Probably the most indelible image from the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing was the 897 blocks of movable type on the floor of the Olympic stadium, moving and changing to depict, among other scenes, a raindrop rippling outward on a pond, swells on an ocean and the Chinese symbol for harmony.
At sequence’s end, it was revealed that the performance was not computer-controlled, as had been assumed, but actually the work of 897 human performers moving their blocks up and down perfectly in unison.
It was a stunning display of precision and attention to detail that still impresses NBC’s Bob Costas
four years later as he readies to host the XXX Summer Olympics
in London, which kick off with the Opening Ceremony Friday, July 27, on NBC.
“I think in Beijing they retired the trophy [for best Opening Ceremony],” Costas tells Zap2it. “You know, they had the resources to do it. You have a country that not only financed the Olympics and did so with an unlimited budget, but which is in a position to have tens of thousands of ‘volunteers’ volunteer to rehearse for six months. You just got circumstances in China that you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
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“Plus of course, they have an extraordinarily rich civilization and history to talk about,” he continues. “And it was a true national effort by an emerging nation with, at least for that purpose, close to unlimited resources of both people and money. So I think everybody decided after that, ‘All we can do is the best we can do on our own terms.’ But no one’s terms will ever be the same as Beijing’s.
“And I think that — and I said this during the opening ceremonies — the average person watching at home had a combination of appreciation and awe for the beauty of it and the accomplishment of it. But also it was a little unsettling to them, because you said, ‘My God, if they can marshal their forces with this much precision for this …,’ well, you fill in the blank.”
The peacock network and its various properties — MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, NBC Sports Network, Telemundo, NBCOlympics.com and two specialty channels – will provide more than 5,500 hours of coverage of the 2012 Summer Olympics running through the Closing Ceremony on Aug. 12, offering live and delay coverage of all 26 sports and all 302 medal competitions.
Costas will serve as prime-time host of the telecasts, heading a broadcast talent pool that includes Al Michaels, John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, Ryan Seacrest and Dan Patrick.
For Costas, 60, this Olympics represents his 10th Games, Winter and Summer?(and ninth as prime-time host), dating back to the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
His favorite all-time Olympics moment, or as close as one gets for him, came in Atlanta in 1996, when Muhammad Ali
lit the Olympic torch at Turner Field to open the XXVI Summer Games
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“It was such a well-kept secret,” Costas recalls, “… and in truth Dick Enberg and I did not know. We had begun to suspect, but we didn’t know for sure. I think there were a half-dozen people who even knew. Dick Ebersol (then the president of NBC?Sports) was one of them because it was his idea, actually, and he had to sell (President and CEO) Billy Payne and the Olympic committee on it.
“But when Ali kind of stepped out of the shadows,” he continues, “you heard a sound that you don’t often hear in a gigantic, filled-to-capacity stadium, and that was a gasp, an audible gasp that was then followed by a short bit of silence while people kind of processed this, and then this enormous roar both of excitement and appreciation and respect. You know, all of it.
“There was so much bundled into that one moment, and you had tens of thousands of people all more or less thinking the same thing: Here’s a guy who once was the most controversial athlete on the planet, and now he’s a figure of reconciliation. And he once was the most agile and nimble and beautiful of athletes, and now he’s in the throes of this affliction and shaking like a leaf. These contradictions made it really dramatic.”
Of course, one of the big stars of the next 17 days – along with Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Rafael Nadal, Ryan Lochte and the rest of the estimated 10,500 athletes representing 204 countries – will be the city of London itself.
These Games represent the burg’s third Olympics and first since 1948. While it is a given that the host city will put its best foot forward, and its countrymen and women will put on a big medal push, London has another feature no other locale can match.
British royalty will make its presence known in several ways, from Queen Elizabeth II opening the Games to Princes Harry and William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, serving as official “Olympic ambassadors” and Zara Phillips – daughter of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips and granddaughter of the queen – competing in equestrian.
Royalty watchers will certainly be in their glory, but Costas takes a more pragmatic view of London.
“Obviously it’s a great, great city,” he says, “with a history and a pop culture that Americans are familiar with and, I think, interested in. …
“But London’s a tough city to get around in under ordinary circumstances,” he says. “At an Olympics, with the additional traffic and congestion and security questions, it’s still going to be enjoyable, but people are going to have to approach this with the understanding that patience is going to be a real virtue.”