Ronda Rousey, in August of 2008, was 21 years old. Her home was Riverside County, California. When she was 14, she had named her new kitten Beijing because she was so certain she'd be there for the 2008 Games, as a judoka — like her mother, Dr. AnnMaria De Mars, who had been a world champion before the Olympics even had a medal for women in judo. I had her mother's cell phone number, in case I needed to call to talk about Ronda's career, her accomplishments, the cat.
I had never seen Rousey compete before; I knew these things because NBC had given me a disc with a digital copy of the research manuals that a few NBC employees had been working on since 2004. But she'd arrived in Beijing, rather triumphantly, and she was close to becoming the first American woman to ever win an Olympic medal in judo. I was in New York, sitting in front of a computer screen and sipping burnt coffee in the Saturday Night Live writers' room at 30 Rock at about four a.m., watching Rousey hop around on a blue mat in the preliminaries.
NBC has the rights to the Olympics again, for a very long time, and they know what they'll do with those rights. I was on the Manhattan-based NBC Olympics research crew in August 2008, working to compile the day-to-day results and send them to the broadcast writers in 50-word bites. They'd paired me with a fellow college kid, just as wide-eyed, and assigned us the five most obscure sports in the Games: shooting, judo, taekwondo, sailing, and modern pentathlon. There was also a bit of field hockey involved.
The night shift was from 10 p.m. till 10 a.m. every day — daytime in Beijing — and I'd sit parked in front of my desktop, watching competitions taking place halfway around the globe and making calls to places like Ulaanbaataar to check the spelling for Naidangiin Tüvshinbayar. In between, I'd take the bus uptown and crash on a family friend's couch. Daylight had never felt so foreign to me, but then again, work had never felt so little like work: Just a week before, I'd been interviewing Little Leaguers in northern Vermont, and now I passed Brandi Chastain in the hallway.
It was up to us researchers to learn our sports and their respective stories right away — essentially, we were blogging the Olympics. The manuals listed every competing athlete for every sport, along with information like hometown, DOB, and, if he or she had been deemed compelling enough, biographical information. Rousey, with the champion-mother storyline, was decidedly a candidate for being interesting:
Personal: …Is very forgetful…Not only has she lost her passport twice, Rousey also has shown up at competitions without her judogi…At the 2008 Olympic Trials, she had to wear Pedro's pants because she had worn the wrong color ghi…Has a cat named Beijing, not coincidentally the site of the 2008 Olympics…Computer desktop background is a picture of Marilyn Monroe weightlifting in a bikini top…Likes 'extra extra extra hot buffalo wings.'
I didn't really need the hot-wings detail, but it made me feel as if I knew Ronda Rousey, and that I could help America feel as if it knew her, too. NBC has owned the captivating-human-element format for 25 years, and last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that, for a bid of $4.48 billion, the network secured the rights to broadcast the next four Olympics — right up to 2020: London; Sochi, Russia; Rio de Janeiro; and the Winter and Summer Games after those, wherever they might be. NBC's proposal, its first without Dick Ebersol in an eternity, outmatched ESPN's and Fox's by hundreds of millions of dollars.
From the judo desk, the challenge of Olympic broadcasting was obvious: no one really gives a shit about judo results, certainly no one gives a shit about sailing results, and the list goes on. They're not just niche sports; to a casual viewer, they're objectively boring sports. Judo looks like some Buddhist-inspired tango, and that's at its most interesting moments.
And so the challenge was and is to find drama — heartbreak or feel-good will do — that might be worthy of a prime-time summary, a biographical, tear-jerking video segment, or even a mention by Bob Costas. This was a part of the job description that required zero explanation or emphasis. Anyone who has watched even a few hours of NBC's Olympic broadcasts since 1988 has an implicit sense of the story that will reach Costas's armchair by that ever-burning fire. It would have been somewhat fascinating to see how Fox or ESPN might have manufactured those moments had their bids been successful. Even without the guy who was almost the brand himself behind it, the NBC Olympics aesthetic seems inimitable — and it has a lot to do with their crafting of the stories that make your mom cry.