NEW YORK — Like many of the athletes vying for gold in Vancouver, Stephen Colbert’s Olympic training has been eventful.
He has already auditioned for the U.S. bobsled, skating and curling teams. He has angered a sizable portion of Canada. And he has landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Olympic preview.
Now, he’s preparing for the big event. While “The Colbert Report” is in repeats next week, the comedian will be in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the first week of the Olympics. He’ll be there recording a wealth of material for his show (to air beginning Feb. 22), attending events, conducting interviews and doing a kind of half-show from a stage set up outside the Olympic center.
“We’ll bring snow because I don’t think Vancouver has any,” he said in an interview, taking a swipe at the city’s sometimes watery precipitation.
Just as he has inserted himself into big events such as the 2008 election (during which he was briefly and illegitimately a candidate) and the Iraq war (he did a week of shows from Baghdad in 2009), Colbert has made himself a key figure for the XXI Olympic Games, which start Friday.
When the U.S. Speedskating team lost its primary sponsor last fall (the Dutch bank DSB went bankrupt), the “Report” stepped in with a novel idea. The show’s ardent fans had previously raised sizable amounts of money for charity, and the show suggested that the “Colbert Nation” could sponsor the skaters.
Fan donations filled the vacancy by raising more than $300,000. “Colbert Nation” is branded on the team’s suits and Colbert has had an active relationship with the squad.
The team has largely responded with gratitude. On his Comedy Central show, Colbert autographed the leg of speedskater Katherine Reutter, on her request. Robert Crowley, executive director of U.S. Speedskating, says Colbert has brought “great attention to our sport.” Apolo Anton Ohno has also applauded Colbert’s humor.
“I think he’s funny,” Ohno said earlier. “Our country is kind of in need of some humor right now, and it’s all for a good cause.”
But one of the team’s best skaters, the 2006 gold medalist Shani Davis, called Colbert “a jerk,” seemingly because Colbert had mockingly complained that Canada was limiting training time for foreign athletes at Vancouver venues.
Colbert says Davis never explained why he was upset, and says he never asked him. But for a particularly funny segment on “The Report,” Davis and Colbert faced off in a race where Davis easily beat Colbert despite a giant headstart.
Colbert says Davis was “a sweetheart” while filming and that he “understood our jokes completely.”
“I’ll like anyone who seems to like me,” he says.
Many Canadians, though, have been put off by Colbert’s frequent mockery. As a pseudo pundit, Colbert likes to elevate the U.S. above all other countries, making the Olympics — which he calls a combination “talent popularity-contest war” — prime fodder for parodic patriotism.
He has called Canadians “syrup-suckers,” “Saskatche-whiners,” and said Canadian history is a euphemism for a sex act so depraved, he can’t say it on TV.
Colbert still jokes that he’s going to Vancouver to find out “What is Canadaâ¢ Or more importantly, why is Canada?”
But now that foreign athletes have received more ice time, Colbert says, “I’ve forgiven Canada. … I’m there to celebrate Canada at this point.”
As part of an arrangement made with NBC and NBC Universal Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol (who recently appeared on “The Report”), Colbert will be allowed to film inside the Richmond Olympic Oval. In exchange, he will join Bob Costas for commentary Feb. 17 on NBC.
But for all of his satire, it’s clear Colbert has a genuine love of the Olympics.
“It’s a festival,” he says. “What a great, rare honor it’s been to be helpful in any way to these beautiful athletes. I’m really in awe of what they do and I want to be there to support them.”