With regards to the—quite literal—shit show that has defined the lead up to the Olympics in Brazil, NBC’s ubiquitous primetime host Bob Costas recalled advice that has been given to the athletes competing in the open water swimming competitions: “Try to keep your mouth closed.”
It’s a narrative that has become familiar as, every four years, reports of how ill-equipped a host city is for the bonanza of athletes, spectators, and worldwide attention headed its way for an Olympics. But never before has the narrative included this much poop.
Recently there were reports that competitors from Australia were forced to relocate from the Olympic Village to hotels because bathrooms in their designated accommodations, among other inhabitable issues, had toilets that caused leaks when they were flushed. Before that were the headlines over the bay where many aquatic events were going to be held, a bay raw sewage is pumped into.
Costas, who was in Rio de Janeiro alongside NBC Olympics producer Jim Bell and correspondent Mary Carillo, directly addressed not only the feces fiasco that has afflicted Brazil and its incoming Olympians and tourists, but the spate of catastrophes: fears over the Zika virus, a failure of infrastructure, a president in the midst of being impeached, doping scandals, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Appearing via satellite to speak with TV journalists at the annual Television Critics Association conference, Costas remarked, “It will be a story at the back end of this if they surmount these issues and put on good games.”
For all the negative press that the Rio Olympics have been getting despite not even having begun yet—opening ceremonies take place on Friday—NBC isn’t shying away from coverage.
NBC Universal, which encompasses NBC and affiliated cable networks, is prepping for, dear god, 6,755 hours of Olympics programming. Including, because of the comparatively short one-hour time difference between Rio and the American east coast, “the most live [footage] we’ve ever had,” Costas said. (Spoiler-phobes, breathe your sigh of relief.)
A significant portion of that, it seems, will be devoted to covering the gold-medal disaster that Brazil has created for itself.
“We would be naive to think that they don’t face security problems, that they don’t face problems with sanitation, that their politics are not in upheaval,” Costas said. “We’re watching to see how those issues turn out as much as we’re watching to see how the competitions turn out.”
Mary Carillo recalls a conversation that Costas had with the mayor of Rio just prior to their appearance before a journalist. She said Mayor Eduardo da Costa Paes told Costas, “These aren’t Olympic problems. These are real problems.” It is his hope, she said, that in the aftermath of the Olympics and in wake of the spotlight on these issues, the coverage will lead to change and hopefully some things being solved.
Still, Costas said, da Costa Paes told him, “Realistically, we never expected the Olympics to solve hundreds of years of social problems.”
While the appetite for Rio disaster coverage has certainly been insatiable, Bell has no doubt that, once the games begin, that will be a long-forgotten Olympics appetizer—the hunger for competition coverage will be just as strong.
When asked if the negative coverage ahead of the games might affect the audience’s interest, Bell said, “I don’t think it’s having a negative impact from what we’ve been able to determine, our research team, as far as awareness that the Olympics are here and the intent to watch and perhaps maybe even to the contrary…Those numbers are as high as they’ve ever been, even a little bit higher than they were heading into London.”
There is certainly an argument to be made that maybe the International Olympics Committee should have more seriously considered postponing or relocating the Games given safety concerns that have arisen and are quite serious, in terms of Zika, water, and violent crimes.
Asked whether NBC, as a broadcast and financial partner in the Olympics, will share part of the responsibility should something happen in that realm, Bell unequivocally said no.
Costas gave the classic “the Olympics are going to happen, so we’re going to cover it” argument, saying “the question about our responsibility becomes how thoroughly and credibly do we cover it. And we plan to not just acknowledge but frame all of these issues before the Games begin, and if and when they impact the Games as they unfold, it would certainly be my expectation that we would not shy away from that.”
And Bell brought up the elephant in the room that has largely been ignored by the mainstream media when it comes to coverage of Zika in the press and questions over whether the Olympics should have been canceled because of it.
"Right now I think you could probably make the case that Zika is a bigger story in Florida than in Brazil or certainly in Rio where it is technically winter and much cooler and drier,” he said. “So canceling? Is Disneyland responsible for bringing people to Florida now?”
Besides, Bell said, even looking back to the most recent Olympics in Sochi, the exhaustive coverage of the infrastructure and safety problems that preceded the games ended up quieting down once the competitions actually started.
Similarly, he expects the stories from the Brazil games to drown out some of the current controversy. If Simone Biles delivers as expected, Costas predicts, she will be crowned the greatest all-around gymnast of all-time. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt already hold that title in swimming and track, and both will be there to add hardware to their trophy shelves. “We’re talking about Mount Rushmore-type stuff.”
“If Simone were a foot taller,” Carillo said, marveling at Biles’s talent, “she could win every Olympic event here.” She’s particularly excited, after surveying the talent, for so many empowering women’s stories to come out of Rio.
That might be the case, but the controversies will still permeate the stories out of Brazil. Especially because, in some instances, those narratives define the stories.
“Every bit of competition that takes place on open water, marathon swimming, sailing, you’ve got to talk about the condition of the water,” Costas said. “These athletes are dealing with it, and in some cases, the best they’ve been told is, ‘Try to keep your mouth closed.’ That’s rather difficult when you are swimming even in your backyard pool, let alone in open water, or, ‘Don’t put your head under the water.’ So I guess some new techniques will be required.”
After a laugh, he became serious again: “I’m not trying to be facetious here, but it’s going to be impossible in some cases not to address some of the issues that have come up before the Olympics, because they will directly intersect with the competition.”
While there seemed to be a grin-and-bear-it mood that pervaded Bell, Costas, and Carillo’s opinion of the situation in Brazil, it’s clear that the reality of it is hard for them to ignore, and probably best summed up as a throwaway interaction between Costas and Carillo.
Because of the coverage of the water conditions, Brazil has had dozens of test events, they said, to determine the safety for athletes in the swimming, sailing, and triathlon competitions and they’ve found a way to keep it safe.
“Do you plan to take a dip yourself?” Costas asked Carillo. Without skipping a beat, her response: “Absolutely not.”