Mark Story

Tom Hammond still has 'Beijing glow'

If you happen to notice a certain luminous quality about Tom Hammond, he is not radioactive.

"I've still got my Beijing glow," the NBC Sports announcer said Wednesday.

The Lexington native, 64, has now covered eight Olympics, six summer and two winter, during his 24-year network television career.

Last month's Beijing Olympics were "the best," Hammond said.

As NBC's play-by-play voice at the high-profile venue of track and field, Hammond had an up-close view as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt exploded into international stardom.

Defying conventional wisdom that tall runners are not suited for short sprints, the 6-foot-5 Bolt became the first man ever to set world records in the Olympics' 100- and 200-meter dashes as well as part of a 4-by-100-meter relay team while winning all three events.

"In my view, Usain Bolt's was one of the most outstanding performances in Olympic track and field since Jesse Owens in 1936," Hammond said of the American track legend and his four gold medals in the Berlin Games. "What Bolt did was one of the most extraordinary things I've ever covered."

Yet Hammond's feelings toward the Beijing Olympics are only partly related to the feats he described.

"The warmth and hospitality, the friendliness provided by the average Chinese citizen was amazing," Hammond said. "They were so proud of what their country was doing by hosting the Olympics. It's hard to describe how much it meant to them."

In a restaurant in Beijing, Hammond said a server had written out on a pad of paper common phrases in Chinese with their appropriate English translations.

"We got up to leave," Hammond said, "and she flips through her pad and then points to the phrase she wanted us to see."

Hope to see you again.

With his wife, Sheilagh, on a cruise of the Yangtze River, Hammond said he let a Chinese man see the Sports Illustrated pre-Olympics issue that the broadcaster had brought from home.

It included profiles of Chinese basketball star Yao Ming and hurdler Liu Xiang.

"He got very emotional," Hammond said, "he was just so proud that his country's athletes were being acknowledged in our country."

When Hammond and his NBC crew mates checked out of their Beijing hotel, the whole Chinese staff lined up outside to say goodbye.

"I know a lot of people have issues with the Chinese government over their human rights record and other things and I certainly understand why that is," Hammond said. "But the average people we met in China, they were just amazingly kind and gracious."

As NBC's play-by-play man at the Bird's Nest, Hammond was calling the action from a scene of notable American disappointments.

Especially poignant for the announcer — a Lafayette High School graduate — were the Olympic struggles of his fellow Generals alum, sprinter Tyson Gay.

"All my fellow announcers claimed I was trying to make it the most famous high school in the world," Hammond said of Lafayette. "They said, 'You mention it every time Gay runs.'"

When 2008 began, Gay, as the 2007 world champion in both the 100 and 200 meters, was expected to enjoy the kind of Olympics sprint domination Bolt exhibited.

But a hamstring injury in the U.S. Olympic trials kept Gay off the U.S. team in the 200 and interrupted his training for the 100.

After failing to qualify for the 100-meter finals and being part of a botched exchange that led to a dropped baton for the United States in the 4-by-100 relay, Gay went without a medal in Beijing.

"I felt bad for him," Hammond said. "Yet I was proud of how he didn't make any excuses at all, especially when he had valid excuses. Anyone could see he wasn't on his top form. I still don't know whose fault it was when they dropped that baton, but Tyson took the blame. He showed character."

The American hurdler, Lolo Jones, appeared to have a gold medal in hand in the women's 100-meter high hurdles. But in the race lead, Jones hit the final hurdle, was thrown off balance and failed to medal.

"That one broke my heart," Hammond said, "because she is such an engaging person."

What the public did not see, Hammond said, was how Jones handled such a crushing defeat.

"She congratulated everyone who beat her in the race," Hammond said. "Then, she did every interview with media from every country that was there, stopped for everyone."

With Beijing in his rear-view mirror, Hammond is again serving as NBC's play-by-play voice for Notre Dame football.

Yet in public, it is still the Olympic Games that people want to discuss with the broadcaster.

Which is fine with him.

Said Hammond: "When you consider the immensity of these games, the venues were spectacular, the opening ceremonies, what it meant to the people of China, I don't think I'll ever cover anything like this again."

Which explains the lingering glow.