When Ed Eyestone, the BYU track coach, magazine columnist, color analyst and running aficionado, received a phone call from NBC executive Sam Flood last fall, the first question he was asked was, "What are your plans for the summer?"
Eyestone knew immediately this was good news, and it was. Flood asked Eyestone if he could make room in his schedule for the Beijing Olympics to serve as the color analyst for NBC's Olympic track and field coverage.
In the field of sports broadcasting, it doesn't get any better than this. Of all the ex-Olympic distance runners out there from the past couple of decades and they are countless Eyestone got the call.
"It was a thrill," says Eyestone. "What an honor."
Eyestone will handle the color work for the men's and women's races in the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon, plus the men's steeplechase, including prelims, semifinals and finals. Not that there's any pressure, but he will be speaking to millions of people (NBC's 17-day coverage of 2004 Athens Games drew 200 million viewers) while having producers talking in his earpiece.
"Yeah, thanks for bringing that up," Eyestone quips.
Maybe nobody knows running inside and out more than Eyestone. After winning state track and cross country championships at Bonneville High and national championships at BYU, he became the country's top road racer and made the Olympic marathon team in 1988 and 1992. He appeared ready to claim a berth on the '96 Olympic team in the 10,000-meter run at the Olympic trials in Atlanta, but, running in second place with less than two laps to go, he crumbled in the heat and humidity and never even finished the race.
"I'd still be out there if they hadn't come and gotten me," says Eyestone with his usual wry humor. "NBC went to a commercial while I was in second place and it looked like I was such a sure thing that my neighbor called my wife and said, 'He made it!' By the time they got back from the commercial, I was out of it."
Eyestone says his professional career ended in 1996, "but I didn't know it until 1998," he says. He actually ran his final professional race in 1999 at the age of 38.
"I had been running professionally for 15 years, I was in my late 30s, and I still hadn't had a real job," says Eyestone. "I loved the sport and knew I wanted to stay in it."
For a day job, he became the distance coach at BYU. He would have been satisfied with doing nothing more than that. "Coaching is what I enjoy most," he says, "Seeing the success of my athletes has been more rewarding than any success I have had, because as an athlete it's more selfish."
Eyestone's humor, intelligence, knowledge and gift for conversation and commentary made him a natural for other things. In 1999, he began writing a monthly column for Runner's World Magazine. With his background as a runner and coach, and armed with a degree in exercise physiology, he was certainly qualified for the job.
Meanwhile, his TV work was taking off. As early as 1992, while recovering from an injury, he informed his agent, Bob Wood, that he would be interested in doing TV commentary if there was opportunity. He wound up doing just that for the Peachtree road race in Atlanta. He was so nervous for his first on-camera interview that he memorized what he would say. Afterward, the producer said, "That was good, but, um, can you do it so it sounds a little less like you have the whole thing memorized."
Notwithstanding, his debut led to other TV assignments, and over the years he has done TV color work for domestic and international road races and track meets for Elite Racing. Last fall, he pulled off a broadcasting double, covering the Olympic marathon trials one day and New York City Marathon while riding next to the leaders on the lead motorcycle car.
NBC officials decided Eyestone was the man to replace veteran Marty Liquori at the Olympics after watching the deft way he handled postgame interviews at the New York race. He managed to conduct smooth interviews with the top three finishers with little time and with producers yelling into his earpiece "We don't have much time. Got to be quick. Finish it up and throw it back."
Says Eyestone, "I got through it, and I wasn't too rattled."
A couple of days after doing color work for the Prefontaine Classic last Sunday in Oregon, Eyestone watched and listened to videotape of his performance there.
"There are always going to people who don't like your style," he says. "I do my homework and then the meet starts and you do the best you can. You might use a cliche or get a name wrong or mispronounce it. There are always things you can do better."
For Eyestone, a man who has been taking split times and making commentary on races and tactics as he sat in the stands with fellow coaches, much of the job comes natural. But he does his homework, so he's ready with commentary as the race unfolds.
"That's so I can say, 'They went out in 62, so this is setting the table for Bernard Lagat, who is licking his chops, but watch out for the guy from Bahrain, Rashid Ramzi, in fifth place,'" says Eyestone, giving a sample of his commentary from Sunday's Prefontaine Classic. "'Bahrain is a small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf (I didn't know this, but thank goodness for Wikipedia). Ramzi is originally from Morocco, where his father is a brick mason, but he left because he couldn't support himself. He's the world champion for 800 meters, and the longer he hangs on the more dangerous he is.' As it turned out, Lagat did exactly what I thought and kicked for the win and Ramzi was second. So that worked out well."Thus prepared, Eyestone will return for his third Olympics this summer, only this time he'll be talking instead of running.