymnastics team. Al Roker glimpses the fresh-faced group and quips, “I have socks older than them.”


Over the next three hours, Olympic athletes, Chinese fashion models, the show’s medical correspondent and its favorite chef cruise through, while the co-hosts, stepping over and around them, schmooze with their sign-bearing spectators, chat about the Chinese experience and genuinely appear to be having a good time.

All have taken advantage of their free mornings and early afternoons to attend Olympic events, with Lauer taking in beach volleyball and the U.S. men’s basketball team’s pasting of China in its opening game.

If he is jaded, he hides it well.

“To me it’s great to go to the events, but to be honest, I like it here,” he says, gesturing around him, “when you get to talk to these people. If I’m at an event and I watch someone win a gold medal, I’m in the stands and I don’t get to really experience it.”


Up close, the U.S. gymnasts actually look wide-eyed and awed at the experience. Lauer reads them a few snippets from U.S. papers that understandably downgraded their medal chances after the injury withdrawals of Olympic veterans Paul and Morgan Hamm.

“It got us pretty fired up,” Jonathan Horton tells Lauer and Meredith Vieira. “We probably shouldn’t have, but we read all of that stuff. I mean, you can’t help it when it’s on the Internet. You look at it, you check it out, and you’re just like, ‘What? Come on. We’re a great team.’ ”

Afterward, Lauer says the surprise medalists may be the most enjoyable of all to interview.

“There have been times when we’ve been doing the Olympics where guys will come from the swimming pool with the gold medal around their necks and they’re still wet and they walked over and they’re just in a daze,” Lauer says. “And that’s a lot of fun.”


Ann Curry is equally inspired about the Olympic experiences.

“I really think this is what America needs right now in a sense,” she says. “America needs something that raises them up out of fear and uncertainty. Americans want to cheer for America.”

But it is China upon which the eyes of the world have focused. And amid criticism of the nation as the Olympic host, Curry says it is unfair to paint the Chinese people with the same broad brush as its government. “I think most people look at China as a monolith, as people exactly the same, and that’s not true,” she says. “We’ve seen the humanity of the Chinese people.”

For Vieira, it is her third trip to China this year, including a visit to the earthquake region in Sichuan province in June, a journey she expects to make again this weekend.


But it is her first Olympics and she acknowledges tearing up at Michael Phelps’ first gold medal win, when the Americans in the crowd finished the national anthem after the recorded music cut out.

Among the guests on the show this day are Michael Phelps’ mother, Debbie, and sisters Hilary and Whitney, frequent guests over the last three Olympics.

Lauer talks to Debbie Phelps about the enormous expectations on her son, and afterward, off set, she continues on the theme.

“Michael has a dream of elevating the sport,” she says. “He has goals that he wants to accomplish. Everyone compares him to [Mark] Spitz, but he wants to first be Michael Phelps and he’s proving himself.”


As the show nears its three-hour conclusion, Lauer says Phelps is the interview he really wants to do again when the swimming competition has concluded.

“I just want to sit down with him when it’s all over, whether it’s with the outcome everybody wants or with a different outcome, to try to kind of get in his mind a little bit and understand that pressure that he’s been put under by us,” Lauer says.