Bob Costas details his favorite Olympic memories

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Bob Costas is often asked his favorite Olympic moment. He always gives the same answer.

“That’s Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in ’96 in Atlanta (video here),” Costas said after stepping down as NBC’s Olympic primetime host earlier this month. “It was such a well-kept secret that maybe 10 or 12 people in the whole world knew it was going to happen. They rehearsed it one time at 3 a.m. Dick Ebersol, who had the original idea of having Muhammad be the guy, would not tell me or Dick Enberg who it was going to be. He said, ‘You will recognize him or her. But I want your reaction to be as spontaneous as everyone else in the stadium.’

“And the way they staged it, he literally stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It was such an arresting moment. I’ve said this before, you hear a lot of sounds in the arena, but you seldom ever hear an audible gasp. And there was a gasp before it kind of set in. And then it turned into thunderous applause and cheering.

“And it wasn’t just excitement. It wasn’t just admiration. It was all those things plus respect, and I think an understanding that he represented so much — athletic excellence, grace. Whether everyone always agreed with him at every stage along the way, you had to respect the integrity. He walked the walk. He put millions of dollars and the prime years of his career on the line for his beliefs. And people had to respect that.

“And they were also moved by how poignant it was that the man who once was the most beautiful and nimble of athletes on the entire planet and the most entertainingly loquacious of athletes had now been reduced to a man trembling as he held the torch and a man essentially unable to speak, even by that point, and yet he was willing to present himself to the world that way. And somehow even in that new state he was a dynamic and charismatic figure and a profound figure. So if I have to pick one, that’s my one.”

It’s not the only one.

Costas’ favorite Winter Olympic moment — from the four Winter Games he covered — came on the final day of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“When Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal,” Costas said of the men’s hockey final. “That was like the soccer goal that Brazil got this past summer. That was one that everyone else wanted to win, but the host country needed to win. I mean, the U.S. was busting its ass to win that game. They wanted it bad. But Canada was desperate to win that game. And the U.S. ties it in the last 30 seconds and sends it to overtime. So now you’ve got the drama of overtime — the whole country’s on pins and needles, it’s the last event before the Closing Ceremony. The whole triumphant feeling of the Closing Ceremony would have been very different had the Canadians lost that game. Not only did they win it, but the national golden boy Sidney Crosby scores the winning goal. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

Most of Costas’ memories were of watching Olympic events on a monitor at the international broadcast center, sometimes working 12-hour shifts.

The 2000 Sydney Games were different. Given the time difference, he finished hosting duties (primetime and late night) around 5 p.m. local time. He would then walk across Olympic Park and attend events on some days — usually basketball, gymnastics or track and field.

Costas’ favorite in-person Olympic event was Cathy Freeman taking 400m gold in Sydney “because of what she represented,” being of Aboriginal descent.

Costas also wanted to note a moment from the 2002 Salt Lake City Opening Ceremony.

“When they brought in the tattered American flag that had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11,” he said. “That was a very moving thing, and so was the Ali thing in ‘96 in Atlanta.”

A regret?

“I never saw a single Dream Team game in person,” he said. “I mean, I saw them all on monitors. I’m watching a bunch of things all at once, but I’m in a studio. It’s part of what the job is.”

And Costas’ favorite Olympics of the 12 he covered?

“I’ve always been partial to Barcelona [1992] because it was my first primetime Olympics,” he said. “Barcelona is really a fascinating city, very distinctive. … Athens [2004], although it was an imperfect Olympics, it cost the country a whole lot a financially, it meant a lot to me because I’m a Greek American.”

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