RIO DE JANEIRO — Keep your flowers and your sorrys. Elliotte Friedman doesn’t want them. It is 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 12. Friedman is sitting in the Olympics Aquatic Stadium, a few feet and 15 hours removed from where the worst moment of his professional life occured, and you can keep your sympathy in your pocket.
You probably heard what happened. Michael Phelps beat his friend and rival, Ryan Lochte, for the gold in the 200 individual medley, and on his call for CBC, Friedman confused the two. He had Lochte winning the race. He said Phelps did not get a medal.
“I feel like s---,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie to you. I believe that there is a certain standard that’s required to broadcast the Olympic Games. I don’t even feel that badly for myself. I feel badly that I let my network down. That’s the thing I feel the worst about.”
He is actually even more disappointed with his mistakes in the next race, after the one that went viral. We will get to that in a bit. First, you should know that I have never met Friedman, but when I texted him, he immediately agreed to talk.
He only has two requests. One is that I write that if an athlete messed up like that, we would want the athlete to talk, and that’s why he is doing this. He is no hypocrite. The second request is that I put the mistake entirely on him. When I ask if a producer or production assistant was in his earpiece during the race, he bristles. It’s his fault, he says. Entirely his. Write it that way.
He looks out at the pool.
He says he had not slept for a minute since his mistake.
He has not eaten anything.
He normally drinks coffee, but he hasn’t had any of that, either.
He is wired on his own misery. Friends have told him he will laugh about this someday, but he says, “I can’t see that. I will get over it. I have to get over it. There’s Canadians who are going to be in the medal hunt tonight. But I don’t think I’m ever gonna laugh at it.”
Friedman is widely admired. He has done six Olympics and works on Hockey Night in Canada, a beloved show. Let’s respect his wish not to make any excuses, but let’s also say what happened: Midway through the race, he stopped talking so CBC could show the Brazilian crowd chanting for Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira. When Friedman looked back down, he mistook Lochte (in lane 5) for Phelps (in lane 4).
It should not happen. But of course, these things happen. I once saw Bruce Springsteen tell a concert crowd in Michigan that he was happy to be in Ohio, which is like telling a crowd at a Hillary Clinton rally that you’re proud to support Donald Trump. I once saw golfer Ian Woosnam walk down the first fairway on Sunday at the British Open, unaware that his caddy had left an extra club in his bag. It cost Woosnam two crucial strokes and a shot at the championship. Elliotte Friedman does not want to hear about Bruce Springsteen or Ian Woosnam.
He had never done swimming before these Olympics. He only found out he was doing it two weeks ago, when CBC’s Steve Armitage had to pull out of the Olympics because of heart problems. He refuses to make that excuse.
“Not a chance,” he says. “And I would really appreciate it if you didn’t make it, either. You’re here to do a job. Do the job.”
Everybody makes mistakes, I say.
“We know the rules going in,” he replied. “If you’re gonna get the glory if you do well, you get the criticism when you do badly.”
After he realized what he had done, he took full responsibility on Twitter. He needed a stiff drink and a few moments to himself. He couldn’t have either. The very next race was the biggest one of the Olympics for his viewers: the 100-meter women’s freestyle final. Canadian Penny Oleksiak had a chance for gold.
Well, sometimes life runs you over, then steals your credit card. Friedman says, “I couldn’t get my head straight.” He tells me about his mistake in the next race. He confused Oleksiak with another Canadian swimmer, which tells you his state of mind—there were no other Canadians in the race.
Friedman recovered and got Oleksiak’s name right again. He watched her tie American Simone Manuel for the gold, which is an almost impossible call for an announcer. On the scoreboard, there was a 1 next to Oleksiak’s name and an OR, for Olympic Record, next to Manuel’s. Other announcers were confused about who actually won.
Somehow, he got the end of the race right. It’s good that he did, because he says, “If I didn’t say that she’d won the gold, I would have been on a flight this morning and I would have gone home. I would have quit. There’s no question in my mind.”
“If I hadn’t gotten her getting the gold, I would have quit in the morning. No doubt. No doubt.”
And done what?
“I don’t know. You can’t deliver that performance on this stage. You can’t. It’s not acceptable. It just isn’t.”
He still doesn’t remember calling the Oleksiak race. It was the biggest swimming event of the Olympics for his viewers, and it’s a blank space in his mind. He knows he nailed the call of her getting gold, but he is still stinging from botching her name in the middle of the race.
“I am more embarrassed about that one than I am about the Phelps one,” he says. “That’s a Canadian moment And I f—ed it up.”
Friedman is 45. He is not here by accident; he earned this assignment over many years. But he sits in Olympic Aquatic Stadium and says, “I feel today like I’m starting over.
“Everything I do, I have to work on it to make sure that I don’t do that again. Basically, that’s a message: Nothing you did before was good enough. You better find a way to make it better now.”
He re-dubbed the Phelps race for future airings, but he asked producers to keep the old one. Someday, he will watch it. He has studied the best franchises in sports, and he has learned: You succeed by breaking yourself apart after you fail.
I’m like anybody else who watches sports on TV: I have announcers I love and ones I don’t. There are voices that soothe and those that grate. Some announcers just don’t do their homework and don’t even realize when they mess up. I don’t expect anybody to be perfect. But as we sat here Friday, it occurred to me that I wish every broadcaster took as much pride in the job as Elliotte Friedman.