In the NBC booth with Johnny Spillane: A look inside the hard work and thrilling moments of calling the 2018 Winter Olympics
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It’s 7:45 p.m. at the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the NBC crew that’s preparing to broadcast the night’s big event, one of the biggest events of the Olympics, has a problem.
They’ve prepared a segment about the vicious winds of Pyeongchang and the enormous nets Olympic organizers added to the complex to help tame weather in a sport where the wind can mean everything.
The nets cost $5.5 million to research, build and install, according to some facts sideline reporter Abby Chin discovered.
Given the ever-present wind in Pyeongchang, it was a wise investment. The wind always blows, and it had been a major headache for ski jumping events. The normal hill competition, seven nights earlier, took three hours when it should have taken half that because, time and time again, jumping was suspended as winds whipped through the stadium.
A short video feature on the steps organizers had taken to combat that weather promised to be interesting.
Except, an hour and a half before the start of the event, the wind wasn’t blowing. Not at all. Flags, blown rod straight all week, hung limp. Jumpers reported a stillness on the hill.
“Well,” color analysis Johnny Spillane said, “we could say the wind nets are helping.”
And the crew of six on site and the dozen back at the International Broadcasting Center moved onto the next issue.
More than four hours of work remained, all to produce two separate shows — 45 minutes worth of content to air early in the morning in the U.S. on NBCSN, then roughly 10 minutes, or two segments, to air during the Saturday evening U.S. primetime NBC broadcast.
Spillane, Steamboat Springs’ most decorated Olympian but something of a rookie in the world of broadcasting, settled in for a long night.
NBC and its sister networks are producing 631 hours of Olympics coverage during the PyeongChang Games. This is the story of one.
Taking up the mic
Spillane’s broadcasting career began not long after his competitive career ended, in 2013, when he stepped away from the sport of Nordic combined as one of the most successful athletes in the sport in U.S. history.
He’d won a World Championship in 2001, then taken three silver medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.
He was the first of the Americans’ “big three” Nordic combined athletes — with fellow Olympic and World Championship medalists Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong — to retire, but he did so without any regrets. Even now, he said he doesn’t miss the competitions.
After retiring, he purchased Steamboat Flyfisher in downtown Steamboat Springs as well as a fishing resort in Utah, the rushing river seemingly far away from the world he previously inhabited. But, he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity came a year later to stay involved in snow sports, this time through broadcasting.
Despite having competed in four Olympics himself, he was at first kept far away from the big show and asked to serve as the color analyst for a pair of Nordic combined World Cup events in the winter of 2014.
A year later, he was hired to do a little more — a series of five cross-country ski events — and still more in 2016. He got a big assignment for the 2017 World Ski Championships, commentating on all the Nordic events, including ski jumping, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined.
That paved the way for this wildly busy winter. He’s called Nordic combined World Cups all season, hopping a jet most weekends to do his work in New York City.
Spillane called the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Park City, Utah, in December, his first assignment with his Olympics host, Paul Burmeister. Then, in early February, Spillane flew to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Olympics where he’d participate in an entirely new role.
“It’s fun, it’s work, and it’s a long time away from my family, but it’s fun to come here and be on the other side of the fence for once and see the Olympics through a different lens,” he said. “Being in the moment at the Olympics is really exciting, and being here to watch it and talk about it is exciting.”
Making it the hard way
It’s 9:30 p.m., and the wind still isn’t blowing. While ski jumpers have been flying for hours, it’s about to count.
Medals are on the line in one of the Games’ marquee events, the large hill ski jumping final rounds.
Bib No. 1, Artti Aigro of Estonia, slides on to the bar, rockets down the jump and flies 107 meters, the first of the night’s 80 competition jumps. There’s near total silence in the NBC booth.
There will be two shows produced from the broadcast, a short and a long, but neither has the time for the jumper who went on to place 48th out of 50.
Two jumpers in, however, the crew bursts to life. Michael Glasder of the U.S. is on the bar, and the crew is ready to go.
“Glasder is really powerful off the end of the takeoff, trying to pull down the hill,” Spillane says quickly as Glasder streaks toward a landing on the other side of the stadium and on a collection of screens in the booth.
“Decent jump,” Spillane decides on air.
Glasder’s not expected to place high, but any U.S. athletes will likely make the long broadcast.
All of this is to be tape-delayed, at least a little, so the crew wants to take advantage of that and work as efficiently as possible. Still, they want to call as many jumpers live as they can. Live is always a little better, the call more fresh, the reactions more true.
They have a list of jumpers they plan to hit. It includes the two Americans to advance from Friday’s qualifying, Glasder and Kevin Bickner.
There’s quiet hope Bickner can actually be a factor in the contest, and plenty of fascination from another tidbit Chin dug up, that Bickner slept in until 11 a.m. and didn’t have breakfast until 2 p.m. How’s that for tuning out the stress?
Other jumpers making the broadcast are the contenders, of course, including normal hill gold medalist Andreas Wellinger of Germany, Norway’s Robert Johansson, who became a minor internet celebrity thanks to an incredible mustache, and Poland’s Kamil Stoch, the defending large hill gold medalist from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Jumpers with interesting stories will get a live call, as well, including Japan’s Ironman Olympian Noriaki Kasai, competing in his eighth Olympics.
“He wants to go to two more, too,” Spillane adds as Kasai takes flight.
The Japanese broadcasting next door explode with excitement that easily cuts through the thin metal walls of the roughly 8-by-12-foot booth, little more than a shipping container in another life.
There’s a carefully laid out plan, eight segments each with their own printed page. It includes every detail, from which graphics Spillane will get into — he’s got 40 seconds to explain how ski jumping is scored — to when to throw to Chin and when to replay the best American jump.
But, there are always changes to the plan, and one comes early in Saturday’s competition.
Davide Bresadola, a low-ranking Italian, flew to his best jump in Saturday’s first round, but his luck ended when he came back down to Earth to land. One ski split from the other, he hit the ground hard and slid into a wall on the side of the venue.
Medical staff were on him before he could even roll over, but he soon did, stood up and waved to the crowd before walking off the field under his own power.
Within moments, the just-recorded video of Bresadola’s jump was on the monitors in the NBC booth, ready to get a call from the team.
There’s a short debate as assistant producer Kirsten Begg-Swider weighs in. Is it “David,” “Da-veed” or “Da-va-day?”
“He’s Italian,” she reminds.
Spillane, who’s met him, votes for “Da-veed,” convincing Burmeister, who starts in as the recording plays.
“Up next, a 29-year-old from Italy in his third Olympic Games,” he says.
There are eight nights of ski jumping and Nordic combined at the 2018 Winter Olympics, six total events.
Burmeister began preparing in the summer, and he doesn’t stop until the day is over.
He watched all of the 2014 ski jumping and Nordic combined broadcasts to prepare, then he aggressively sought out news on the athletes he’d potentially call. He wants to know them, all of them.
He spent the fall and early part of the winter gathering information, then he and Carl Van Loan, the crew’s statistician, spent the days before the event filling index cards with facts about every jumper in the field.
The nightmare is an event like the normal hill competition, where persistent wind delays left the crew with more than enough time to talk.
They burned through a lot of cards that night.
For Van Loan, the opportunity is a unique one, the first time he’s dipped his toe in the broadcasting business.
He knows ski jumping, having competed with Spillane in Nordic combined at the Olympics in 2002 and 2006. From New Hampshire, he spent three-and-a-half years living and training in Steamboat Springs and now lives in Denver.
Begg-Swider is the do-it-all force that keeps the booth running. She keeps a sharp eye on the timetable, helps Van Loan with research and even calls for an NBC runner when the team needs coffee.
Andrew King, the fifth person in the booth, is in charge of the audio, which ran perfectly Saturday. He’s a firefighter with no fires to fight.
There’s another problem, and his name is Michael Hayboeck.
The event started Friday with 55 jumpers. The top 50 advanced to Saturday’s first finals jump, and the top 30 there moved on to the second finals jump, the fourth of the competition.
Hayboeck, a 26-year old Austrian, started in the middle of the pack and was expected to finish there. He wasn’t going to warrant some of NBC’s limited time.
Spillane was watching when he took his first jump of the night, however. He soared 140 meters.
“Hey,” Spillane says, breaking the near silence in the booth as everyone either worked or watched. “You might want to mark that one. We may need to come back to it.”
That warning became more real by the end of the first round. Hayboeck was in second place.
Burmeister’s meticulous preparation had yielded little on Hayboeck.
Van Loan is on it, looking for more.
By the end of the second round, Hayboeck was one solid jump away from a surprise medal, but that didn’t mean the booth had found that perfect anecdote.
“There’s just not much out there,” Van Loan says.
He scratches what he had on an index card and hands it to Burmeister.
Hayboeck is 26 years old.
He’d served in the Austrian military.
He has 20 podium finishes and five wins, the last in December 2016.
He injured his ankle in October during a “fun” competition with his teammates.
Spillane has a guess, though. It won’t matter. Hayboeck won’t jump as well again and will slide out of medal contention.
Either way, they’ll need to go back and record a call for that first jump.
Meanwhile, there’s another jumper who’s earned a call. Daniel Andrew Tande has been strong on the World Cup and was sixth on the normal hill at the Olympics, but an average first-round jump had him in 15th place Saturday night, outside the list of contenders the crew planned to call live.
He came up with a monster second-round jump, however, and flew into the lead.
He stuck there, too, well into the top-10 as some of the night’s biggest names were unable to beat him.
There was little chance he’d stick at the top, of course. The final result is the combination of both jumps and his first jump had simply been too much of a deficit. Eventually, the top athletes from the first round would unseat him, even if they didn’t have as strong of a second-round jump, but NBC can’t very well tell the story of the night’s jumping without explaining how the guy in the lead got there, so he got a call, too.
Burmeister seamlessly picks it up later in the night. Spillane jumps in once Tande is in the air. They both react — “Whoa! Wow” — when he outflies his pre-jump expectations.
Spillane’s own experience in the sport, his years traveling with the World Cup circuit and meeting jumpers from all corners of the globe, provide the foundation for his knowledge.
That advantage is lessening every year, however, as the skiers of his generation are replaced by young athletes he never knew.
All his weekends covering the World Cups this year have helped, but that’s not enough either, so he’s also dug deep, looking for whatever he can find about various teams and jumpers, if not for specific anecdotes or stories, for a general idea about their season and prospects at the Olympics.
“I like to get a feel for what the athletes are feeling,” he said.
That all happened in the months leading up to Saturday.
“Each show, I probably have three or four hours of prep work in,” Spillane said. “I’ve done a ton leading up to this, but now, it’s just putting it together.”
He’s spent many of his days at the 2018 Winter Olympics at the International Broadcast Center working with NBC staff on building graphics to help explain the sports he knows so innately.
One graphic comes up four different times Saturday night, a big diagram of the large hill at Alpensia. The Statue of Liberty is on one side to show just how big the jump is, then one and a half football fields are laid out over the top to again add perspective.
“We’re trying to use this opportunity to help people learn the sport a little bit,” Spillane said. “When I say this guy’s accelerating down the hill, what does that actually mean? We’re using different programs to illustrate things they haven’t done in the past. We really want to make it almost more of a show than just watching 50 jumpers go off.”
He’s jumped into his new role in a major way, something not lost on his co-workers.
Burmeister came up through several TV stations in Iowa, then spent 10 years working at the NFL Network before moving to NBC.
He’s worked with plenty of just-retired jocks.
“I could tell right away how much he still liked the sport, but just because someone knows the sport and likes the sport doesn’t mean it will translate well to TV,” Burmeister said of Spillane. “He came really well prepared. He didn’t just show up, ‘Hey, I love my sport. I know about the top five guys.’ He had information and insight for one through 50. It’s not an automatic you’ll get someone who’s achieved at a high level in the sport who’s also going to prepare that way, and Johnny really has.
“I’ve been super impressed with him,” Burmeister adds.
A nation’s great hope
It’s time to decide the medals.
Spillane’s offered an off-air prediction to a producer back at the IBC, but it’s impossible to know just how it will all land.
The crew starts live calling every athlete in the top 10 after the first round, but it’s the top three or four that really hold everyone’s interest.
Will it be Wellinger, the German who won the normal hill?
NBC’s ready. They have a graphic they’ve been referencing that shows other athletes who’ve swept an Olympics’ individual ski jumping gold medals.
Maybe it will be Poland’s Stoch. (The question of “Sshh-toke” or “Stoke” was settled for NBC earlier in the week by the Polish.) Stoch was one of those athletes to win double gold medals at the same Olympics in 2014. He can’t do it again after finishing fourth on the normal hill, but he can repeat on the large hill.
“I’ve got something,” Van Loan offers.
Stoch would be the first to defend his gold medal on the large hill since Finland’s Matti Nykänen in 1988.
“Thanks,” Burmeister answers. “That’s good.”
Maybe it’ll be Johansson, who “will tote his skis and his mustache up the lift,” Burmeister says as he narrates a clip of the mustachioed Norwegian between rounds.
It won’t be Hayboeck. Spillane was right. The Austrian couldn’t duplicate his big first-round jump, and he slides to sixth.
That facial hair does carry Johnansson into the lead, finally knocking Tande out, but it doesn’t leave him there for long. Wellinger puts his second jump deep and finishes it with a beautiful landing.
He’s in the gold-medal spot with one to go.
Stoch flies far, as well, but was his landing good enough? Was he far enough?
The athletes sweat it out on the snow, long tense minutes waiting for the score.
The crew speculates on the air.
Their answer comes not in a score flashed on a screen but in the scene on their monitor. Stoch sees the score and leaps for joy, quickly falling into a strong hug with his teammates.
Van Loan’s tip about the first repeat winner since 1988 makes it into the broadcast, and so does a nugget Burmeister’s been holding onto, something he found on one of those deep dives researching jumpers and compiling information he’d likely never even need.
He needed this one.
“Just before this Polish team left for the Winter Olympics, the Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki told them, ‘You are our big hope,’” Burmeister says. “Poland had zero medals in these Games before Kamil Stoch took gold.”
Celebrations continued on the snow, but the day still wasn’t over for Burmeister, Spillane and the NBC team. They logged another 45 minutes finishing everything. They called the Tande jump. They recorded intros and outros for the primetime broadcast. They found out which athletes would actually make that show, too.
There’d be six, the top five and, thanks to a solid 20th-place finish, one American for the home country audience to cheer. Bickner made the cut.
The winds never blew.
Then it was done.
“Thanks, everyone,” Spillane said, sliding off his headphones. He pulled on his NBC jacket and left the booth, into the cold.
He loaded into a car at 12:30 a.m., six and a half hours after he’d arrived at the complex, and headed home to his hotel for a bit of rest.
He’d need it. The ski jumpers are back Monday for the team event, and Nordic combined is on the Olympic schedule Tuesday.
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