Legendary broadcaster Bob Costas, veteran host of a dozen Olympic Games, is busy with Back On the Record, an HBO talk show on which he tackles the most compelling issues of the day with guests from the worlds of sports, culture and entertainment. On that series, now back for a second season, Costas, 69, a 29-time Emmy winner, asks the questions. Here, he answers a few.
The Beijing Olympics are front and center. Any regrets you aren’t there?
No. I did a dozen Olympics. It was time for me to transition into something else. I’m not retired but neither am I carrying anything like the workload I once did. HBO makes a lot of sense for me. The type of programming that they do, I’m well suited to it.
Of the dozen you covered, do you have a favorite Olympics?
I’ll always have a soft spot for Barcelona in 1992 because it was my first in prime time; Athens in 2004 because of my Greek background and because of the fact that it’s the birthplace of the Olympics; Sydney in 2000, because of the hospitality in Australia; Atlanta in ’96 — Muhammad Ali lighting the torch is one of the most memorable Olympic moments ever.
Athletes are at the center of a number of controversies lately. Are we holding athletes to a higher standard than we should?
I don’t think we’re holding them to some impossible higher standard. I think we’re holding them to a basic standard. We expect that they will not use performance-enhancing drugs to gain an unfair competitive advantage. We expect that as part of a team, a league, a community, that they would get vaccinated. We expect, not that they adhere to any one political philosophy, we just hope that people wouldn’t make outrageous statements that aren’t civil, especially in a time when everyone can tweet out their every thought. That doesn’t seem to me like an impossibly high bar.
You have done an amazing number of interviews in your career. Are there any that stand out in your memory?
In all of us what makes an impression on us when we’re younger has a power to it that is more emotional than it is rational. I’m a kid watching Willie Mays, I’m an adult covering [Los Angeles Angels center fielder] Mike Trout. So, if you grew up in the era I grew up in, you’re happy to talk with Trout but to interview Willie Mays or Stan Musial or Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle or Hank Aaron — now you’re talking to somebody from your youth. I had great relationships with them and did interviews with them that are still used. They’re part of the record of those players’ lives.
Is there someone left on your interview wish list?
[Hall of Fame pitcher] Sandy Koufax because Sandy is one of those people in sports who has more than just excellence. There’s a mystique about him, but part of that mystique is because he’s so private, which I respect. So, the answer to that is if Sandy ever came to me and said, ‘You know I’d like to do one interview, and I’d like to do it with you,’ of course I would do it. But I would not pursue him because I respect who he is. In an era when everybody — even mega-famous people — seems to be more accessible than ever, someone who holds himself apart, that actually adds to the mystique. So, Koufax is an easy answer, just like Joe DiMaggio before.
Was there a memorable turndown?
Jack Nicholson. Back when he was at the peak of his career, you never saw him interviewed on television. The only time you ever saw him on TV he was sitting courtside at Lakers’ games. I spoke to him a couple times, courtside. His theory was: ‘Look, I’m a movie star, people pay money to leave their houses, to sit in the dark and watch me on a big screen. If I show up on television, that diminishes that relationship. I’m in their living room on the small screen.’ I asked him a few times. He was really nice. At one point he says: ‘Bobby, Bobby. You’re a nice kid, you do good work. How can I put this politely? No effing way.’
You left NBC while you were at the top. That’s not easy to do. Why?
I got to the point when I realized it isn’t quite as good a fit as it used to be. They haven’t had baseball for a while; they haven’t had the NBA for a while; I’ve done a dozen Olympics; football is exciting but I have ambivalent feelings about the nature of football and what it does to many of its participants. When I began to feel that way, it was time to step away before it affected my performances. I didn’t want to hit a point of diminishing returns. You don’t have to retire, you can just kind of recalibrate.
You will be 70 in March. How does that feel?
I don’t feel that much different than I did when I was 50, but you have to acknowledge that ‘OK, you’re 70, you’re equidistant between 50 and 90.’ I don’t know what 90 is going to feel like. I know that I was a very young 50 and I feel like a relatively young 70 but you can’t deny the math. If the last 20 years went zooming by, which they seem to, then I guess the next 20 will, too. If there are any loose ends, I better tie them up quickly.
What do you do with extra time now that you’re working less?
During COVID I’ve been able to read some of the books that have been on the shelf and I hadn’t been able to get to, including Billie Jean King’s memoir All In, George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility and Don Lemon’s This Is the Fire. I have always been a Turner Classic Movies fan. My wife enjoys it, too. Over the past two years we have watched dozens of films (almost all of which I had seen before): Casablanca, Guys and Dolls, North by Northwest, Pillow Talk, Some Like it Hot, Vertigo, Singin’ in the Rain, etc. But also — and COVID got in the way of this — as time goes on you value the time you spend with family and friends. COVID put up a barrier, especially the friends part. I have lots of friends in St. Louis, many of whom I haven’t seen in a couple years, so you think about maintaining those ties. In the end that’s what is most important to most of us.
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