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Almost everyone I've talked with has been disappointed in this year's Winter Olympics, from 24-hour-a-day sports fanatics to weekend-only sports dabblers to once-every-four-years Olympics devotees. I've found the games themselves as entrancing as ever, but I'm also as disappointed as everyone else. The competition, it appears, has been great. Yet I add the "it appears" because the presentation, on CBS, has been atrocious, a postmodern mishmash of athletes and events that has allowed only the suggestion of the Olympics' essential drama.

The basic problem is the time difference from Albertville in eastern France. CBS apparently felt the difference gave it license to repackage the Olympics into sound-bite-size chunks for U.S. consumption. Having leapt to the position that it's permissible to delay events for the prime-time audience, CBS has drawn the logical corporate conclusion that it's permissible to organize the events as one organizes the prime-time TV schedule, beginning with the endearing family setups and leading toward the power-packed and engrossing dramas.

It seems ridiculous to have to point out that this is not what the Olympics are about.

The Olympics are athletics on a grand scale. They create their own scope by sheer size, and almost every event creates its own drama simply because of the importance of the Olympics themselves. They happen only once every four years, after all (although the next Winter Games will be held in 1994, in order to stagger them against the Summer Games), and every athlete in the world, no matter the chosen discipline, wants to take part in them and take part at the top of his or her form. The pressure--both self-imposed and media-instigated--is incredible and readily apparent. It rarely brings out the best in sheer athleticism. For pure grace, monitor the various world championships in these events. For grace under pressure, however, the Olympics are unmatched, and grace under pressure is the primary element of all great sporting events, from the World Chess Championship to the World Series to the Kentucky Derby.

Put the world's greatest skiers or skaters or lugers in the same place, allow the world to watch, and one has the elements of great sports drama. Examine the differences in the athletes, in their techniques, and in how each adjusts to the pressure.

CBS, having outbid the other major U.S. networks for the rights to the games, scheduled an ambitious 116 hours of coverage over the two-plus weeks. How were they going to fill so many hours? Would the U.S. audience sit still for women's luge? CBS, worried by these questions, treated the Olympics like chopped sirloin, grinding it up, adding filler, and turning it into one big tasteless stew.

The CBS approach and its drawbacks were evident the first night, during the opening ceremonies. Begun in the twilight in Albertville, they could easily have been broadcast live at midday Saturday to all the U.S. but the west coast. CBS, however, delayed everything until prime time, chopping its footage up and reassembling it as it pleased. What was not worth viewing? Much of the parade of nations, including the first official appearance of the Baltic states since their annexation by Stalin's Soviet Union during World War II. The footage itself was impressive; skilled camera placement allowed CBS to use deep-focus shots to convey the spectacle of an entrancing if very French welcoming presentation. The editing, however, diminished that spectacle so that it seemed like something from a European science fiction comic book. And the comments from CBS host and hostess Tim McCarver and Paula Zahn were beyond bland. They said nothing of note, and even their annoying comments--and there were more than a few--failed to register with anything more than a groan.

That fiasco was minor, however, compared with coverage of the first major event, the men's downhill the following day. It is traditionally one of the most exciting events of the Winter Games, a breakneck, one-shot medal battle; Franz Klammer's 1976 run still occupies a treasured spot in my sporting memory. How did CBS cover it? Well, first of all, it had already taken place by the time CBS's Olympic coverage returned to the screen Sunday morning (replacing CBS News Sunday Morning). CBS felt obliged to release the medal results then, even though the coverage wasn't scheduled until Sunday evening, so they put the standings on the screen with some music playing and advised viewers who wanted to maintain the suspense to avert their gaze until the music stopped. Then, when the competition finally made it to the screen, CBS showed only a small number of the skiers, taking frequent breaks for "up close and personal"-type profiles and, of course, advertisements. Now, each downhill run is a thrill in itself for a TV viewer; it's one of the marquee events of the Winter Games. In addition, it takes the average viewer a few runs to compare the times and how each skier is approaching the course, to get a feel for where the course is exacting and where the skiers can lose or make up time. With all the interruptions, I never got a feel for what was going on. It was a mess, a music video of leaping skiers and Alpine vistas, only with grating announcers instead of music. It was an embarrassment and an instant Olympic turnoff.

CBS also spent an annoying amount of time building up athletes, again using conventional prime-time programming tactics. In order to get people to tune in on a given night, a network advertises what's on and why it should be watched. CBS pegged individual athletes for each upcoming night and built them up beforehand, trying to get viewers to tap into their individual stories, as into a thirtysomething plot line, and tune in night after night. The result, however, was to create Olympic flops like skier A.J. Kitt and speed skater Dan Jansen. Likewise, in figure skating, CBS paid a great amount of advance attention to the pair of Calla Urbanski and Rocky Marval and in the men's division to Christopher Bowman, only to see them upstaged by other U.S. skaters. Urbanski and Marval actually finished tenth, not only out of the medals but behind the U.S. pair of Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand, who were never even seen on the ice as they finished sixth Bowman finished fourth while Paul Wylie captured a silver medal in men's figure skating; CBS then scrambled from behind to make Wylie into a media star.

The men's figure skating was, in fact, one of the few events covered with any skill. Play-by-play commentator Verne Lundquist was his usual nonpresence, but expert commentator Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist, excelled. Hamilton was a little embarrassing in trying to mimic the exuberance of Dick Button, ABC's figure-skating expert of Olympics past, but Hamilton--like Button-- displayed an unerring sense for judging the skaters' various and varying confidence levels, both before and during competition. Hamilton also put together a terrific explanation of the various skating jumps--how to distinguish a toe loop from an axel--using footage of himself and other U.S. skaters. In addition, when it came down to crunch time in the men's event last Saturday night, the top five skaters went one after another, and CBS showed the entire program of each skater (holding it to the last hour of the prime-time coverage, of course). Figure skaters are skittish as colts, and under the pressure each of these skaters made noticeable mistakes--from an extra twist on a landing to outright falls--but that was the nature of the drama, just as it was four years ago when Debi Thomas fell and Katarina Witt won it all by being the most elegant and composed competitor. In this event, Canada's Kurt Browning--a three-time world champion in search of his first Olympic medal-- fell in his first program and skated a measly, mistake-filled second program. It was a choke on par with the '69 Cubs, which made Wylie's composure (he was the smoothest skater of the night) all the more impressive.

One of the great problems with CBS's star-making machinery is that the pressure is so acute at the Olympics that the events often go to free-and-easy competitors who are just happy to be there. That was certainly true of the women's downhill, in which Canada's

Kerrin Lee-Gartner took the gold and U.S. skier Hilary Lindh the silver; CBS hadn't bothered to introduce either one.

Finally on the debit side there has been the late-night Olympic broadcast done by Pat O'Brien. Boasting a Nirvana sound track and a likewise MTV-derivative cutting style, it attempted to impose a disparaging, cynical, late-night attitude a la David Letterman on the day's events.

But this isn't Cher or Dan Quayle, who need cutting down to size; this is the Olympics. If CBS's ratings are down from previous Winter Games, as they're said to be, CBS has only itself to blame.

Still, I've watched. At the risk of betraying myself as a sexist, I'll say I've enjoyed the women's speed skating and skiing as much as any other event. Women's basketball will never be big; women are too graceless on the court compared to men. On ice and on the slopes, however, there was something about their smooth movements and bottom-heavy forms that made them more graceful than the men, who rely so much on pure athleticism to prevail.

And I've finally come to terms, after a fashion, with CBS's editing style. I've had my little black-and-white Sony Watchman on in my office while writing this column, and have run in to watch the big screen during Herschel Walker's bobsled runs. Half-monitoring all the time and paying attention to what one is suddenly captured by has become the way to go for me. As for Walker, a pro football veteran, even he has felt the pressure. During his first run on the two-man sled, he and partner Brian Shimer were way out of sync just getting in--which is a large part of the event. After so much practice, pressure is the only real explanation: while the seconds are slowly ticking off in one athlete's head, they're pounding away at a record rate in another's. I found it funny how much I rooted for Walker--a stoic and unappealing if exceedingly talented athlete on the gridiron--and how I refused to allow myself to feel sorry for speed skater Jansen, who fell in two different races four years ago, in the wake of his sister's leukemia death, and who was just plain snake-bitten this year, failing to earn a medal last weekend in an event he was expected to win. Pity aside, however, his dumbstruck, mystified expression stuck with me--and most people watching, I imagine. After years of practice and competition, fear had somehow carried the day. For athlete and nonathlete, there is no greater agony of defeat.

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