Clockwise from top left: Salt Lake Tribune; Dutch National Archives; Courtesy of Shutterstock; Courtesy of Dan-Jansen.com; Vince Caligiuri; Roberts photo courtesy of NBC Universal
Terp Broadcaster Shares Stories of Olympics Pastby Liam Farrell
Veteran sportscaster Jimmy Roberts ’79 is heading to his 16th Olympics this summer in Rio de Janeiro, and he is in no way bored—few events can match the drama of thousands of athletes from around the world taking their shot at realizing lifelong dreams.
“It’s one of the very few things that really gets your pulse elevated,” he says. “There is an urgency, and it’s palpable.”
Roberts recently talked to Terp about a few standout memories from the quadrennial center of the sporting universe.
The 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., wasn’t only the occasion of the famed “Miracle on Ice” hockey game between the plucky U.S. squad and a heavily favored Soviet team. It was also where Roberts saw what he believes is the “single greatest athletic achievement of all time.”
On an outdoor track at a nearby high school, American speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals in races ranging from 500 to 10,000 meters, an accomplishment Roberts compares to a runner taking gold in everything from the 100-meter dash to the marathon.
“It’s just incomprehensible,” he says.
Roberts thinks little compares to the grit of speed skater Dan Jansen, a talented American who overcame personal and professional heartbreak to finally earn gold in 1994.
The perennial favorite was dogged in the Olympics by uncharacteristic mistakes and slow finishes; he might be best known for competing in 1988, just hours after his sister died of leukemia, only to fall in the first turn and fall again in a race a few days later. But in his fifth games, he overcame a slip during Lillehammer’s 1,000-meter race and won, taking a victory lap with his baby daughter, who was named for his sister.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever cried covering an event,” Roberts says.
Sports are not immune to the outside world, and the Olympics are no different. Roberts remembers seeing the winter paradise of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics complex turned into a war zone a decade later, and the patriotism-infused 2002 opening ceremony in Salt Lake City, just a few months after the 9/11 attacks. Roberts stood next to the cauldron as the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team lit the torch.
“The roar was just remarkable,” he says. “It was just magical.”
In the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea was given a “wild card” entry into the 100-meter freestyle swim as part of the effort to encourage participation from developing countries without using qualifying times. When two other competitors in his heat false-started, Moussambani—who had never swum in a regulation pool before—doggy-paddled in front of the world’s savviest swimming fan base. Roberts, whose coverage of the story won an Emmy, says the erstwhile swimmer’s efforts won the crowd’s hearts.
“The people had been laughing at first, but then they kind of embraced him,” he says. “By the time he’s finishing, he’s getting a standing ovation.”
One of Roberts’ favorite memories has less to do with an athletic event than its location. He covered the shot put contest at the 2004 summer games in Athens, held at the same stadium where the Olympics began in 776 B.C. In the spirit of the place, the competition used no grandstands, electronics or artificial lighting.
“I got an opportunity to stand in the spot where the very first sporting event happened,” he says. “I’m a sports reporter—who gets a chance to do that?”
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