Most Americans would be hard-pressed to locate Sochi, Russia, on a map. But the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics will be easy to find on their screens this month.
NBC is covering every minute of competition, either televised on NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC and USA Network or streamed live via nbcolympics.com and the NBC Sports Live Extra app. The total hours of coverage — 1,539 — will be more than those from the 2010 Vancouver and 2006 Turin Olympics combined.
NBC learned from its experience at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London that streaming even the most popular events live didn't keep viewers away from the packaged primetime show. "It actually helped drive interest and awareness," says Jim Bell, NBC Olympics' executive producer. "More coverage, more outlets, more screens, more live meant that more people were talking about the Olympics, were tweeting about the Olympics, were wanting to get more content."
With Sochi nine hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, NBCSN will air events live daily from 3 a.m./ET to 3 p.m./ET. That will include every figure skating program. Gold Zone, a video channel streaming live most days from 7 a.m./ET to 3 p.m./ET on nbcolympics.com and the NBC Sports Live Extra app, will threaten the productivity of America's workforce with 100 hours of "whip-around" coverage.
Before it became an Olympic host, Sochi was a popular Russian resort. A summer resort. The city of about 350,000 on the Black Sea is known as the Russian Riviera. "It is odd to see palm trees when we go somewhere to compete," says U.S. luge athlete Erin Hamlin.
In case Mother Nature doesn't cooperate in the mountains, Mother Russia has stockpiled tons of snow. The Games are the pet project of President Vladimir Putin, who personally lobbied to bring the Olympics to his favorite vacation spot.
Yet recent terrorist acts and the ongoing international outrage over Russia's antigay legislation have diverted some attention away from the expected 6,000 athletes from 85 countries. "We plan to cover the range of issues that have led up to these Games," Bell says. "Once the Games begin, if they're not a story, you won't see us dealing with it as much."
Two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, an openly gay figure skater who will provide analysis of his sport on NBCSN, doesn't think athletes will be affected by the laws. "I think the drama on that front will mainly come from activist groups that travel to Russia for the sheer purpose of protesting or causing a stir," he says.
Weir has trained in Russia, loves its culture and history and visits often. "People are focusing so much on politics and fear and hating Russia for these things and not sure if they'll be able to pull off a solid Olympics," he says. "I want people to appreciate that Russia has a lot of great qualities and not just think of them as this terrorist, Soviet, red, enemy state."
Russia's penchant for pageantry will be on display in the Opening Ceremony, which will be the only part of the Games not shown live on an NBCUniversal platform (it will air on same-day tape delay, Friday, Feb. 7 at 7:30/6:30c, NBC). "It is a theatrical presentation that really requires some commentary," Bell says. "It's not like there's a result or a medal on the line."
Medals will be up for grabs in 12 new events, including women's ski jumping, a team competition in figure skating and luge, a biathlon mixed relay, and dynamic X Games sports in which the U.S. is traditionally strong: slopestyle versions of snowboarding and skiing; halfpipe skiing; and snowboard parallel slalom. Snowboard slopestyle features Shaun White, who will also be going for his third straight gold in halfpipe. "That's what I love about the sport," says White, who has shorn his signature red locks. "Every time you turn around, there's something brand-new that presents itself." (Slopestyle snowboarding, along with team figure skating and women's moguls, gets underway on Thursday, Feb. 6, one day before the Opening Ceremony, and will be shown in primetime at 8/7c on NBC.)
The team figure skating event combines all disciplines (men's and ladies singles, pairs and ice dancing). "It will intrigue the public, because figure skaters are known to be very frosty to one another," says Weir. "We aren't always thought of as the best team players. We had Tonya Harding's involvement in Nancy Kerrigan getting her knee bashed. If that doesn't say something about the mentality of many skaters, I don't know what does."
Team USA won 37 medals four years ago, more than any other country. "On a great day, we can hit our number from Vancouver and maybe exceed it," says Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "But all the pieces have to come together. It's complicated because of the nature of some of these outdoor sports. A cloud goes over — it could change the track in downhill."
Hopefully, that will be the only cloud over the 2014 Sochi Olympics.