When Usain Bolt completed the Olympics “triple-triple” in Rio de Janeiro, the sprint superstar cemented his sports immortality.
Bolt also assured that a fraction of his glory will forever reflect onto Lexington’s Tom Hammond. As the play-by-play voice of Olympics track and field for NBC, Hammond called all nine of Bolt’s winning races — sweeps of the 100 meters, 200 and 4-by-100 relay gold medals — at three straight Summer Games.
“Fifty years from now, when people dial up those Bolt calls, I’m gonna be OK with that,” Hammond said. “I feel good about the quality of those calls.”
Whether the Rio Games were the final Olympics Hammond, 72, will broadcast is to be determined. An NBC Sports announcer since 1984, Hammond’s current contract expires this year.
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Marveling at how the 6-foot-5 Bolt can uncoil and move so explosively, Hammond says the Jamaican “is certainly the greatest runner I’ve ever covered.”
Is Bolt the best athlete Hammond has seen in his decades with NBC? “Well, you could certainly make that case,” Hammond says. “But, Michael Jordan, where would you put him? I think it’s awfully hard to measure athletes across disciplines, across their sports.”
Hammond also described another of the Rio Games most-talked about moments — the dive to the finish line by Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas that snatched the gold medal in the women’s 400 meters away from American star Allyson Felix.
Some considered Miller’s lay-out finish unsporting.
“I see that all the time in track and field,” he said. “I don’t think there was anything unethical about it at all. From the American standpoint, I hated it for Allyson Felix because you are talking about a very good person who epitomizes what you want an Olympic athlete to be. But I didn’t have any problem with what Shaunae Miller did. You do whatever it takes to win, right?”
Team USA gave Hammond much good news to report — the U.S. track and field team won 32 medals, 13 gold.
Yet there was a moment of United States heartbreak that was poignant for Hammond.
In Rio, it fleetingly looked as though Lexington sprinter Tyson Gay, 34, had finally claimed his first Olympic medal when the U.S. finished third in the men’s 4-by-100 relay.
Like Hammond, Gay is an alumnus of Lafayette High School.
Gay’s Olympic experiences prior to Rio had featured only disappointment. At the 2008 Games, Doc Patton and Gay botched a baton hand off in the 4-by-100 relay prelims. In 2012, Gay was on the U.S. 4-by-100 relay that took the silver medal — only to see those medals stripped in 2013 when Gay was found, unwittingly he said, to have used a performance-enhancing substance.
Then in Brazil, Gay and the Americans lost their bronze medals because officials said leadoff runner Mike Rodgers handed the baton to Justin Gatlin too soon.
“At least this time it wasn’t his fault,” Hammond said of Gay. “But it was very difficult to see that happen after all he’s been through. My heart went out to him.”
Reviews from media critics for NBC’s track and field coverage were mostly strong. Analyst Ato Boldon was considered one of the breakout stars of the 2016 Olympics. Newcomer Sanya Richards-Ross was promising as a commentator.
Serving as the “point guard” setting up the analysts, Hammond was in good form.
“What I found is, I was still enthused to be there,” Hammond said. “If it had been drudgery for me, if it was something I was having to make myself do, that would have told me something. But I was still exhilarated by the moments, still excited to get to call historic events.”
Whether Hammond will describe more history for NBC beyond this year is unclear.
“I’m sure we’ll have a discussion at some point about what’s next,” Hammond says. “Maybe we do a short deal, a two-year deal and see how we feel about going forward from there. Can I stretch it another four years to another Summer Olympics? I don’t know.”
Whatever happens, Hammond says he has enjoyed a career beyond what he would have thought possible when he was serving as sports director at WLEX-TV in the 1970s.
“Leaving Rio, I ran into Bob Costas and he was very complimentary about my Bolt calls and even some calls from earlier in my career, some NBA and NFL calls,” Hammond says. “… If this was the last Olympics, I would be at peace with what I’ve done. But I’m certainly open to going forward if NBC and I are on the same page.”