'98 Olympics: Torch And Go | EW.com

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'98 Olympics: Torch And Go

Blizzard-plagued CBS kicks off its '98 Olympic coverage with extreme snowboarding, women's hockey, and a case of the blahs.

In my dream, Monica Lewinsky thwacked Tara Lipinski in the kneecaps with an aluminum crutch — a souvenir to Monica from the President after he fell down on that golf trip with Greg Norman, remember? Anyway, Lewinsky then crammed herself into Lipinski’s skates, ankle-wobbled out to the center ice at Nagano’s White Ring stadium, and executed a multiple axel so intense, it drilled a hole in the ice, through which she tumbled like Alice in Wonderland down a rabbit hole. Immediately, scores of perfect sixes were awarded by a panel of judges composed entirely of Matt Drudges. The Drudge-judge, Lipinski-Lewinsky verdict was then instantly decried by a panel consisting of CBS 1998 Olympics host Jim Nantz, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, and David Letterman’s mom.

When I woke up, it was still snowing hard on Happo’one mountain, and the men’s downhill skiing had just been officially postponed on the first full day of competition in the Winter Olympics. This was surely a disappointment for Tommy Moe, anxious to reproduce his 1994 gold-medal victory at Lillehammer — and to CBS, whose ratings that night plummeted with each snowflake, losing millions of viewers from the previous night’s opening ceremonies (which averaged more than 27 million). Those festivities were at least diverting, a jarring combination of glitzy and grave, including Sumo wrestlers driving out the evil spirits of the earth.

I’d hoped CBS would be on the same serene wavelength as the site of its broadcast booth — the centuries-old Zenkoji Temple. Instead, frenetic, nationalistic idiocy set in. During the parade of nations, of the more than 2,400 athletes, who was the only person CBS deemed worthy to pin a mic on? Skater Tara Lipinski, of course, who at 15 could hardly be expected to utter a comment more profound than “Oh, I’m so happy I’m here!”

CBS’ primary host, Jim Nantz, is a nice, well-trained young man without a trace of wit or perspective in his commentary. One yearns for previous Games guides — for the strong, informed opinions of Bob Costas, or even the mesmerizing smugness of Pat O’Brien. In their place, Nantz offers statistic after statistic — what cultural critic Dwight Macdonald termed “the triumph of the fact” has overwhelmed the network. (The deadeningly tasteful CBS News Sunday Morning didn’t liven things up much with its coverage of curling. Gently pushing teakettle-shaped, 44-pound granite stones across ice while teammates sweep a path with little brushes — well, I nearly wept that Charles Kuralt wasn’t around to provide the perfect hushed tone to such banality.)

This year’s Winter Games are the Lilith Fair of athletics — girl power rules, as in the much-touted new event women’s hockey, which was fun for about three minutes, until you realized there’s no discernible female variation in strategy or style in this game. Still, it’s nice to know that losing Team China’s goalie is nicknamed the Great Wall of China.

Girl power should not, however, have extended to hiring MTV’s Kennedy to interview snowboarders; her idea of hipness — sullen dourness — is a drag. The network has really blown its coverage of this other new event. Partly it’s due to the general obnoxiousness of the contestants: ESPN’s Winter X Games party-hearty vets whose comments ranged from “It’s a different vibe!” to “It’s stellar, man!” Next time, hire the earmuffed, parka’d South Park kids to ask the boarders the tough questions.

The network’s first stroke of Olympics programming brilliance came with figure skating, the ratings-driving, obsessive focus of American coverage. And on Sunday night, millions who’d just sat through a gory, pointless Stephen King-cowritten episode of The X-Files (a disappointment after the gratifyingly creepy script I reported on last week) switched over to CBS to find a fascinating piece that exceeded any Sunday-night woman-in-jeopardy TV movie: the incredible abuse that Russian skater Elena Berezhnaya says she endured from her pairs partner Oleg Shliakhov, who reportedly hit, kicked, and “accidentally” sliced open her skull with his skate during rehearsal. Moving from this feature right into the short-program pairs competition appearance of Berezhnaya and her kind, noble new partner Anton Sikharulidze — even I was a tad sniffly.

With 128 hours of CBS coverage and 50 more from TNT (those poor saps are frequently reduced to doing Japanese food demonstrations to fill airtime), it’ll be a long haul before we get to the climactic moment of the Games: the Lipinski/Michelle Kwan showdown on Feb. 20. For one thing, we’ll have to sit through even more promos for Tom Selleck’s new sitcom The Closer (you know, the ones that don’t tell you what the show’s about, leaving you to assume the producers aren’t sure either). My suggestion to CBS: Every time there’s a delay in a game, cut to either a Buddhist prayer meeting to edify our souls or an Everybody Loves Raymond rerun to stimulate our brains.