Olympics Preview: NBC Promises Rio Will Be The 'Most Live Olympics Ever'
Six hours a day, six days a week for more than three-and-a-half years: That’s how long an elite athlete would have to train to match NBCUniversal’s herculean output from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Viewers might also break a sweat trying to watch the record-smashing 6,755 hours of programming planned on an array of networks and digital platforms. With the addition of virtual-reality content, Olympic wannabes can almost feel the rays of the sun at the first Games in South America.
And what better backdrop than Rio de Janeiro, with Sugarloaf Mountain, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and the mesmerizing wave pattern of the sidewalk along Copacabana Beach? “Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, they went to Rio; they didn’t do a movie in Sochi,” says Jim Bell, NBC Olympics executive producer, referring to the Russian city that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. “Rio is just a romantic, fun-sounding place, a fantastical mashup of tropical forest and beach and mountains.”
But this “Road to Rio” has been paved with problems from A to Zika. In addition to the mosquito-borne virus that several of the world’s top male golfers cited as their reason for not coming, polluted water venues, construction delays, an economic downturn, the suspension of president Dilma Rousseff and—most recently—the Russian doping scandal have all marred the run-up to the Games, which begin August 5 with what is expected to be a spectacular opening ceremony.
“I’m hoping, with fingers crossed and a realistic outlook, that Rio can pull it off,” says Bob Costas, the NBC primetime host for a record 11th Olympics. “And if they do, the people will remember the beautiful setting and the high-spiritedness of it.”
But if controversies intrude, “we’re prepared to deal with them,” Costas says. “And we’re certainly going to acknowledge them before we start. Because if we don’t, then you’ve buried your head in the sand of Copacabana Beach.”
Once the Games begin, the tentpoles for NBC will again be American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, just as they were in London four years ago and, for that matter, in Beijing in 2008.
At age 31, Phelps, who has won 22 medals (including 18 gold), is swimming three individual events and up to three relays in what he promises will be his last Games. “Every Olympics is the Michael Phelps Olympics,” says NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines. “Whether he finishes dead last or wins six gold medals, it’s always going to be about Michael.”
Bolt, whose hamstring injury forced him to ask for medical exemptions onto the Jamaican team, will try to become the first athlete to achieve a triple/triple: winning the 100- and 200-meter dashes plus the 4 x 100-meter relay in three straight Games. His 30th birthday is August 21, the day of the closing ceremony.
“Bolt is a showman,” says U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, the last man to win the 100 before Bolt, in 2004. “He’s going to show up. He’s going to do his job. And I think that if he wasn’t ready to be able to defend his title, he would have said, ‘I’m going to just sit out.’”
Instead, Bolt will race throughout what NBCUniversal touts as “the most live Olympics ever.” With Rio just one hour ahead of Eastern time, NBC will enjoy its friendliest time zone since Atlanta 20 years ago. “A good chunk of primetime will be live, especially from the beach, the pool and the track,” Bell says. And 4,500 hours of streaming coverage on nbcolympics.com and the NBC Sports app make every event available live for the third straight Games.
NBC’s primetime coverage of the London Games did not include one second of live content yet became the most viewed television event in history. To that end, the network believes that gymnastics plays out better as a packaged event and will broadcast the sport on tape delay (although it will also be streamed live).
Simone Biles, a three-time world all-around champion, joins a squad determined to defend its team gold medal from London. “Not only does she do the hard gymnastics, but she’s been very consistent,” NBC gymnastics analyst Nastia Liukin says. That consistency could give the U.S. its fourth straight all-around champion (including Liukin herself in 2008).
Speaking of flipping, NBCUniversal will offer viewers 1,220 more hours than in 2012, partly thanks to the return of rugby, booted from the Olympics after 1924, and golf, last played in 1904. “Just to have eyeballs on our sport at this level on this platform is a huge moment for the game,” NBC rugby analyst Brian Hightower says. It’s also big for a tiny nation like Fiji, whose men’s team could win its first Olympic medal in any sport. “They’re very gifted,” Hightower says, “they’re very strong, they’re very fast and they love the game more than any other.”
Golf serendipitously has its own NBCUniversal channel. Golf Channel analyst David Feherty says he doesn’t think the coverage will suffer from the decision by the top four players in the world—Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy—to turn down invitations to compete. “These guys get to play in four majors a year,” Feherty says. “They get to play in one Olympics every four years. Major championships make your career, but maybe an Olympic medal makes you immortal.”
Among those playing are Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson of the U.S., who compares a gold medal favorably to the prize for winning at Augusta. “I would say it would be a little bit bigger than a green jacket,” he says.
Tennis players, who consider an Olympic title part of a “Golden Slam,” will again be featured on Bravo, while NBCSN, MSNBC, CNBC, USA and Spanish-language networks Telemundo and NBC Universo will show a variety of sports.
With so much going live, NBC will have to squeeze in its vignettes about athletes and the host country, such as correspondent Mary Carillo locating “The Girl From Ipanema.”
The girl from Bethesda, Maryland, swimmer Katie Ledecky, should demand plenty of screen time. A gold medalist in the 800-meter freestyle at age 15 in London, she is favored to win the 200, 400 and 800 and will be called in for relay duty as well. “Katie has the ability to switch from this humble, soft-spoken, sweet girl to an absolute murderer in the water,” Gaines says.
At the Olympic stadium track, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica will try to sprint to a third straight 100-meter title. She’ll be challenged by Americans English Gardner, Tori Bowie and Tianna Bartoletta, as well as Dutch sprinter Dafne Schippers, who is also a threat in the 200.
NBC track and field analyst Ato Boldon believes the men’s 400-meter dash showdown between reigning Olympic champion Kirani James of Grenada, 2008 gold medalist LaShawn Merritt of the U.S. and world champion Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa “is probably going to be the best race of the entire Games, because you have three guys in their prime. It may take a world record to win.”
For the cariocas (the local term for the citizens of Rio), success will be measured on the fields of playas well as by being a good host. Surprisingly, Brazil has never won an Olympic gold medal in soccer, its national sport. Neymar, the team captain, will try to remedy that. Pole vaulter Fabiana Murer is another top Brazilian medal hope, and the host country’s beach volleyball duos are among the top seeds.
Team USA won the overall medal count in London with 103 podium spots, including 46 golds. The United States is trying to keep some streaks going in team sports: five straight gold medals for women’s basketball, three for women’s soccer and two for men’s basketball. The women’s water polo team, seeking to defend its title, has dominated its sport the last four years in unprecedented fashion. The women’s indoor volleyball team won the last two Olympic silver medals and is going for its first gold, while their male counterparts are again medal contenders, with both squads expected to go toe-to-toe with Brazil in an arena that Bell says “is going to be a rock ’n’ rolling place.”
American skeet shooter Kim Rhode is gunning for her sixth straight medal dating back to 1996, while beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings is in striking distance of her fourth gold medal in a row, this time with new partner April Ross. “It’s going to be Carnival with the best beach volleyball mixed in,” Jennings says. “That’s the energy that’s on site, especially when the stadium is filled. Every single [previous] experience in Rio has been that for me. It’s going to be big.”