Bob Costas plans to watch the 2036 Olympics – the next summer Games for which NBC does not (yet) have television rights – “from an undisclosed location.”
So someone else will host prime time coverage by then, at which point Costas will be 84 and the Games might be conveyed by means of individual brain implants.
Beyond that, Costas has no firm plans for how long he will serve as the primary American television face of the Olympics, a role he has filled for a quarter century.
“We’re taking it on a case-by-case basis,” Costas, who grew up in Commack, said during a pre-Rio media briefing in Manhattan in mid-July.
Still, he was willing to admit the changing of the guard will occur sometime between the end of the Rio de Janiero Games and the last one NBC currently is scheduled to televise, in 2032.
“I can say with certainty I will not be hosting the Olympics when I’m 80,” he said. “I say that flatly. Yes, somewhere between now and 2032. I’m willing to say that.
“Between now and the expiration of NBC’s contract in 2032, my successor will grace the airwaves.”
Costas does not seem to have lost anything off his hosting fastball. But NBC’s recent hiring of Mike Tirico from ESPN led to speculation he might someday succeed Costas and/or “Sunday Night Football” play-by-play man Al Michaels.
That remains to be seen. For now Costas firmly is in place in a role he will fill for the 11th time. (This is his 12th Games overall; he hosted late nights from Seoul in 1988.)
It is unique assignment for Costas, who is at his best as an essayist and interviewer but who on a typical night on Olympic duty is seen only for a few minutes, acting primarily as a setup man.
But he said he does not sweat the amount of airtime he gets, other than a few situations in which what he considered important material from a newsy interview wound up on the cutting room floor.
“If content I think is important doesn’t make it, that can occasionally be frustrating,” he said. “But the total amount of airtime I get is not a concern to me.
“I’ve been on television for so long, and just by good fortune in very high profile assignments - Super Bowl, World Series, the NBA Finals, the Kentucky Derby and of course the Olympics - it’s not like I’m sitting there with a stopwatch.”
The job also is to serve as an insurance policy of sorts, in case events require something more than a mere sports studio host.
“There are times when your job is just to get it smoothly from the gymnastics to the track and field; somebody has to do that, and they have to do it competently,” Costas said. “But another part of your job, which you hope never comes into play, is that somebody has to be there in case the stuff hits the fan. And that person has to be capable.
“Somebody’s got to be there if the unexpected occurs or if God forbid the tragic occurs. And that person has to be well-versed in all the dynamics that might become part of a situation like that, and has to be able to handle it on the fly without notes and in a live, extemporaneous situation. You hope it never happens.”
Costas said the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 required some of that from him, but NBC News also played a key role, as did other sports colleagues.
ABC Sports mostly was its own in 1972, when Jim McKay famously hosted coverage of the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes.
“Jim McKay did hundreds and hundreds of wonderful things,” Costas said, “but that was the thing for which he was best known, because he handled it with not just journalistic skill but with humanity and empathy.”
Costas naturally has a trove of Olympic memories when asked to recall them, as he often is. But by far his favorite was Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta.
“I can give you the next two dozen and not run out, but it is clear what No. 1 is. and that is the one that still gives me goosebumps,” said Costas, who was among the many celebrities to attend Ali’s funeral in Louisville in June.
“As I sit here recounting it, I still get goosebumps. That’s No. 1.”
Costas said his favorite Olympics overall was Barcelona in 1992, in part because of the “adrenaline rush” of his first as prime-time host, but also because of the mix of sports theater and relevant journalism and commentary.
“I just thought that that particular Olympics had a good combination,” he said. “There were shadings to it. It wasn’t all primary colors.”
He also mentioned fondly Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, the latter in part because of his own Greek heritage.
Costas’ most recent Games, in Sochi in 2014, were marred by having to miss several days because of a case of viral conjunctivitis that left him frustrated, more as a professional teammate than on a personal level.
“Had it been my first or second or third Olympics it might have had a different effect on me,” he said. “It really was not personally devastating. The reason it bothered me was that you’re the front man. You’re carrying the ball for literally thousands of people who are working their asses off.
“And they’re not only working for months and months and in some cases years leading up to the Olympics, traveling the world to put the profiles together, putting all the research together, but many of them are pulling 18, 20 hour days at the Olympics and you’re the person who’s supposed to kind of put the finishing touches on it for them to help present it in the most skillful way, and I couldn’t do that for them.
“I did the best I could for five or six days until I just literally couldn’t be in the light of the studio anymore and then I came back as soon as I could. I certainly didn’t do it because I needed the air time. I did it out of a sense of professional responsibility to my colleagues. What bothered me about it was that I couldn’t hold up my part of it for this large team.”
Costas said he does not regularly think about how many more Games are in his future other than when he is asked about it. But he does know that 2014 would have been no way to finish.
“Right now I’m thinking about doing the best job I can in less than a month, and whenever it is that I stop I hope I end on a good note,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to end on a pink-eye note.”
In olden times, the network covering the Olympics had little choice but to use its prime time show to give viewers a broad flavor of the Games, featuring as many sports as it could cram into a several-hour window.
But with every event streamed live and/or spread across an assortment of channels, NBC’s prime-time slot has become a showcase primarily for the most ratings-friendly events.
That is not a problem in theory, because viewers who tire of swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball can turn to other options. Still, executive producer Jim Bell said, NBC does try to make prime time an overview of sorts.
“I think we still have a responsibility to provide that broader experience for viewers who are going to be watching just prime time, which is still a lot of people - the most people,” he said. “So it’s important to give them a flavor of the city, to maybe introduce an interesting piece from Mary Carillo.’’