Olympians were performing marvelously in Montreal, but on screens at home the prime-time concern was prettiness
August 01, 1976

At an outdoor cabaret in the Olympic Village one night last week, folk singer Gordon Lightfoot was entertaining the athletes. After a few songs, he noticed a commotion to the side of the stage. Spotlights were flashed on and the former junior senator from California, the rotund Pierre Salinger, materialized in his grapefruit-yellow ABC blazer. ABC has "experts" for just about every competition, and Salinger intrudes on the Games, Winter and Summer, as the resident expert on matters international. He samples foreign foods and local color and whatnot. "I think we're on TV," Lightfoot said.

The athletes, feeling their oats as well as exploited, immediately attacked, pelting Salinger with candies, fruits and hors d'oeuvres. Despite this bombardment of edibles, Salinger, ever game, did his stint. Then the lights went down and, to loud huzzahs, Lightfoot went on with the show.

It was a symbolic victory for the athletes, because only a few days later, after several more African nations pulled out in the continuing protest over New Zealand's sporting liaison with South Africa, the single most significant record of the 21st Olympiad went into the books: the number of athletes competing in the Games of 1976 had been exceeded by the number of journalists covering them. The score: 10,863 for the press corps, 8,408 for the competitors.

The Montreal Olympics has had the predictable quota of kissy-face, hands-across-the-sea, true romance stories emanating from the Village, where the athletes all seem programmed to prattle on about how if only the whole world could just be like this, there would never be any wars (although much tedium, to be sure). Olympic Villages are always portrayed as humanoid versions of It's a Small World at Disneyland, with the many-colored athletes holding hands and singing in falsetto. But gee, Moms and Dads, you should see some of the graffiti the children are leaving behind. Also: "Very shy English boy seeks girls to talk to him. Please contact Room 202, D Block."

And always, much unnecessary ado is made about the host city. This crush of heavy analytical background—inscrutable Tokyo, emotional Mexico City, bustling Munich, divided Montreal—regularly comes midway in the Olympics when those 10,863 (in or out of grapefruit-colored blazers) can no longer stand having to watching one more American boy or East German girl win one more 100-meter butterfly medley. In fact, what is worth knowing about Montreal vis-√†-vis the Olympics can be transmitted in a postcard. "Dear Pen Pal: This Olympics is spread out more than others! There are still some hotel rooms left! Canada is second only to Italy in going out on strike, and the liquor stores, nurses and electric-company workers have all been out! Luckily, the liquor stores are open again! The taxi drivers are mad, but they aren't going to strike! They are going to tie up traffic instead! The scalpers and streetwalkers are doing a real good business! The new McDonald's, across from the Forum, serves 6,000 hamburgers a day! When the police beat people up they explain they have to because of 'security!' The weather is lovely!"

Montreal is teed off because it has the shorts and has lost a certain amount of revenue—wildly estimated in the millions of dollars—because the protesting nations pulled out. Since the Canadians were getting paid for room and board at the Village, they were in no hurry to evict teams that declared themselves out, nor were the hosts very good about making partial refunds on some programs, such as the boxing, that were watered down by African forfeits. (The most intriguing forfeit came in basketball, when Egypt pulled out just before it was to play Italy. To win by the requisite 2-0 score, the Italians had to line up, tip-off and score an unopposed basket. Luckily, Renzo Barivieri made it; if he hadn't, can you imagine the Italian-joke fans working that one over?)

Actually, once the Games began and Nadia Comaneci became the world's sweetheart, the boycott was no longer front-page. All told, 684 athletes departed. James Gilkes, a Guyanese sprinter who attends Southern Cal, petitioned the International Olympic Committee to let him run unattached, as a citizen of the world, so to speak, but the request was turned down. "You lose enough contenders and the Olympics becomes just another San Diego Invitational," said one jaundiced runner—but it was hardly a subject anybody dwelt on.

For the Olympians who stayed, there were the usual controversies. One involved Boris Onischenko, the silver medalist in the modern pentathlon in 1972 and the favorite this time. It wasn't enough: Boris wanted a lock on the gold, so he touched up his épée to make it record hits even when he missed. He was caught, expelled from the Olympics and sent home—or somewhere—in disgrace.

On the other hand, the Russian water polo team was obviously playing it straight, because the gold medalists from '72 tied and lost their first two games. Then they tried to withdraw, claiming mass illness, and forfeited to Cuba. (For forfeit freaks, a water polo forfeit is 5-0.)

There were the usual complaints from Westerners that the Russian judges were cheating, which made it all the more amazing that Peter Kormann, a student at Southern Connecticut State College, won a bronze in floor exercises, the first American male to win an individual gymnastics medal since 1932.

The Canadians kicked one of their top sprinters, Bob Martin, off the team for sneaking a pal into the Village, and the IOC—no more Mr. Nice Guy—showed its muscle by catching a 66-year-old trap-shooter from Monaco popping amphetamines. They threw the old guy right out on his pill bottle.

The U.S. managed to get through the first week of the Games without any such incidents, and stirred in a few surprises along the way. The men dominated the swimming to a greater degree than expected, and by Sunday the U.S. had picked up two gold, two silver and three bronze medals in track and field. The basketball team pushed through the early rounds undefeated, substituting speed and depth for height. As the boxing eliminations advanced, U.S. fighters in the lighter weight divisions were making like a bunch of miniature Alis.

Out in the Montreal suburbs, 23-year-old Joan Lind of Long Beach, Calif. rowed to a silver medal in the single sculls, finishing just half a length behind two-time world champ Christine Scheiblich of East Germany. Another silver, in the men's coxless pairs, was won by Mike Staines and Calvin Coffey of Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club. Don Haldeman of Souderton, Pa. blasted his way to a gold medal in trapshooting. Lee James of Manchester, Pa. won the silver medal in middle heavyweight weight lifting. Perhaps the biggest surprise came from the equestrians. Tad Coffin of Strafford, Vt. was the top individual in the three-day event (the first American ever to win that gold), while Mike Plumb of Chesapeake City, Md. won the silver. They joined Mary Anne Tauskey, New Vernon, N.J., and Bruce Davidson, Unionville, Pa., in winning the team event for the first time in 28 years.

But in many respects, the most fascinating aspect of the Olympics for Americans is that the Games have evolved into a summer television series. The real saga is not in Montreal but on Sixth Avenue in New York. This process seems to have begun in Mexico City, specifically when ABC Sports President Roone Arledge concentrated on the two-day decathlon drama won by Bill Toomey. It bloomed in Munich with the coronation of Olga Korbut and it has only been refined and augmented in Montreal.

The nightly network spectacle has brought Olympic sports a huge new audience, much of it learning about the Games and its principals solely through the ABC lens. Because virtually every shot that goes on the air is selected by Arledge, he is now, in many respects, the head of the Olympics in the U.S. Arledge acknowledges that he carries "an incredible responsibility," and indeed, there is nothing like it in all of sports. At other events—everything from football games to bowling—the action pretty much dictates the coverage. In the Olympics, with so many different and often unfamiliar competitions, Arledge must decide what gets exposure and who gets advance buildup. "We try to personalize it all as much as possible," he says.

So in the U.S. the Olympics are now the Arledge Follies. Some time ago, Frank Shorter was asked if he were upset that track stars didn't get the money and celebrity other athletes did. "No," he said, "I came into it knowing the situation. And besides, I got much more fame than I ever imagined possible in my life just because Roone Arledge decided to push the Marathon in '72."

The power of TV already has affected several Olympic events. The sprints, for example, used to be high glamour—everybody waited breathlessly to see who would be the next World's Fastest Human. But the sprints rush by too quickly to interest a general audience. At least that is TV's decision. Longer races (where the experts can discourse on strategy) provide better drama; better still are events that build. The decathlon and gymnastics are ideal starring vehicles. In TV parlance, Nadia Comaneci was nothing more than a spin-off from the Olga Korbut Show.

"We figured Comaneci would be big for us," Arledge says. "People may be discovering her for the first time, but we've been working her into Wide World for a year or more now. And in the second week, Shorter is attractive enough to be big again. We'll go with that. And Bruce Jenner, of course. He could really come out of this hot. He's charismatic. I think he could be another Dorothy Hamill."

Jenner is clearly positioned as the second-week Comaneci for another reason: he is photogenic. The Olympics, unlike other U.S. sports spectacles, draws a solid female audience—sometimes they are in the majority. "When you're in prime time," Arledge says, "the women control the sets. The men may get Sunday afternoons, but women rule the sets at night." Thus, in America the modern Olympic stars tend to be white, appealing young girls or handsome men. Howard Cosell has been getting nowhere trying to promote a teen-age black boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard; the Olympics are playing living rooms, not barrooms.

Skinny little Comaneci was the female star, not Kornelia Ender, the East German swimmer, who is every bit as outstanding in her specialty but a strapping fräulein, a little too strapping for women viewers to identify with. This is the same audience, remember, that made Dorothy Hamill's hairdo a national rage. Those are not Fabulous Moolah's fans staying up late to watch Princess Anne in dressage.

These facts are not lost on the other networks, either. No event, in or out of sports, provides a network such artistic leeway, such a chance to distinguish itself. The national audience share for the Munich Games was 45% (or "a four-five" as TV people say), surprising at the time. But the first four nights of Montreal came in at a four-seven, and with many finals and glamour events to come. ABC might even pull a five-oh.

In light of the fact that the cagey Arledge has already locked up the 1980 Winter Games, the bidding for TV rights should run into a lot of rubles for Moscow. Montreal went for $25 million, and there is speculation within the industry that Moscow might double that—$50 million. "The Russians are watching everything we do here," Arledge says apprehensively. Because the ABC coverage is superior, because Arledge, as a benevolent despot, orders up our Olympics with fine taste and judgment, ABC should have the inside track. But, of course, CBS always has the long green, if the Russians just want top dollar.

It is ironic that during a week when the Olympics have never seemed more popular despite a beginning even more shaky than usual, the cry from many precincts has been for their abolition or drastic overhaul. One hysterical British editorial screeched that the Games have grown "from a beautiful baby into a depraved and twisted monster." Another popular theme among those insistent on "saving" the Olympics called for reducing their size and proposed the elimination of all team sports and inviting all qualified athletes to attend—amateur and professional—regardless of national origin. It was not explained why team competitions, which stress the universal ideal of cooperative effort, should be a candidate for elimination, nor how inviting more athletes would reduce the size of the Games.

But such controversy was not out where people could see it—in front of the tube. Taiwan? Africa and New Zealand? If you liked Dorothy Hamill's hair, ladies, you have only to wait for this week when Arledge's Follies will bring you Bruce Jenner's bangs for the first time in prime time. Also, for your added viewing pleasure, he is going to run, jump and throw.

PHOTOFor a press corps that outnumbered the athletes, covering the Games included taking cues from TV. ELEVEN PHOTOS ILLUSTRATION

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)