BLATNICK WRESTLES NEW CAREER

Pete Dougherty
Section: SPORTS,  Page: C3

Date: Sunday, September 18, 1988

Four years and nearly half a world removed from his greatest athletic triumph, Niskayuna's Jeff Blatnick returns this week to the Olympic arena.


With him is the man who shared Blatnick's emotional triumph in the super-heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestling final at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Russ Hellickson, working for ABC then, conducted the interview that for Blatnick resulted in tears and subsequent national recognition, heightened when Americans learned that Blatnick's biggest victory came not against Sweden's Thomas Johansson for the gold medal, but against cancer. Blatnick, after retiring from athletics in April, now embarks on a new challenge, as he joins Hellickson the next two weeks to broadcast NBC's wrestling coverage of the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.


Blatnick has done limited work for NBC, ESPN and MSG, but much as the 1984 Olympics made him a national figure, his performance in Seoul could be a springboard for his new career.


"Television was something I never dreamed of having a chance to participate with, Blatnick said earlier this week from Seoul. "As the cliche goes, when the iron's hot, go ahead and do it. Right now I wish to pursue television and see where it takes me. If I have to walk away from it after trying it, great, but to pass up this opportunity would be silly.


"I hope all goes well here, and if I do well that will keep the door open for telecasts in amateur wrestling. And certainly I wouldn't mind expanding on that, whether it be doing some features here or there or starting out in local television and moving up from there."


Hellickson, whom Blatnick first met at the 1976 Olympic Trials, is designated to do play-by-play, while Blatnick will do analysis. Those roles, according to Blatnick, may be followed somewhat loosely when a match is in progress.


"What we try to do is find things that are interesting to the viewer," Blatnick said. "Any question I ask Russ he knows the answer and I know the answer, and any question he asks, he knows the answer as well. What we try to do is get a running commentary going in which we both bring out points that we feel are relevant to the situation at hand. He will handle scene set and I basically will handle analysis, but we're both helping each other constantly."


Blatnick said he has been helping out in some of the play-by-play functions, such as writing introductions and creating production ideas, duties that may help him after Seoul.


"I've basically been doing color - analysis of what I do best, wrestling, and I find that fairly simple," Blatnick said. "What I'm learning now about television is the ins and outs of producing and directing, and on top of that, play-by-play. Yes, you have good analysts, but the dominant people in broadcasting are your play-by-play guys. That's the toughest part of television. You have to be able to communicate and listen to a producer yelling in your ear at the same time."


By his own admission, Blatnick is inexperienced at the TV trade, but NBC apparently thought highly of his previous work. The network approached Blatnick nearly two years ago about working in Seoul, and the announcement that he would be an Olympics commentator came before Blatnick's retirement became official.


"I told them at that time I was an athlete, not a commentator," he said. "The reason I decided to retire was I could not be an Olympian again.


"I would much rather have wrestled. If you look at it from a point of business, me becoming an Olympian would have been a much better road to go. I waited until I was fully convinced. Finally it dawned on me that my prime was behind me. What I was shooting for, the only way I would ever get it was a collapse by a couple of people. To back into an Olympic spot isn't really the way I envisioned myself being an Olympian."


Ironically, the performance of Dennis Koslowski, who qualified for the U.S. Greco-Roman team in Blatnick's weight class, may affect how much exposure Blatnick receives in Seoul. Koslowski is considered the best U.S. bet for medal.


"If the Greco and the freestyle teams do well, we're going to get a lot of air time," Blatnick said. "As it stands right now, from talking to (NBC coordinating producer) Terry Ewert, we're going to get air time. Wrestling seems to have moved itself up to a B- plus sport in NBC's eyes. That's very encouraging."


The wrestling competition runs all but four days of the Olympics. The Greco-Roman began Saturday and winds up Thursday. The freestyle opens Sept.26 and ends Oct.1, the day before the closing ceremonies.


If Blatnick can deal with Seoul, future assignments should be no problem. "The way I look at it," he said, "I've lived in a lot rougher conditions. This isn't anything new to me."


Add Olympics: NBC research reveals that between Sept.3 and Oct.23 (50 days), the three major networks will provide 453 1/2 hours of sports programming. Forty percent of that is Olympics coverage. ... NBC vice president Peter Diamond predicts that table tennis could surprise U.S. television audiences. ... ESPN will expand "SportsCenter" weeknights during the Olympics.


Behind the scenes: After the first weekend of NFL games substitute announcers replaced NBC regulars who are in Seoul, the biggest problem appears not to be in the booth but in the production truck.


Not only are the Dick Enbergs, Marv Alberts and Charlie Joneses in Seoul, but so are most of the network's top producers and directors. That was evident in Sunday's Bills-Dolphins telecasts, in which replays were slow in arriving and one attempted cut-in to Gayle Sierens in the New York studio was totally botched.


Perhaps the behind-the-scenes people will be even more appreciated than the network's top talent when this four- week experiment is over.


Behind the mikes: Those with strong radio reception could hear Tom Browning's perfect game Friday night on WLW (700 AM, Cincinnati). Unfortunately, Reds announcer Marty Brennaman got in the way by his non- stop chatter instead of allowing the crowd's reaction to carry the moment. ... NBC has added Jim Kaat (baseball), Jay Randolph (baseball), Greg Foster (track), Larry Rawson (marathon) and Spencer Ross (table tennis, field hockey, fencing) to its Olympics broadcast team. ... Charley Steiner, who called play-by-play for the New York Jets the past two seasons, has joined the staff of ESPN's "SportsCenter."