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Bob Costas, Mike Tirico both share Olympic bond with Jim McKay

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To this day, Bob Costas remembers a phone call he received the night before the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Longtime ABC sports anchor Jim McKay was on the other end, passing the torch to Costas, who was embarking on his first Olympics as primetime host at age 40.

“We had been acquainted, but not that well acquainted,” Costas reflected last week. “I don’t remember everything he said, but one thing he said was, ‘Just remember this, you’re the right guy.’ I didn’t know if he was 100 percent right, but I hoped he was right, and I’m glad that he felt that way.”

Costas announced last week the end of his Olympic hosting career, ending with a U.S.-TV record 11 Games in the primetime chair. McKay, who died in 2008 at age 86, previously held the record of eight and even came back to work with Costas at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games (which Costas then likened to Joe DiMaggio coming back to play with the New York Yankees in the 1960s).

Costas will be succeeded by Mike Tirico in PyeongChang next year.

Tirico has his own one-on-one McKay story, from flying home after covering the British Open together in the late 1990s or early 2000s for ABC.

“Lucky for me, the nerd TV sportscasting lover, I was seated next to Jim across the Atlantic to come back to the U.S., and I said, I hope he doesn’t take a nap,” Tirico said last week. “He napped, and then he woke up, and we spoke for about three hours about the Olympics.”

Tirico recalls few details, but the tragedy at the Munich Olympics and the Miracle on Ice were both discussed.

“To hear Munich from Jim McKay’s mind and beyond the book that he had written and how he had discussed it along the years,” Tirico said, adding separately, “I remember asking Jim about [the Miracle on Ice] and trying to convey the excitement that people at home had of watching this game and all of its implications, sport and otherwise, while knowing the result and his ability to do that. He gave some detail about knowing the result yet trying to play it straight and to share the joy that he was sure was going on behind him with everyone after the game ended.”

Costas has said McKay was kind to him from the get-go. In the 1992 Olympic preview issue of Sports Illustrated, McKay said this in a Costas profile:

“NBC’s Olympic coverage is in very good hands. Anchoring the Olympics sometimes requires you to change course quickly, and Bob does that very well. You have to know so many different sports, and he knows them. You have to have a nice sense of story, which he has. You have to be a good interviewer, and having been the subject of a two-parter on Later [Costas’ late-night talk show], I can tell you he’s an excellent interviewer. Audiences are so much more sophisticated than when I started doing the Olympics, and Bob will bring that sophistication to the viewer. I’m sorry I won’t be in Barcelona to do the Olympics, but if I have to watch anybody, I’m glad it’s Bob Costas.”

Costas worked 12-hour shifts during the Barcelona Games and wasn’t able to see one minute of the Dream Team in person, he said last week. But he did find time to call McKay to thank him for that quote, according to the Washington Post.

“He said he felt we were doing a fine job, and of course that meant so much coming from him,” Costas said in August 1992, according to the newspaper. “And for him to say what he did about me in the magazine even before I did the Games also meant a great deal to me.”

The advice Costas gave Tirico last week echoed what he reportedly said of McKay back in 1992 — “Even though you have the highest amount of respect and admiration for someone else, you don’t try to copy them, because inevitably you become just some sort of pale imitation of them.”

“To have that connection with those two men and to know that I’ve worked with both of them, it gives me an understanding of how important the job is,” Tirico said, “but also the type of people that they are and what is needed and necessary to do the job the right way.”

VIDEO: Montage of Bob Costas’ Olympic highlights

Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

More Russians retroactively disqualified from 2012 Olympics

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MOSCOW (AP) — Three Russian athletes have been disqualified from the 2012 Olympics after failing doping retests, the country’s track and field federation said.

Hammer throwers Maria Bespalova and Gulfiya Khanafeeva and triple jumper Viktoria Valyukevich were all disqualified. None were medalists.

The disqualifications of Bespalova and Khanafeeva mean all three Russian women who competed in the hammer throw in 2012 have tested positive for doping. Tatyana Lysenko was the original winner, but was stripped of her gold medal in October.

Valyukevich, a former European indoor champion, was eighth in the triple jump at the 2012 Olympics and finished two places ahead of Russian teammate Tatyana Lebedeva, who has been stripped of two medals from the 2008 Beijing Games for doping.

In Tuesday’s statement, Russian officials didn’t say which substances were involved. The International Olympic Committee had no immediate comment.

It is the third time Khanafeeva, who won European championship silver in 2005, has been found guilty of a doping offense. She previously served bans in 2002 for a positive test and in 2008 for providing someone else’s urine in a drug test sample.

Bespalova is currently serving a four-year ban after testing positive for a banned steroid in 2015.

Since the IOC started retesting samples from the 2008 and 2012 Games last year, more than 30 Russians in various sports have tested positive. That makes them the largest group out of more than 100 positive tests. Seven more Russians have been disqualified for other doping offenses.

Russia has lost 26 Olympic medals as a result, most of them in track and field. Many of the cases involve turinabol, a substance which former Moscow anti-doping laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov has admitted supplying to athletes in a steroid cocktail.

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