Olympics are ready to give us new heroes ... and, maybe, villains


Friesh from that high-octane Super Bowl, NBC is ready to deliver the Winter Olympics. That means more actions -- and occasional quirks, like the ones that made Apolo Ohno a hero and (to some) a villain. The games start Thursday (Feb. 8); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There are many
things Americans and South Koreans agree on. They like action movies,
for instance, and dislike North Korean leaders.

But there's one
sharp difference: “Short-track speed skating is their obsession,”
Apolo Ohno said.

Americans still view
that event warily; NBC's – which starts Winter Olympics coverage
Thursday -- will give its best times to the favorites. “Many of the
marquee events – figure-skating and Alpine skiing, among others –
will be in the morning in Korea,” which makes them live in prime
time in the U.S., said Jim Bell, head of NBC's Olympics broadcasts.

And no,
speed-skating – like curling and the luge -- is not a marquee event
for Americans. Ohno (a former champion) admits it's “this crazy,
obscure sport of these athletes wearing Superman outfits, skating
around an ice rink going 35, 40 miles an hour, leaning over at these
impossible angles.”

But the host country
knows the sport well ... and knows Ohno. “I was the
second-most-hated person in Korea,” he recalled. “No. 1 was Osama
Bin Laden. That's not a joke .... They started making toilet paper
with my face on it.”

That all goes back
to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. In one event, Ohno was
involved in a pile-up; he got up and skated to a silver medal, the
Korean skater didn't. In another, the Korean was disqualified for
blocking, giving Ohno the gold.

“They came home
with zero medals on the men's side and they took that very
personally,” he said.

Now Ohno has friends
and business connections in South Korea, where he'll be NBC's
short-track commentator. He raves about PyeongChang (“an exciting
place”) and its people. And he went there early to prepare a piece
“focusing on the culture of the Korean short-tracks.”

That's the sort of
feature NBC savors. In another, Mike Tirico went to Wisconsin, to
meet ski champion Lindsey Vonn and her grandparents. It's “a kind
of piece that has become synonymous with the Olympics,” said Fred
Gaudelli, an NBC Sports producer, “where you really get to know the
person.”

The Olympics
coverage is rarely about enemies ... which will be scarce anyway.
North Korea has sent a small team that will enter Friday's ceremony
alongside the South Koreans; Russian athletes are included
individually, but their country is being punished for a doping
scandal.

NBC News will also
be there, to report on any troubles. But winter events – despite
the occasional pile-up, knee-whacking or hockey game – tend to be
cordial.

That's true of
winter places, Tirico said. “I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan; I went
to college at Syracuse. From all the cold-weather places come really
nice people, because we have to talk to each other.”

So NBC will have
moments of fun – Bell talks about Chef David Chang and about
“K-pop” music -- and goes for pleasant people and pretty places,
captured high-tech.

Bell plans to use
“anything from VR to AR to drones.” They'll catch scenery and
fresh views of action. “When you are coming down the mountain with
the slope-style snowboarder, it's just breathless.”

Technology also
means more events in more places. In 1996, Bell said, “the games
were only available on NBC and there were only 170 hours available.
(In 2014), there were nearly 7,000 hours available .... We put
extensive coverage on NBCSN, MSNBC, USA, CNBC. We stream everything
live.”

Some viewers will
stick to main events, helped by a time-zone quirk: If a
figure-skater is swirling at 10 a.m. Friday in Korea, that's 8 p.m.
Thursday in New York ... and 5 p.m. in California. “For the first
time ever at a Winter Olympics, we will be broadcasting in primetime
live across the country,” Bell said.

(That assumes, of
course, that Californians will accept the idea that 5 p.m. is prime.)

And some viewers
will go beyond the basics. They'll find sports like short-track
speed-skating.

“You've got speed,
strategy, danger,” Ohno said. “It's one of the fastest ... sports
in the world. The athletes go around each corner, carrying about
two-and-a-half G's of force on each leg .... They go 35, 40 miles an
hour ... It's an exciting sport.”

In some countries,
its stars might be on posters and cereal boxes ... or on rolls of
toilet paper.