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Summer Olympics arrive in Atlanta

Bob Costas takes center stage in this summer’s games

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You are looking live at Bob Costas. Inside Seattle’s Key Arena, where less than three minutes remain in game 4 of the NBA finals, you peer into the sky blue eyes directly before your own and see in them all the famous people who have entered Costas’ orbit in 22 years — literally half his life — of broadcasting. Just three days ago, for example, he held court in the luxury box adjacent to this one with Cindy Crawford, Dennis Rodman, and Pearl Jam. You wonder: Who is the first celebrity he ever met?

”My first brush with greatness?” he replies. ”Give me a minute.” The request is tantamount to Mickey Mantle, Costas’ boyhood hero, asking if it’s okay to choke up on the bat. The ability to effortlessly extemporize is one of the 44-year-old sportscaster’s more salient qualities. But this question has stumped Costas, at least temporar —

”Will Hutchins!” he cries, grabbing you by both arms. ”I met Will Hutchins when I was 8! Sugarfoot. You know, the old TV Western.”

Now the flawless speech pattern, the one that has helped earn 10 Emmy awards, returns — so swiftly, in fact, that you are tempted to look for a TelePrompTer.

”Sugarfoot,” continues Costas, ”a mild-mannered, itinerant Western lawyer.” Behind him, Michael Jordan and a capacity crowd. Before him, minutes away in the camera’s eye, America. Costas launches into song: ”Sugarfoot, Sugarfoot, easy-lopin’, cattle-ropin’/Sugarfoot, ridin’ down to cattletown/A-joggin’ along with a heart full of song/And a rifle and a volume of the law…”

On July 19, NBC will begin 171 hours of Olympic programming from Atlanta. The Olympic Games, explains Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, are ”the last gargantuan bastion for family viewing,” which is why for 17 days, the entertainment world will stop its customary trajectory around Hollywood and spin instead around a five-ring athletic circus in the Deep South. Guiding you through this bastion: a mild-mannered, itinerant sportscaster whose polymathic frontal lobe holds more information than some CD-ROMs. The man who will dominate the world’s television screens for a fortnight not only can sing the theme song to Sugarfoot (ABC, 1957-61) but can, upon request, expound with authority on anybody from John F. Kennedy to former pro basketball player Eugene ”Goo” Kennedy to MTV’s Kennedy. (”Who, by the way,” quips Costas, ”is citing me as her broadcast influence every two seconds.”)

And that, in short, is why Bob Costas has been entrusted with the task of hosting the Centennial Games. ”He has an amazing facility to take all of this stuff that’s in his head,” says Ebersol, ”and put it in cogent, humorous form.”

In the words of a peer, ESPN SportsCenter anchor Dan Patrick: ”I tell Bob whenever I see him, ‘Just don’t make it look so damn easy all the time.”’

Of course, Costas has been here before. Barcelona, 1992: In his first stint as NBC’s prime-time Summer Olympics host, Costas reports that a coup attempt in Madagascar has been successfully repelled. The plotters have been captured, he informs viewers, at the radio station they had seized — though not before they were ”able to change the format from classical to country.”