A LEADERSHIP LESSON AND OTHER REFLECTIONS ON WORKING THE 2000 OLYMPICS

Sometimes I get asked to tell stories about my days working at the White House, which was a life-changing and humbling experience.  Working at NBC was life-changing, too.

Today for the first time in years, I watched the opening scene-setter of NBC’s coverage of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.  As soon as James Earl Jones’ narration began, I got chills.

It brought me back to the NBC Olympics facility in the International Broadcast Center in Sydney, where I spent the month of September 2000 working alongside some of the most talented and dedicated co-workers of my career. 

Twenty years later, I have so many unforgettable memories from my first Olympics, along with a powerful leadership lesson from my boss, Dick Ebersol.

We had a talented team in the NBC press office. Cameron BlanchardMike McCarley and Kathy Connors joined me onsite in 12- to 16-hour daily shifts.

The “open” to the broadcast, set to music from the film, “The Perfect Storm,” was our anthem.  We often quoted lines from the script to each other, failing in our attempt to mimic Jones’ unmistakable baritone. The words were beautiful and evocative.

“Sydney will erupt for living monuments of the United States of Speed...”

“In a land an ocean away, where winter is summer and today is tomorrow…”

“A place where geography was made gigantic…”

And our favorite – a reference to Cuban boxer Felix Savon, who would go on to win his third consecutive Olympic gold medal:

“The heavyweight from a sports machine powered mostly by devotion.”

In the face of some daunting challenges, our small comms team could relate.

The unusual September 15-October 1 time frame for a Summer Olympics, designed to accommodate the Games taking place in the Southern Hemisphere, proved to be highly inconvenient for American television viewers.

In addition, the 15-hour time difference from the east coast meant virtually everything was aired on tape delay. To say the media was highly critical of this approach is like saying Michael Johnson could run fast.  Our critics didn’t understand why NBC wouldn’t air the events live (with a tiny audience available to watch) then replay them on tape for the NBC primetime show.  Business considerations made this approach financially untenable, so our comms team soldiered on.  

While the media focused solely on the traditional metric of diminished primetime ratings, we did our best to tell a bigger story.  We drove a narrative about the newly fragmented media landscape in which the average American household had access to 60 channels (which sounds kind of quaint today). Over the 17 days, 185 million people tuned in to coverage of the Games on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC. The telecasts reached 84% of all U.S. households and delivered an average of 59 million viewers a day, according to NBC research. Financially, the Sydney Games were highly successful, generating profits in the tens of millions.  

Still, the critics were loud and relentless. The “record-low primetime ratings” headlines were accurate, but represented only one piece of the story.  Amazingly, the drumbeat from home and online that these Games were a failure for NBC never deterred a truly dedicated NBC Olympics team.  

The reason morale remained strong was that our leader was at his best when times were toughest. That is, after all, how great leaders are judged. Dick Ebersol made his team the highest priority.  He was aware that outside criticism could be deflating.  He composed a personal letter of encouragement to the troops that included excerpts from favorable media reviews and had it posted on the walls throughout the NBC space.  He frequently made the rounds to express his gratitude for how hard everyone was working.  He made us all feel like we were part of something meaningful, worthwhile and successful.

Twenty years later and 15 years after leaving NBC for Washington, D.C., I cherish that feeling of belonging to that world class team. 

There are too many names to begin listing them and I don’t want to inadvertently omit anyone, but 20 years later, watching the Sydney open again reminds me of  how grateful I am to have had the chance to work with so many incredibly talented men and women – a sports machine powered mostly by devotion – to its audience and to each other.