Brawny leotard-clad girls with glitter in their hair are going to have some company on television during the Olympics this August.
While TV coverage of past Summer Games has focused on a smattering of marquee sports such as gymnastics, swimming and track, every single sport on the Olympics bill will get airtime in 2004. And while handball, trampoline, Taekwondo and badminton aren't likely to get Saturday primetime slots, many Americans are looking forward to watching events rarely beamed to U.S. living rooms.
Betsy Ross of Cincinnati, Ohio, said she enjoys watching the "not-as-publicized" Olympic events because she likes to learn about new sports, such as team handball, which she discovered during the Atlanta Games.
"It’s a totally different sport from the handball we know, but triggers almost as much nationalistic fervor as a soccer game," she said.
The purity of the spotlight-shunned sports is also appealing to Ross.
"In this day and age when we see too many athletes forget about why they got into sport in the first place, it's good to see young athletes who got into it for the sport, not the big paycheck," she said. "You can’t fake that kind of dedication and passion."
Jeff Bukantz, the non-competing captain of the U.S. fencing team, said there has been tremendous growth in his sport recently — and expects the TV coverage will help it grow exponentially.
"Before the Winter Olympics no one had ever heard of curling, but after it was aired it became water cooler talk," he said.
Brian Kennedy of New York City considers himself "a proud sports couch potato" who loves the Olympics and plans to catch as much of the coverage as possible.
"Speaking for all men with at least an iota of athletic ability, a lot of men will watch the niche sports if they can appreciate the level of athleticism required to compete," he wrote in an e-mail interview.
Couch potatoes are in luck this summer: NBC plans to air a staggering 1,210 hours of Olympic coverage over six networks — more airtime than the last five Summer Games combined. And all 28 sports will be covered. The network said it's responding to calls from viewers to increase coverage.
Eager observers of sports considered niche in America may not be hard to find, but commentators for such a wide array of athletics were not so easy to uncover.
NBC found experts in unlikely candidates like Pat Croce, former president of the Philadelphia 76ers who also happens to be a black belt in Taekwondo, and Trace Worthington, a former champion skier who has a side business performing aerial stunts on a trampoline. They are just two of NBC's 99 on-air announcers, compared to the 67 used in Sydney.
Quality commentators are crucial to help laymen understand the intricacies of sports such as fencing, said Bukantz.
"It's a really cool sport but it's also very difficult and it's a very fast sport. In order for it to catch on there will have to be excellent videotape replay and excellent commentary."
Bukantz said aside from the 1984 games, when a U.S. fencer won the bronze medal, he doesn't remember any fencing being on television — ever. But this year unprecedented coverage of the sport has already begun.
"The athletes are getting more press than ever and feel good about that," he said.
While Kennedy said he'll tune in to fencing, he questions how difficult it is to be the best in such a sport.
"Are these esoteric events showcasing a collection of the world’s best athletes or are they just the best of a very small group of people who have taken up the sport in the first place?'" he asked "Hell, maybe I could have been a great fencer ... What does it mean to be the best in a sport that 99.999 percent of the population has never competed in?"
Still, Kennedy has the utmost respect for participants in at least one sport that's overshadowed by high jumpers and gymnasts.
"Table tennis, on the other hand, is a sport we have all played and though sort of silly to view it as an Olympic sport, anyone can appreciate the hand-eye coordination involved to play at that level," he said.
And Ross is looking forward to watching lesser-known sports along with the main events.
"I'll be watching that team handball again, I tell you what, that is a fun sport," she said. "I'll be looking for it."