Somehow, man likes a story, and a story is only as good as the telling and the ending. If the telling overstates, or if the ending offers few rewards, then the story, like a bright balloon unstrung, will deflate.
And so the buildup of Carl Lewis, and whether he’d match Jesse Owens’s four gold medals in track and field in one Olympics, never resulted in the peak of excitement for which the network had hoped.
Part of the reason was Lewis’s aloofness and, early on, his almost-mechanical approach to his activities. But even more important was that the network’s incessant buildup was just too much of a good thing. It’s one thing to have teasers, another to overwhelm. Perhaps it was no coincidence that when Lewis won his fourth gold, in a relay, the event was shown on a 15-minute tape delay, instead of live. It seemed that even the network, subconsciously or otherwise, had grown tired of the hype.
The Summer Olympics was a wonderful show, however, and, for the most part, it was live, which was another difference from the Winter Games. Because of the time difference between Yugoslavia and the American continent, many of the results at Sarajevo were already known here when the events were televised. No rewards for the viewer, and no story.
It is understandable, from an American network’s point of view, that it would try to get the 1988 Olympics in South Korea to hold major events around 9 A.M., in order to attract an audience to live telecasts in prime time in this country. (What this might or might not do to the level of competition is another matter.)
The camera work of both the Summer and Winter Olympics was invariably beautiful or exciting or dramatic, and sometimes all three, from the kaleidoscopic multitude of oars flashing in the rowing races to Gabriela Andersen-Schiess’s staggering into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on the last leg of the women’s marathon.
From the broadcasting booths, ABC sought at first to make the Summer Olympics not just a great sports carnival but an American sports triumph (something it couldn’t do in Sarajevo, because the United States squad was not dominant). The network figured that this would sell, but the blatant cheerleading and the unprofessionalism antagonized many, even a good number of naturally partisan Americans.