RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We're counting down to the London Summer Olympics. And it's still true that an Olympic medal has the power to make an athlete a household name overnight. Mostly, though, even medal winners are largely ignored, except for right after and right before the games.
NPR's Mike Pesca decided to take a look back to a time when Olympians had another platform. It was a competition called "The Superstars." It aired on ABC from 1973 through the '80s, and pitted athletes from different disciplines against each other.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Alongside the age-old Superman-versus-Hulk debate, there is another hardy perennial of the playground: Who's the better athlete? Could Kobe Bryant beat David Beckham? Is Tim Tebow better than Tim Duncan? What if we could devise an event with 10 jocks competing against each other in 10 different sports, ending with an obstacle course? That's an idea that, actually, is almost 40 years old.
"The Superstars" was the brainchild of Dick Button. Yes, that Dick Button, the champion figure skater who nevertheless regarded himself as only the 10th best athlete out of the 12 boys in his high school class.
DICK BUTTON: I mean, here I was a figure skater, of all things, getting the Sullivan Award as America's Outstanding Amateur Athlete.
PESCA: Who really was the best athlete? Buttons' question was green lit as a TV special, and the calls went out. Johnny Bench from baseball, Joe Frazier from boxing, Johnny Unitas from football, but not Bob Seagren from the world - OK, the island - of pole vaulting. Seagren, who won gold in Mexico City and silver in Munich, was initially rebuffed when he contacted "The Superstars'" producers. But he got his break when jockey Willie Shoemaker pulled up lame.
BOB SEAGREN: A few weeks went by, and Bill Shoemaker was one of the original athletes, and I pick up the paper one morning and he has fallen off a horse and broken his wrist, or something.
PESCA: The competition, which lasted a weekend, was friendly, but hard-fought. Top athletes never want to lose, and as commentator Jim McKay noted, the eventual champ - Bob Seagren - was more motivated than his rivals.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SUPERSTARS")
PESCA: That was from the weightlifting competition, where Seagren bested Joe Frazier. It was one of the results that hooked viewers, largely because creator Dick Button was careful to craft an authentic competition.
BUTTON: I insisted upon it being a legitimate and honest sport, and you saw those guys fight for those different things. You saw Pete Rose, absolutely, he couldn't play tennis, but he fought for every point that he got. And Bob Seagren, let me tell you something, that guy killed himself on that thing.
PESCA: To Seagren, who had won medals, world titles and who had graced Sport Illustrated's cover, the title of superstar wasn't hyperbole.
SEAGREN: After 12 years of pole vaulting all over the world, I could walk through an airport and nobody would say anything. But right after "The Superstars" aired - and it was amazing, the people that would come up to me and say, oh my God. I could beat you in, you know, bowling or tennis or whatever.
PESCA: Seagren won more money from "The Superstars" then he had ever made on the track circuit. By 1984, javelin record holder Tom Petranoff was desperate to secure a spot on the show. None were open, until...
TOM PETRANOFF: Marvelous Marvin Haggler had broke his hand or something.
PESCA: Perhaps Willie Shoemaker's horse fell on him. Petranoff went on to win the competition. Like Seagren, he experienced renown well beyond that provided by his Olympic appearances.
In the end, "Superstars" never definitively answered the question who was the best athlete. But the show did enliven the conversation, and many Olympians were grateful to prove they belonged in that discussion.
Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.