2018-02-19 01:40:04
Sports of The Times: Scott Hamilton Was Demoted as an Olympic Broadcaster. Don’t Feel Sorry for Him.

01:40, February 19 327 0

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — For about a quarter of a century, you couldn’t watch Olympic figure skating without seeing Scott Hamilton.

There he was in the broadcast booth, his happy face and giddy voice connected to so many memorable moments. When a skater hit a big jump or won a gold medal, your TV would just about shake because of his excitement.

But not this time. Not with the rise of Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, a pair of sequined Olympians-turned-pop-culture-idols. They are NBC’s primary figure skating analysts at the Pyeongchang Games. Hamilton has been relegated to a show called “Olympic Ice” on the secondary NBC Sports Network, where he teams up with Tanith Belbin, an Olympic silver medalist in ice dancing, and the sportscaster Liam McHugh.

Hamilton, 59, knew this change was coming. Even in Russia four years ago, he knew.

“Johnny and Tara were just this phenomenon, and no one was going to stop them,” Hamilton said of Lipinski and Weir’s breakout performance on the NBC Sports Network during the 2014 Sochi Games. “The worst thing I can do is have an ego in all this because it’s not about me. They were such a breath of fresh air.”

Yet it seemed reasonable to make this about Hamilton, at least a little. I was curious to see how a skater who didn’t lose for four straight years in the 1980s and who won the 1984 Olympic gold medal would handle forfeiting such a valuable public role.

It couldn’t be possible for him to have taken this demotion lightly, considering he wrote a book called, “Finish First: Winning Changes Everything,” which was published this month.

Hamilton laughed off my assumptions.

In the past 21 years, he has faced Stage 4 testicular cancer, followed by three brain tumors — one every six years since 2004. He’s living with a brain tumor right now.

So in the fall of 2014, when Hamilton reached out to Jim Bell, NBC’s president of Olympics production and programming, to find out if he would be working on Skate America that October, Bell called him back to break the news. NBC valued him and adored him, Hamilton recalled Bell saying, and the network appreciated all his years at the top. But it was time for a change.

“There was a sadness for about 10 minutes,” Hamilton said last week at the Olympic figure skating arena. “I lamented it being over. I thought, ‘Oh, man, that was such a beautiful part of my life and now it’s over.’ But change happens to everyone — even me.”

Hamilton gets it. Something like this happens to even the best of us — eventually — right? Corporate America decided that his shelf life had expired. There was nothing he could do about it.

Besides, after he had spent so many years just trying to stay healthy — and alive — how could being replaced by the next big thing really matter? In his heart, Hamilton knew it did not. He would bounce back, almost out of habit.

“I calculated once how many times I fell during my skating career — 41,600 times,” he said. “But here’s the funny thing: I got up 41,600 times. That’s the muscle you have to build in your psyche — the one that reminds you to just get up.”

Looking ahead, Hamilton knew there was so much more to worry about and, in the end, so much he decided not to worry about.

After overcoming testicular cancer in 1997, he learned that he had a pituitary tumor in 2004, one that had wrapped itself around his optic nerve. The tumor was benign, but it threatened to grow in ways that dangerously crowded his brain.

Hamilton said he had prayed about 12 times a day for it to go away. Doctors treated him with radiation, and the tumor did go away.

In 2010, it reappeared. Surgery caused an aneurysm that temporarily blinded him in one eye.

Hamilton said he would never forget what his wife, Tracie, said to him during a pep talk: “Joy is not the lack of suffering or fear, it’s how you choose to handle the suffering and fear.” It finally hit him that it was true.

So when the tumor returned for an encore in 2016, Hamilton decided to react differently. There was no “why me?” anymore.

“I figured I needed to go through this with joy,” he said. “It was just a muscle I needed to build, like the muscles I built skating.”

When one of his four children asked about the tumor, Hamilton said: “Yep, it’s back. It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s really fine.”

Fine — but also time to fight back in a new way. There was no chance to undergo radiation treatment again. It would only have fried his brain, he said. The tumor was still relatively small, so Hamilton didn’t need to rush into surgery. He tried to tackle the problem differently: He stopped eating sugar, red meat and other things he considered bad for his body. He started eating organic food and drinking only coffee or water with high pH. He hit the treadmill and the weight room.

When Hamilton went back to the doctor several months later, he learned that his tumor hadn’t grown. During his next checkup, he heard even better news.

The tumor had shrunk, by about half. Hamilton choked up when describing what happened next.

“Have you ever had one shrink without treatment before?” he said he asked the doctor. “And the doctor said, ‘Nope, never.’”

Hamilton asked, “So how can you explain this?”

The doctor said, “God.”

It floored him. He was in the process of losing three friends to colon cancer, yet he, somehow, someway, was given this miracle? At his latest doctor’s visit, in December, the tumor was even smaller.

“At some point, this tumor is going to start growing again, and it’s going to start causing its mischief, and I’m going to have to deal with it,” he said. “But for now there must be a reason I’ve gotten this pass. There’s something that I need to be doing. I just have to figure out what that is.”

During the figure skating events last week, Hamilton stood on a riser just above Lipinski, Weir and Terry Gannon, the third member of the main broadcasting team. Hamilton couldn’t miss them when the lights came on and they were on center stage, just as he used to be. He looked on, often peeking at them over his reading glasses. But he said the change hadn’t been awkward, and Lipinski echoed that.

“When I first started as a commentator, I listened to all of Scott’s tapes and learned so much because he was so incredible,” said Lipinski, who won the Olympic gold medal in 1998. “He called my Olympics and was like a big brother to me when we toured together. He’s been a mentor and, of course, he was at my wedding last summer. I think this whole thing is just a natural progression for us.”

She said he was still involved in the broadcast “in a big way” because he brings something unique — and that’s Scott Hamilton being Scott Hamilton.

“He has such enthusiasm for the sport,” she said.

He’s a legend in skating arenas. So much so that Maxim Trankov, half of the Russian pairs team that won gold in 2014, stopped Hamilton on Wednesday in the Olympic venue and asked him to pose for a selfie.

“Oh, wow, thank you so much,” Trankov said. “I watched you skate all the time when I was a kid. You’re amazing.”

Hamilton returned the compliment and told Trankov they should grab coffee sometime. He was gracious, as always.

“There was a little apprehension coming to these Olympics because nobody likes change,” he told me. “But I’ve decided to make this fun because I’m doing things joyfully. And, turns out, it is fun.”