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More action, less features

For all of NBC's hype about the 140 features produced for the Olympics, Tuesday night proved the best aspect of sports coverage is and always will be pure action.

The drama of Amanda Beard's sterling silver chase in the 200-meter breaststroke was 10 times better than the teddy bear feature NBC aired Sunday night. Beard, 14, surged after South African Penny Heyns and almost caught her. You could not watch without rising to your feet.

The thrills of the 100 butterfly were just as mesmerizing. The heart beat a little faster as Americans Angel Martino and Amy Van Dyken, along with Chinese world champion Liu Limin, raced for the gold. Eventually it was Van Dyken who touched first. Then, thanks to the NBC cameras, we all shared in her amazement about winning.

This is the Olympics. It is the competition that makes us watch for 17 days without interruption. It is the unpredictable outcomes and joyous, impromptu celebrations that give the Games their true greatness.

But with all its emphasis on emotional features, NBC almost makes athletes believe they areless than spectacular if they don't come to Atlanta with a story of triumph over tragedy. I thought one of the most telling moments of the coverage came Tuesday when Jeff Rouse, the eventual 100-meter backstroke gold medalist, sounded almost apologetic when he said he had not suffered from any childhood diseases and had not overcome any great obstacles.

It is okay, Jeff. Being a swimmer who trained for years to win the gold and then succeeding is more than enough to make Americans smile. It might not get you endorsements, but for one night, it will earn you a place in living rooms across the United States.

Don't get me wrong. Many of the NBC features have been entertaining, but it just seems as if the network is trying to take advantage of my sensitive side by seeking out the heartwarming, gut-wrenching stories. The teary interviews, the shadowy gazes of the athletes being profiled give some of the pieces an unnatural, almost synthetic emotional overtone.

Mel Stewart, the 1992 gold medalist, narrated his own "Centennial Moment" Monday, and although it was a little self-serving, it was by far the most humorous piece aired by NBC. It was nice to watch an irreverent profile that didn't have the orchestral New Age music.

While NBC insists these features are needed to attract the female audience it so desperately covets, they apparently also are a good way to stretch a prime-time broadcast into the wee hours. The network probably could have reduced its features, brought us more of the real action that makes the Olympics special and still been finished by 11:30 p.m.

Yet in stretching the broadcast past midnight most evenings, it gets a ratings bounce from the West Coast prime-time viewers who do not tune in until 10 p.m. Eastern Time. The formula is producing the best Olympics ratings since 1984, but you can't help but think about the thousands of young gymnastic fans could not stay awake to see Kerri Strug's incredible vault at 11:50 p.m. It was a defining moment of the Games better than 10 features.

As long as the ratings continue to skyrocket, this is the kind of Olympics we will see. A lot of the coverage has been captivating, but I cannot help but wonder if there are other great live-action moments we are missing because of the feature-heavy, narrow score the network is using.

BELA: Bela Karolyi has received so much attention you would think he is the coach of the American gymnastics team. The truth is Marta Karolyi, Bela's wife, and Mary Lee Tracey are the coaches. The female coaches, the first in Olympic history for this country, deserve better.