NEW YORK – NBC's staggering plan to broadcast 1,210 hours of the Olympics (search) over six networks this summer left its executives with a real problem. Just where do you find somebody who can talk skillfully and colorfully about badminton? Or handball? Or tae kwon do?
The answers came from some unlikely people.
Like Pat Croce. The former president of the Philadelphia 76ers (search), and basketball studio analyst for NBC, is a black belt in tae kwon do and regrets the sport was added to the Olympics after he was too old to try out. Neal remembered his interest and sought him out.
Or Bill Clement (search). One of the best-known hockey announcers told Neal that he had been a badminton champion growing up in Canada. Another problem solved.
Trace Worthington, a former champion free-style skier, has a side business performing aerial stunts on a trampoline. He'll be Al Trautwig's partner in telecasting the Olympic trampoline competition.
Champion triathlete Siri Lindley was being interviewed by NBC Olympics honcho David Neal for an announcing job recently when she casually mentioned coaching field hockey at Princeton a decade ago. Neal's eyes widened.
Her cell phone rang before she even reached her hotel after the interview. Lindley didn't have just one new job. She had two — NBC's Olympics commentator for the triathlon and field hockey.
NBC will have 99 on-air announcers at the Summer Olympics in Athens, (search) compared to 67 in Sydney in 2000. Many are familiar — Rowdy Gaines for swimming, Dwight Stones for track and field, Doug Collins for basketball.
But 51 of the announcers will be working at the Summer Olympics for the first time. And with NBC on the air so much — more hours telecast than the last five Summer Games combined — they'll have plenty of on-the-job training.
Neal, executive vice president of NBC's Olympic coverage, and Molly Solomon, managing director of NBC's cable coverage, looked at a lot of audition tapes.
"We want people who will have the ability to make a point precisely, to be able to paint pictures with language," Neal said, "and make a point about things people don't really understand."
Former athletes who still keep up-to-date with their sports had a big advantage. Neal and Solomon looked at tapes of them being interviewed to see if they're articulate and enthusiastic.
They liked Lindley's tapes. She had quit the sport at the top because she didn't want to linger too long, and was interested in broadcasting. She sent a letter to Neal seeking an interview.
The field hockey gig helps out NBC, which otherwise would have to pay her way to Athens for just a couple of days of work.
"Multi-tasking," Neal said with a laugh. "That's what we're all about."
Lindley shrugs off the extra work, saying: "After having been a triathlete and as hard as you have to work to do that, if I'm not working hard at something, I'm not happy."
Right now, she's worried about being able to pronounce the names of all the players in a sport where the teams from Pakistan and Japan are strong. Not to mention the name of her broadcasting partner.
"I wish I could pronounce his name," she said.
He's Spero Dedes. (That's spear-oh dee-dis.)
Few of the announcers can match Karch Kiraly in being up-to-date in his sport. The three-time Olympic gold medal winner still competes in beach volleyball, and his NBC audition came last summer during a tournament in which he participated.
Kiraly and his partner lost a match, he wiped away the sweat and the sand, and headed to the booth to comment on a tournament final featuring the team that had just beat him.
"He's blown us all away with how sharp a television mind he has," Solomon said. "He has an ability to tell stories, to give life to the different personalities on the court. He just has that innate sense. I think beach volleyball will be prominent in our network coverage. It will be rocking."
Kiraly can speak authoritatively about players' strengths and weaknesses. NBC wants to make sure its analysts won't be afraid to spell them out; their first loyalty is to viewers, not to old friends.
Although much of his work is instinctual, Kiraly is getting tips from a broadcasting coach.
Others are taking their own steps to be ready — like Croce, who took a course certifying him as a tae kwon do referee. He wants to be able to point out scoring as quickly as it happens by being familiar with the referees' terminology.
And Croce, a part-time motivational speaker, will have no trouble spreading his enthusiasm for his sport.
"I love the martial arts," he said. "I've been doing it since I was 18 years old. I'm a fourth-degree black belt. I train hard. I would love to train with the athletes. When I was covering basketball, I couldn't train with them."