NBC’s master storyteller a familiar face

Posted by on Aug 13, 2016 in Voice-Over | 0 comments





True Olympic spirit lies in how one handles defeat, USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers says.

Jimmy Roberts is working his 16th Olympic Games. Much has changed since his first in 1980. One thing has not.

“I remember being so wide-eyed at Lake Placid,” NBC’s sports essayist tells USA TODAY Sports. He still feels that sense of wonder in Rio.

Roberts, 59, has worked Super Bowls, World Series, Wimbledon, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup playoffs and all of golf’s biggest events. “I’ve worked multiples of a lot of stuff — which doesn’t mean I’m experienced, just old — but the thing I get at the Olympics that I don’t get at any other event,” he says, “is a feeling like I’m there for the first time.”

That means, in Rio, Roberts offers fresh eyes with old bones — an ideal mix for an essayist.

The trick is to tell stories by marrying words with image, like lyrics with music. His feature on the 10-member refugee team competing under the IOC flag ran on the first full day of competition. And as the TV screen filled with images of refugee athletes running, Roberts’ voiceover said: “What a wonderful concept — running toward something, instead of running away.”

“There are 21.3 million refugees in the world,” he says by phone from Rio. “That means the group of 10 athletes represents a constituency larger than 150 of the nations that are competing here.”

Roberts says the Games are so oversized that it can be hard to get your arms around them. Often, small-scale stories work best.

“When you wake up, it’s not a question of whether I can find a story, but which one of these great stories do I have the opportunity to tell,” he says. “I’m looking at my to-do and already-done board: Israeli marathoner, Iranian archer, Romanian gymnasts, Polish kayaker who is American.”

Roberts says he is fortunate to work with a talented team, including editor and producer Bobby Caldwell and producer Kelly Miller — and to have learned from the best early in his career.

“I had the good fortune of working alongside Dick Schaap, who I think created the concept of a three-minute sports story on television,” Roberts says. He also credits Judd Rose, a former colleague at ABC News. “They figured out how you married words and pictures so that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.”

Roberts also worked with longtime Olympic host Jim McKay — “like working the give-and-go with Michael Jordan” — and with Jack Whitaker, to whom Roberts’ sports essays are sometimes compared. “That’s really not doing any favors to Jack,” Roberts says.

Some viewers prefer meat-and-potatoes sports to the erudition of the essayist. “What I do isn’t to everybody’s taste,” Roberts allows. “But I really enjoy it.”

His pieces often depend on the broad sweep of history. He told of the Ping-Pong diplomacy of the Nixon years in Beijing and the grandson of Russian hockey legend Viktor Tikhonov in Sochi. Tikhonov was coach of the USSR team upset by the USA in Lake Placid, at Roberts’ first Games. Tikhonov’s teams also won Olympic gold three times. His grandson, who carries the same name, played for Russia in Sochi.

“The motivation for that one was I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for the kid to skate out there, in Russia, with a sweater that said Tikhonov on the back,” Roberts says. “I don’t know if I said this in the piece, but that would be like Michael Jordan’s son trotting out on the basketball court or Mickey Mantle’s kid taking a swing at the plate.”

Actually, the piece compares it to singing as Frank Sinatra Jr.

“That’s a better line,” Roberts says, laughing. “Whoever wrote that did a really good job.”


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