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The 5 Things That Make an Olympics Broadcaster Great

Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, showing everyone else how the Olympics are done. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The broadcasters providing play-by-play, analysis, and information during NBC’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics have to accomplish a lot during a given broadcast. First and foremost, they need to provide their audience with useful information and insight, especially since a huge chunk of that audience is probably not familiar with the deep nuances of skeleton. (After every Winter Olympics, I immediately forget what skeleton is and have to be reminded again, four years later.) At absolute bare minimum, they need to get through each event without saying something stupid on the air, but sometimes they can’t even do that. (Not to blame the Bode Millers, but I just want to toss it out there that this may be Bode Miller’s fault.)

The point is that this job is a lot harder than it looks to those of us with opinions who are watching from several time zones away, then tweeting our precious thoughts after wiping popcorn butter off our fingertips. After taking in some — though admittedly not all, because weirdly, I need to sleep — of the action from the Pyeongchang Games, here are the qualities that strike me as most crucial to great Olympics broadcasting.

1. Do they have expertise?

The most important thing an NBC Olympics host or commentator has to do is convince us that they know what they’re talking about. Mike Tirico — the new Bob Costas who has been holding down the fort from NBC’s Greatest Love Songs Ski Lodge — is very good at this. He’s affable and articulate, smooth but not too stuffy. Admittedly, given all the live coverage that dominates prime time, Tirico doesn’t have to do much. But his presence grounds every night’s coverage. He comes across as less of an elder statesman than Costas, which is inevitable since he just took over as NBC’s chief Olympics guy. He’s more like the fun uncle who knows the answer to every damn thing when you ask him to help you with your homework. That is a good thing.

Generally speaking, NBC’s team is strong in the authority department. At this point in the Games, for example, I am willing to believe literally anything that Tara Lipinksi or Johnny Weir says. If they announced that Adam Rippon changed his program at the last minute and will now be skating to “War,” then added that “War What Is It Good For?” was actually the original title of War and Peace, I’d be like, “This information all sounds accurate. Guess that Seinfeld episode wasn’t a joke after all.”

2. Do they have zero chill?

The Olympics are exciting! They give grown men and women permission to unabashedly sob in a context that doesn’t involve This Is Us! They show us the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and all that other crap from the old Wide World of Sports intro! That’s why it’s good to see the people covering it from the sidelines get emotional when emotional things happen: It validates the feeling we’re having while watching at our home/sports bar/on our cell phone while waiting for a bus.

The announcer who does this with just the right level of energy is Leigh Diffey, who primarily covered auto racing before joining the NBC Olympics team to make the calls on luge, bobsled, and skeleton. Admittedly, having an Australian accent is a real advantage for Diffey. When he shouts, “Chris Mazder has done it!” it sounds even more lively with a Down Under twang. But he also doesn’t overdo it.

Imagine watching a hockey game — Olympics, or NHL, for that matter — that isn’t called with the urgency of a five-alarm fire. It would not be nearly as intense or fun, even though most of the time, we can see exactly what’s happening without some dude in a broadcast booth having to tell us. (“He shoots … and it goes wide!”) The announcers are necessary because they keep the excitement level high. Also, they are super-helpful when we aren’t sure where the hell the puck is.

3. Can they match the mood of an event?

Sometimes, it’s just as valuable to rein in one’s emotions as it is to let them fly. During certain sports, it would feel disproportionate to yell and scream when a point is won in a team’s favor. Take, for example, curling, an event that our Nate Jones has dubbed the Great British Bake Off of Olympic sports. The members of NBC’s curling coverage team do not, and should not, go mental every time a stone slides close to the button. (That’s right, I speak curling.) It would completely disrupt the sense of calm and strategy involved in curling, a game that Nate rightly describes as “a strange mix of shuffleboard, bowling, and chores.” People, let me tell you this since Tom Hanks isn’t here to do it for me: There is no crying (or shouting) in shuffleboard, bowling, or chores. Hence, there is no crying (or shouting) in curling. The folks calling the event understand this.

Of course, one has to know when he’s dialed things down too far, which brings me to Bode Miller, who, when he isn’t insulting people’s spouses, calls skiing events the way the sloths in Zootopia process paperwork at the DMV. All right, I’m exaggerating a little bit. Miller obviously knows quite a bit about skiing technique and that adds something useful to the proceedings. I just wish he would pump up his energy by several notches, especially since skiing — at least in my view — is one of the most boring parts of the Winter Olympics.

4. Do they know when to shut up?

This matters because you can avoid saying things on live television that you’ll need to apologize for later, but even more importantly, it’s also a way to let a moment breathe. During Shaun White’s final gold-medal-winning halfpipe run earlier this week, the Todds (snowboarding commentators Todd Harris and Todd Richards) stopped talking as White prepared to go for his medal, letting the moment and the tension speak for itself. They did the same thing while White waited for his score to be announced. A good Olympics broadcaster can read a moment and understand when the best thing he or she can do is just get out of the way.

5. Do they have enough personality?

Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at the portion of this piece in which I sing the praises of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. This duo is the new gold standard of what Olympics coverage — in any sport, summer or winter — should look like. Lipinski and Weir check every box for your dream commentators: They project authority and deep knowledge of their sport; they get excited when the moment calls for it; they also have some chill, which comes across in their honest assessments of skaters’ programs; and they know when to stay silent so the skaters can own their moment. But they also excel in a way that no other Olympic broadcaster does, yet without ever seeming anything less professional. Their mics and headsets may be bedazzled, but they are always precisely in place. Weir may dress as though he’s going to a Hedwig and the Angry Inch after-party as soon as the competition ends, but he obviously put an enormous amount of time and effort into what he’s wearing, just as the skaters he’s evaluating have done. In short, Lipinski and Weir look and sound like they belong exactly where they are, and are determined to guide us through this Olympics journey like a pair of glittery figure-skating sherpas. Which is exactly what I want my figure-skating broadcasters to do. (Play-by-play man Terry Gannon is a nice foil to the two of them, even if his presence suggests that he rolled up next to Tara and Johnny one day at lunch and they were, like, “Sure, you can sit with us if you want.”)

Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski prove that the announcers are just as vital to the Olympic viewing experience as the athletes themselves. I salute them, and wish that the odds may be ever in their favor.

The 5 Things That Make an Olympics Broadcaster Great