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For a generation, Bob Costas has been the face and the voice of the Olympic Games in the USA, a principled, steady and versatile presence on NBC's coverage from Barcelona to Rio, stretching from the early 1990s well into the 21st century.
Just as he seamlessly accepted the metaphoric broadcasting torch from the legendary Jim McKay all those years ago, Costas passed it on to Mike Tirico Thursday on The Today Show, announcing that he would no longer host the Olympics and would host just one more Super Bowl, next year's game in Minneapolis, before taking on an "emeritus" role with NBC Sports.
"I've been lucky to have such a long and enjoyable run," Costas told USA TODAY Sports in a telephone interview. "So I just thought, better to leave before they ask me to leave."
Costas' idea to step away was long in the planning. He said he mentioned the idea to NBC executives a year and a half ago. "I knew Rio would be my last Olympics, and this last football season would be my last full season, although once Mike came on board, I did less than a full schedule. I didn't want this news to get in the way of our coverage of the Rio Olympics or the NFL season, even in just the slightest way. So we left it until now. It just feels like the right time."
He added, "I'm glad that Sochi wasn't the last one. You wouldn't want your pinkeye Olympics to be your last Olympics."
Let the record clearly show that Costas, who turns 65 next month, is not retiring.
"This doesn't mean retirement or even anything close to it," he said. "It opens up more time to do the things that I feel I'm most connected to. There will still be events, features and interviews where I can make a significant contribution at NBC, but it will also leave more time for baseball (on MLB Network), and then, at some point down the road, I'll have a chance to do more of the long-form programming I enjoy."
Costas has always found himself at home at the intersection of sports and society. Most noteworthy was his hosting of NBC's Later with Bob Costas from 1988 to 1994, where one week's worth of interviews began this way: Martin Scorsese on Monday, Mary Tyler Moore on Tuesday and Hank Aaron on Wednesday.
He has occasionally used his sports hosting platform to discuss issues ranging from gun violence, steroids and concussions to the controversial name of Washington's NFL team.
"I've always felt one can appreciate the history, drama and romance of sports," Costas said, "while at the same time being aware of and addressing the issues involved in sports. To me, there's no contradiction in that."
For most of us, Costas is synonymous with the Olympic. His run began by hosting NBC's late-night show in Seoul in 1988, then taking over as prime-time host in Barcelona in 1992 for the next 11Olympic Games aired by NBC.
His favorite moment? "When I have to pick one, I always say Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta in 1996 because it was such a unique moment. It seemed to pull together so much of his life and a good portion of the history of sports and social issues in the second half of the 20th century."
Costas specifically mentioned the reaction in the stadium, which was so remarkable it has stuck with me to this day as well.
"You hear a lot of sounds in a stadium or an arena," he said "but something you seldom hear is an audible gasp. When Ali stepped out of the shadows, and Janet Evans handed him the torch, you saw him trembling that way, and yet somehow his presence was still dynamic, and even in silence he was as profound as he often had been at his most vocal. It took a couple of seconds to sink in, and then came this thunderous roar of not only appreciation but respect. I get goose bumps thinking about it even now."
Costas likely will appear on future Olympic broadcasts in the way Tom Brokaw contributes on occasion to NBC news shows.
"I still have a number of good years left," he said. "But I have to think about how I use those years. I'd like to be able to say of everything I do from now on, 'Yep, that's just what I should have done, something distinctive to me, something where I could do my best possible work.'"
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