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Sometimes NBC’s Olympics coverage gets it absolutely right

Jamaica's Usain Bolt, left, crosses the line ahead of American Justin Gatlin to win gold in the men's 100-meter final Sunday.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

NBC’s Sunday night Olympics telecast could have been subtitled “The Usain Bolt Hour — Times Five.”

The show, airing 7 p.m. to midnight, pounded the promotional drums in advance of the 100-meter dash, then milked every last drop from the glorious aftermath of the charismatic Jamaican’s win.

The substantial chunk of time devoted to it was justifiable. (Not so the network’s indefensible decision to tape-delay weekend programming on the West Coast. Nothing less than spending all day in a hyperbaric chamber could have warded off all spoiler alerts, and showing the race three hours after completion sucked the drama out of it.)

Yet we come to praise the network and its often-ridiculed format — not for the Bolt coverage, but for a warm-up act on the Sunday card.

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Few major contenders came to these Games under more obscurity than Wayde van Niekerk. Who was this South African in the 400 meters whose name seems like a typographical error?

A canned feature piece that aired before his race filled in the blanks.

Had Van Niekerk hailed from an earlier generation, he would have been prohibited by the country’s apartheid policies from competing. In fact, his mother, Odessa Swarts, might have climbed to the same exalted sports stage as her son if not for South Africa shunning its darker-skinned athletes.

Viewers saw Swarts, who has every right to exhibit bitterness, deny (or hide) any such negativity. There was only gratitude that Van Niekerk could fulfill the same dreams that were squashed in her.

We also were introduced to his improbable coach, a great-grandmother of 74 named Ans Botha. The woman, white and white-haired, bemoaned the fates of former athletes under her wing whose entrapment by apartheid robbed them of the opportunity afforded Van Niekerk.

Then it was time to race.

As the eight finalists lowered themselves into the starting blocks, the exemplary analyst Ato Boldon pointed out that nobody ever wins from the outside lane. Owing to substandard qualifying times, Van Niekerk was stranded in lane eight, normally occupied by second-tier runners just happy to have reached the finals.

The entire lap on the staggered start would be negotiated without the ability to see and evaluate the other contestants. “I was running blind all the way,” he would say later.

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Somehow, Van Niekerk turned the drawback into an advantage by imagining that someone surely was bearing down on him.

So he ran like the wind at gale force. Only after he finished was it apparent that his performance transcended any other racer in Rio de Janeiro, on land or in water.

The glittering gold running shoes of Michael Johnson once carried him to a world record in the then-unfathomable time of 43.18 seconds. It had stood unmatched for 17 years, and aficionados would not have been surprised if it held up for 17 more.

None of those seven rivals who were invisible to Van Niekerk drew even with him. The network showed a close-up of the champion, promptly cut to Botha accepting hugs in the stands, then returned to her pupil as he stared at the stadium board that showed his time: 43.03.

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Immediately offering context, Boldon semi-shouted with a proper dose of excitement, “Guess what, Michael Johnson? The world record has been destroyed.”

Fellow analyst Sanya Richards-Ross piped in: “Can you imagine what he was thinking out of lane eight ... the two greatest quarter-milers right behind him?”

Tom Hammond, handling play-by-play, broadened the scope of discussion by wishing, hopefully, that the outcome would provide a rallying point in South Africa as it distances itself from its apartheid past.

Richards-Ross authoritatively broke down Van Niekerk’s form during the race replay. Boldon was all but pinching himself as he speculated that the 43-second barrier was vulnerable.

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With one more shot of the matronly Botha covering her mouth with her hands in shock and a hokey but appropriate summation from Hammond (“Sometimes, these moments show you what the Olympics are all about”), NBC concluded the segment with a visual reaction from ... Bolt, of course.

Then came a tease to the upcoming 100 meters.

Out of the telecast’s five hours, a mere 15 minutes, including the prepared piece from South Africa about this lightly known runner with the compelling back story, was devoted to the lead-in event.

But it sufficiently managed to introduce us to three people with whom we could quickly share their inconceivable joy.

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The NBC formula, with its many hits and too many misses, never has worked better.

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