SINCE STARTING his career at NBC in 1980, Bob Costas has reported on the World Series, the NBA finals, the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the U.S. Open golf tournament, among other definitive sports events, all with a calm demeanor, a sly humor, and an encyclopedic knowledge. This month, he hosts his tenth Olympics, leading coverage of the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. For 18 days, he’ll entertain, emcee, and tell stories.
The cornerstones of Costas’s reputation are asking probing questions and never censoring his subjects—or himself. In 2012, he won an Emmy for Outstanding Interview for his revealing conversation with former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. That same year, he ruffled feathers with commentary on gun control at halftime during a Sunday Night Football game. So if and when the conversation in Sochi turns to Russia’s antigay law, Costas is prepared to handle it.
On a recent afternoon, RD caught up with the sportscaster in his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City to talk figure skating, snide remarks, and the last story that made him cry.
Some naysayers argue that the Winter Olympics are irrelevant.
It’s true that most Americans don’t follow sports like curling and figure skating on an ongoing basis. But there’s something about the Olympics that elevates everything. If a great story emerges in cross-country skiing, viewers will lock into it for a period of time. Figure skating can be especially exciting because it plays out in long form—you can make a miniseries out of it. But I’ll have to say that the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino were the least resonant Games I’ve covered. There just weren’t compelling story lines.
You’ve said, “Every word I ever say [on air], I’m ad-libbing, I’ve written myself, or I’ve edited or rewritten to some extent.” When have you found yourself at a loss for words?
The Olympics Opening Ceremony is a beautiful thing, but it’s a broadcaster’s nightmare. It’s part Cirque du Soleil, part United Nations assembly meeting, with wonderful and moving moments. The way it’s formatted, we acknowledge each country. But you can’t have an interesting note for each one, and you can’t be somber for 200 countries, so you throw in a flippant remark, and it ticks off half the world. So have I ever had nothing to say? I guess not. Have I always had something I was 100 percent happy with? No. There are times when I’m like, Jeez, does anybody have a better note for Curaçao than this? If so, contact me immediately!
Russia’s crackdown on gay people, including a law to arrest gay foreign tourists, has been a big topic of debate. How will you cover it?
We have to cover the controversy in a straightforward way. We need to mention it clearly at the beginning and be aware anytime it becomes relevant [at the Games]. People tune in to see the competition, but they’re also interested in the circumstances that surround an Olympics. So you try to strike a balance, but you don’t turn a blind eye [to the issue].
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Do you think America should boycott the Games over the issue?
Boycotts hurt the athletes rather than the nations at which they’re aimed—we learned that the last time we boycotted an Olympics, in 1980. The best approach is to make clear our disagreement and to ensure that U.S. athletes are free not only to compete but also to express themselves. And I think it would be a masterly move if, as some people have suggested, [openly gay figure skater] Johnny Weir were the U.S. flag bearer.
Are you personally looking forward to watching a particular athlete?
[Track and field athlete turned bobsledder] Lolo Jones will be a story. Skier Lindsey Vonn says she’s recovered from a knee injury. What snowboarder Shaun White does next is always of interest.
What would people be surprised to know about your job?
I think they would be surprised to know how little input I have on anything that gets on the air during the Olympics. Little as in zero. It makes me smile when people say, “I was enjoying the figure skating, and then Bob Costas decided we should go to the bobsled.” No, Bob Costas never decided that, not once, not ever.
What was the most exciting Winter Olympics moment you’ve witnessed?
The gold medal hockey game between the United States and Canada in Vancouver is up there. It was the last event of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and it went into overtime. You couldn’t script it any better than that. It wasn’t just that the Canadians won; it was the way they won, with Sidney Crosby scoring the golden goal. It was perfect, just perfect.
What was the last sports story that made you cry?
I got choked up when eulogizing [baseball player] Stan Musial. He lived a full and wonderful life. So in that sense, [his death] wasn’t tragic, but the full arc of his life, the era he represented, his simple decency as
a person, and our mutual connection to St. Louis got to me.
Do you have a favorite joke?
[None of them] are printable, especially in Reader’s Digest.
One last question: You seem to have an uncanny ability not to age. Can you tell us your secret?