Bob Costas Isn't Sugarcoating the Olympics' Rio Problems

"It’s going to be impossible, in some cases, not to address some of the issues that have come up because they will directly intersect with the competition," says NBC's primetime host.
NBC's Bob Costas

Just days before Friday's opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, concerns about Zika may be abating — it’s winter in Rio and mosquitoes are at a minimum — but security and severely polluted water still dominate headlines.

And NBC Olympics host Bob Costas told journalists gathered Tuesday morning for NBC’s portion of the Television Critics Association's summer press tour at the Beverly Hilton that he intends to address the water problems head on. “One thing is certain — every bit of competition that takes place on open water, you’ve got to talk about the condition of the water,” said Costas, appearing via satellite from Rio, with NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell and correspondent Mary Carillo.

“These athletes are dealing with it. And, in some cases, the best they’ve been told is try to keep your mouth closed,” he continued. “That’s rather difficult when you’re swimming, even in your backyard pool, let alone in open water. It’s going to be impossible, in some cases, not to address some of the issues that have come up because they will directly intersect with the competition.”

Bell chimed in that multiple open-water test events have been held and so far none of the athletes have been knocked out by illness. But the waterways of Rio are nevertheless teeming with dangerous viruses and bacteria, putting 1,400 athletes at risk of getting violently ill. According to the Associated Press, the most contaminated areas are the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, where Olympic rowing will take place, and the Gloria Marina, the starting point for the sailing races. Even the water at Rio’s famed Copacabana Beach, the location of the beach volleyball competition, is extremely polluted.

When Carillo offered that she’ll be covering some of the open water events next week with Rowdy Gaines, Costas quipped: “Do you plan to take a dip yourself?” To which Carillo replied with an emphatic: “Absolutely not!"

The Olympics are generally plagued by negative headlines in the run up to the Games. And Costas said that he’ll have an “extensive” sit-down interview with IOC president Thomas Bach for the network’s primetime special on Thursday, during which he intends to buttonhole Bach on many of the critiques that have dogged the Games, and not just the Rio Olympics, including partnerships with authoritarian regimes (China, Russia), economic issues, pollution and, yes, Zika. “I will put every one of those questions to Thomas Bach,” said Costas. “We’ll see what happens.”

Traditionally, once the competition begins, viewers and the media shift their collective focus to the athletes. Clearly, NBC Sports executives are hoping that will be the case. And Bell noted that the network’s market research reveals very high interest in the Rio Games, even higher than for London in 2012. The advantageous time zone — Rio is one hour ahead of New York — will let NBC program the most live events ever for an Olympics, especially in primetime on NBC.

To that end, Bell confirmed that West Coast viewers who will not be seeing live content during NBC’s primetime coverage can still watch all events live on and the NBC Sports app. “What we’ve found is that people who stream watch more television,” he said. “So it doesn’t cannibalize our [linear] audience.”