In 1990, it took current Oklahoma State coach John Smith five minutes to win his fourth of six World Wrestling titles.
He quickly defeated Rosen Vasilev of Bulgaria 10-0 inside Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium — the site of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics table tennis events.
In 2021, a return to Tokyo was possible for Smith. As a member of NBC’s wrestling broadcasting crew, he could’ve sat matside at Makuhari Meese Event Hall in Chiba, Japan, an eastern Tokyo suburb, to call the games.
Instead, Smith will analyze the action nearly as far away from Tokyo as one could get. The broadcasts will originate in Miami, Florida, starting August 1 at 9 p.m. CT. The NBC Olympic wrestling crew consists of Smith, Jason Knapp, and Jordan Burroughs. With a strict spectator ban placed by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, NBC’s cast is globally split.
“I think one of the problems is that with the event being tight, we’re never going to get access to the coaches or athletes because of COVID,” Smith said.
Smith successfully navigated a pandemic season with OSU, and was added to NBC’s roster April 11. After working the Rio De Janeiro Games in 2016 and two Olympic trials, USA Wrestling approached their reliable ambassador once again.
For a specialized sport like wrestling, an effective communicator like Smith is needed for viewers to fully comprehend. But as a trained wrestler, not a broadcaster, Smith admits he struggles at times.
“There’s a lot of stress to it,” Smith said. “It’s not easy for me. I can’t really say that I enjoy it. I think when it’s all done, I’m really pleased with the product. But leading up to it, it can be really tricky.”
When USA Wrestling contacted Smith earlier this year about the job, Smith said it wasn't easy to say yes. He understands the challenges and nuances of pronouncing foreign names but works vigorously to perfect it.
“In the end, I thought about it and just decided if I could make Olympic wrestling a better product on TV, then I should be doing it,” he said. “ It puts a little bit of responsibility on myself.”
Since July 15, Smith said he has been adamantly studying proper pronunciations of about 260 Olympic wrestlers thanks to a handy guide from NBC Sports. On flashcards, he’ll write down the names of a wrestler in a way that works in his brain.
“Of course, with my Oklahoma accent, I give a little twang to it and that can be a little challenging,” Smith said. “It’s just a process.”
Added to the challenge of linguistics, Smith and his crew will start each broadcast at 2 a.m. because Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone.
“It’s some long days and some long hours but it’s what you signed up to do,” he said. “You need to do a good job.”
Remote broadcasts have been standard in the pandemic. All of OSU’s duals were broadcasted remotely in 2020. In Stillwater, Smith’s brother, Lee Roy Smith, provided color commentary for the duals on ESPN+ from Orange Power Studios inside Boone Pickens Stadium.
“I think Lee Roy calls an event like he’s a coach,” John Smith said. “When I’m talking, I’m actually wrestling. I feel like I’m wrestling. Okay, here’s what I need to do. Here’s what he needs to do. I do it more from thinking like a wrestler.”
John’s experience as a six-time world champion creates a level of mental insight that can easily educate a viewer.
“The more I think as a wrestler, not as a coach, it presents the sport in a way that can hold on to a lot of people,” John Smith said.