Many gods, but no saints in Costas commentary?

I didn’t have a chance to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics last night. People in South Florida were more interested in the Weather Channel, to be honest.

So I cannot comment on the following letter from a reader, which was — for lack of a better location — sent to the comments page on the coven and state commentary. It’s worth pulling out front, because we are interested in what readers see in the media — really, really interested. You guys have more eyes and mice than we do.

As a bias disclaimer, I must note that I am a major fan of Bob Costas. I have cruised the WWW a bit this morning and have found no other references to the possibility of religious ghosts in the Athens rites. I would post a link to the Dallas Morning News review of the broadcast, but I am on a Mac right now and the Dallas site is very Apple-phobic, or at least the browser Safari. I wonder what that is all about. (I got a different browser running and got that Dallas link.)

I digress. Here is the letter. By the way, the nickname is “tmatt.” Gotta watch those case-sensitive style issues.

TMatt — I’m putting this here for lack of anywhere else i can think of to put it, along with your meme of “ghosts”: i may be overreacting, but on the Olympic opening ceremonies broadcast, there was not a single odd bit of trivia Bob Costas did not share, nor an attention getting variation from the US norm that did not earn his explanation (it’s still going on in the living room, as i type this).

But when all the “Saint Blank” countries came first in the alphabet, no note of why that would be; in the parade of the millenia, his only significant silence was during the delightful live action ikons as they passed — he muttered, to Katie’s counterpoint, something about the Byzantine era, and may have mumbled the word “church” once (i’d have to see a transcript).

Small items, but glaring to me in how Bob seems to assume that the only trivia too trivial to tell is faith-oriented, and the only gods worth mentioning are carved in marble with colonnades around them. Or maybe i just can’t stand Costas’ commentary.

Peace. And enjoy the Olympics! (And i’ll keep watching for Terry’s ghosts!)

Posted by: Jeff | August 13, 2004 09:59 PM

I will keep looking around a see if I can catch some kind of replay in the next day or so. Please use this post as a chance to share what you are seeing, or not seeing. If there is a show transcript out there, please nab the URL for us.

UPDATE: Did anyone else hear the reference to Athena as the “patron saint” of Athens?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • patti

    I didn’t see what the letter-writer refers to, but did hear fairly annoying commentary to the effect that Athena is the patron saint of Athens. Saints… mythology… all the same, right?

    I’m a Costas fan if he sticks to baseball – truly his area of expertise. Found he and Couric to be talking much about nothing much throughout the parade of national contingents.

  • Jeff

    Terry –

    Bob Costas is a great sportscaster and a decent general interviewer; i was just starting to feel cranky about the “tell-us-more-about-the-obvious” narration when the icon floats went by in the parade. To be fair, what made this jump out for me was the degree to which he was (as he often does) telling us more than we’d ever think to ask, and then those strikingly effective icon-tableaux went by, accompanied by (cue cricket noise) nothing. And i forgot to mention the “patron saint” reference in re Athena.

    So it’s not so much about Bob, as the fact that this script was no doubt gone over by dozens of very bright, extremly well-informed professionals at NBC, and for all the texture and shading, religion/faith issues that literally shouted from the picture were . . . censored is likely not the word, so much as the group-think assumptions that had to lead to this “blackout” in the coverage.

    And to my liturgically-oriented friends (thanks to the post below on chaplains teaching me i’m “Protestant Non-liturgical,” a label i hadn’t quite thought of), a blessed Assumption/Dormition tomorrow! In the midwest, when the roadsides are full of purple ironweed blossoms and goldenrod in profusion, i know that Mary’s feast is near.

    Pax, Jeff

  • Stolzi

    Hmm, Costas is a Greek name!

  • tmatt

    And he just called the Feast of the Dormition of Mary the feast of the Assumption.

    The latter is, of course, the Roman Catholic name. He said that, while adding that 96-plus percent of the Greek population is Greek Orthodox, to one degree of another.

    I thought I had read somewhere that Costas, himself, is an active Catholic, keeping his family in the St. Louis area with strong ties to Catholic schools there. Anyone know?

  • Dave

    “Assumption” is used by Greek Orthodox in this country. My family used to be members of Assumption Greek Orthodox parish in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Dormition” is more “correct” from a Byzantine perspective, however.

  • saint

    The official Athens 2004 Olympics site lists Athena as “goddess of wisdom and patron of the city of Athens.”

    See for example “

    No doubt that would have been on all the publicity blurb given to journos…and the rest is…

  • David Frauenfelder

    I’m a teacher of Latin and Greek and writer in Durham, NC, and I’m cutting and pasting my September column for a local newspaper. I caught the “patron saint of Athens” comment. This is what I wrote about it:

    David Frauenfelder

    Suburban Scrawl


    585 words

    The competition was still young when I filed this column, but I’m willing to bet that the gold medal for worst television howler in the 2004 Summer Games went to Bob Costas for his doozy during the opening ceremonies.

    Did you catch it? As a runner approached the silvery olive tree in the center of the stadium, Costas informed millions of viewers that the olive tree was a gift from Athena, “the patron saint of Athens.”

    In one shining moment, the entire religious history of the western world, along with the great divide between BC and AD, disappeared in a puff of electrons.

    Costas meant to say, I think, that Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, but was too awed by the parade of centaurs and living statues to notice his mistake. No one corrected Costas on-air, nor did NBC offer an official apology. Everyone knew what he meant, more or less, and several websites on the Internet make the same mistake.

    A friend called later to say, “I wish TV announcers would just shut up during these big spectacles.”

    The difference between “saint” and “goddess” may not strike us as being very large nowadays, especially if we’ve heard scholars claim that many old stories of miracle-working Christians are just refurbished myths of pagan gods and goddesses.

    But in ancient Greece, where Christianity took root and flourished (St. Paul wrote many of his letters to churches in Greece, and he had a famous discussion with philosophers in Athens), people risked their lives to assert the difference between pagan and Christian.

    Today, Christian Greece treasures its pantheon of divinities as a cultural inheritance. Mythology is a regular subject in school, famously dreaded by schoolchildren because of all the dry memorization.

    But the memorization makes an impression.

    When Disney’s “Hercules” movie came to Athens, young and old rose in opposition. The myths of Hercules in their original form merit a tough R-rating for sex, violence, and general oogliness. As it always does, Disney leached out all the R-rated stuff and Americanized the rest.

    Children threw popcorn at the screen; a boycott was swiftly organized. The movie was run out of town on a rail. It was as if some foreign filmmaker had come to America with “Huck Finn, Patron God of the Mississippi.”

    This summer, Leslie and I could not agree on a vacation spot, so we went to Disneyland, the kids’ first choice. As a rule, I hate theme parks, but we had fun in this wonderland where every ride has a story behind it. Thankfully, there is no Hercules ride. The only trace of the movie sat in the window of a Main Street Disney shop: a tiny figurine of Hercules and his beloved Meg kissing (spoiler: in the real story, he murders her.).

    I wanted to believe that the good people of Greece had injected an ounce of shame into the mythmakers at the House of Mouse. But I think the low profile of our hero had more to do with the low gross of his movie at the box office.

    Bob Costas, shame! I sentence you to one year of Greek Mythology in the Athenian elementary school of your choice. And Greek Orthodox Church on Sundays.

    P.S: there is a patron saint of Athens: his name is Dionysius the Areopagite, and he is mentioned in Acts 17:34 as one who converted to Christianity after St. Paul had his famous intellectual discussion with Athenian philosophers on the Areopagus– also known as Mars Hill.

  • ralphg

    I don’t know who Bob Costas is, but his coverages sounds identical to that of the CBC here in Canada. I wonder if the broadcasters were given scripts to read.

    I, too, was frustrated at there being no explanation why the “Saint” countries came first; or why USA came before Canada.

  • Brant

    Katie Couric did let us know that “long before Broadway”, the Greeks apparently practiced drama.

  • moronikos

    Couldn’t the fact that the “saint” countries came first is because Greece is a Greek speaking country? “Saint” in Greek would be transliterated as “agios” or “hagios”–the “h” in the second variation due to a breathing mark over the starting letter of “alpha”. In Greek alphabetical order, all the “Saint” countries would come first.

  • Jeff

    Moronikos –

    That was my point; there’s an idiosyncratic reason why “Saint ____” comes alphabetically first in the Greek language, and every other idiosyncracy was lovingly explained — unless it had to do with religion.

    Peace, Jeff

  • saint

    Yes .countries came first because in Greek they are called Agios (or Agia)…xxx

    And I will be a real pedant and point out that the breathing mark on the ‘a’ never made any difference to modern greek pronounciation or the order of the alphabet – however we like to transliterate into english. As it is, the breathing marks, and the circumflex etc were removed from modern greek in the early eighties I think and ditched along with that horrid katharevousa. Only thing that remains is the ‘tono’ (stress mark) on words with more than one syllable, and I think, the diaerisis (which I probably spelt wrong).

    Apart from being a pedant, I also wanted to show off the useless info I have picked up during my travels/work in that country.


  • pduggie

    I groaned when Costas said one of the speech makers was giving “props” to all three official Olympic languages.

  • Brennan Stout

    There commentary was ridiculous. It was as if they were speaking to an audience of people that never watch television. Lucky for Couric and Costas, the visuals saved what would have been another NPR lecture.

  • GEAH

    “Saints… mythology… all the same, right?”

    Of course they are. Do you have any proof to the contrary?

  • Scott of Slant Point

    I have some commentary on the opening ceremony, telling a sad tale of a Costas in the wrong place. They were terrible. They embarrassed our country.


  • Ed

    What else would you expect from Katie? She is a TV bimbette, hired for her looks and “perkiness”. To expect anything other than stupidiy is asking way too much.

    I watched about 10 minutes and realized as I do every 4 years that I couldn’t care less about the summer. Maybe in 2008 I won’t waste even those 10 minutes.

  • C. Wingate

    In all fairness, I expect that the “patron saint” remark was a slip of the tongue.