By Barry Janoff
February 10, 2017: Part of the news that came out of NBC celebrating the one-year-out day to the 2018 Winter Olympics was that long-time NBC broadcaster Bob Costas would not be taking the lead during the Games in South Korea next February.
Instead, Mike Tirico, who joined NBC Sports this past May from ESPN, will handle host duties in PyeongChang, with the Winter Olympics scheduled to run from Feb. 8-25, 2018.
But in the midst of talking up the "passing the torch" from Costas — who has been the prime time host of every NBC Olympics since 1992 — to first-time Olympics host Tirico, Costas took time to address a more series issue — the escalating situation regarding doping and sports, in particular the Olympics and Olympic-related athletes and competitors.
When it comes to the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency, "They’re going to have to get even more serious than they were before (about drug testing), and they were at least fairly serious (before)," Costas said during a media conference call on Thursday (Feb. 8). "They’re going to have to get even more serious about performance-enhancing drugs, unless they just want to throw up their hands and say forget about it,. And I don’t think they’re pointing in that direction."
The issue become a very hot situation during the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro this past August when more than 100 Russian athletes who were supposed to compete for their nation were, instead, barred from competing by WADA.
The ban was issued after testing found that leaders in the Russian government and sports agencies had directed "state-sponsored subversion of anti-doping processes," according to WADA.
Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, called the situation "a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports and on the Olympic Games."
The situation did not dissipate after Rio. Today (Feb. 10), Russian athlete Mariya Savinova, who won a gold medal in track & field during the 2012 Summer Games in London, was stripped of her medal by the Court of Arbitration of Sport due to her use of PEDs during the Games.
Though Russian athletes have been far from alone in getting busted for use of illegal PEDs, they have come to represent what has become a deep-seeded situation in sports.
"The recent Russian doping scandal . . . was so pervasive and was not, like so many others, the result of individuals with rogue chemists but was a sophisticated, government-run-and-approved doping program that spread over a number of Olympics — including one which Russia itself hosted (the 2014 Sochi Winter Games)," said Costas.
"If (the IOC, WADA, CAS and other overseeing sports groups) are not going to get serious about that with lifetime bans and even more comprehensive testing and with the possibility of taking international events, be they Olympics or World Championships, whatever, away from perpetually offending nations rather than individuals — and I’m talking about you, Russia, in this case — then they might as well just wave the white flag."
Costas, who said he made his decision to step away from the Olympic Games "more than a year ago," does see more enforcement and testing coming in the battle against the use of illegal drugs in sports.
"In terms of the doping, it’s heading in that direction," he said during the conference call. "(But) it’s easier said than done. It’s complicated. It’s like saying we’re going to fight crime or eradicate crime. You might be able to mitigate it, reduce it, change atmosphere, but to say you’ll completely eliminate it is a big step. But I think that is their intention, at least, to move in that direction."
For Costas, change in other areas has also been on-going during his time covering the Olympics, sometimes slower rather than faster, including inclusion and technology.
"What I’ve seen is this: That over time the Olympics have become more egalitarian in a certain sense," said Costas. "I remember first labelling the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as the Title IX Olympics, because that was when American female Olympians — obviously there had been many great ones before that, but that was when the proportions began to noticeably shift toward 50-50.
"And the IOC itself, in addition to changes within our own society, has indicated that that’s an objective of theirs. And I think at the most recent Olympics more than 50% of the participants were female. And from an American perspective, close to 50% of the medal winners and more than 50% of the gold medal winners in Rio were female. So that’s a big change."
Regarding technology, Costas said that the biggest changes he has seen have made the Games and sports more accessible to media and viewers.
"I remember the first time, and it might have been at the Olympics in 1996 . . . (during) our track & field coverage. We had a (rail) camera (that) could follow the runners along the track and give you that perspective. Then we were able to put, eventually, cameras under the water at swimming events and all manner of angles.
"What used to be off-limits, I remember at the World Series in 1986, I was (sitting) in the corner of the (Boston) Red Sox dugout in the top of the 10th when they took the lead on the (New York) Mets before everything fell apart. And technically I was not allowed to be there, let alone talk to anybody. It was only because the players knew me and they kind of said it was okay.
“Now not only are you allowed to be there, they want you to be there. They interview managers between innings. They mic players in all sports during the course of the game. So this idea of being closer to the action, this idea of something closer to total access is really the biggest change.”
In a bit of turnabout is fair play, said he would replace Tirico as host of Super Bowl LII, to air on NBC, next February in Minneapolis “because the game is only four or five days before the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics in Korea, and Mike will have to be there getting himself ready for his Olympic assignment."