For much of the past three decades, the sound of the Olympics has belonged to superstar composer John Williams, whose fanfares and melodies have become a ubiquitous presence embedded in the DNA of international competition.
But for six years in the 1990s, the sound of athletic glory also belonged to Tamara Kline.
Back when CBS held broadcast rights for the Winter Games — 1992, 1994 and 1998 — it was Kline, then a largely unknown composer for television commercials, who provided the Olympic soundtrack that filled living rooms and became a nightly earworm as it anchored CBS’ coverage.
Her theme was a soaring, uplifting piece that resonated in the way valiant sports anthems usually do — a tune you can’t escape, instantly recognizable, immanently hummable, and the kind of thing you hear in your head when you accomplish something special.
But after CBS concluded its final Olympic broadcast on Feb. 22, 1998, the theme vanished into the ether, becoming a mostly forgotten footnote in the Olympics’ musical legacy.
Despite its relative obscurity, Kline’s Olympic theme is noteworthy, not only for its quality and uniqueness but also the seemingly random way in which a virtually unknown composer landed such a major assignment.
Underrated, under-discussed and still unknown to many, Kline’s theme nobly did its part as the musical heartbeat that drove a large chunk of the ‘90s Olympic experience in the United States.
This is the story of how it happened.
Kline’s journey to her own version of Olympic glory started in late 1991 when a colleague mentioned that CBS was looking for an Olympic theme for its coverage of the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.
Kline was composing music for commercials at the time, and though she had some national spots — AT&T, Burger King and FedEx among them — she wasn’t a big name in the industry. CBS had already invited many composers, including a few prominent ones, to submit demos for consideration, but Kline felt drawn to the assignment.
“They didn’t know me, so I called and asked if I could submit a demo,” she told Sporting News. “It seemed like a one in a million opportunity, but I definitely wanted to throw my hat into the ring.”
The network wanted a memorable theme that could be molded into different styles and orchestrations, and that could be adapted to whatever mood the broadcast called for. They also wanted something grand and heroic, but wholly original. In other words, they didn’t want a John Williams knockoff.
“They wanted to try something unique,” Kline said, recalling how the network’s original fax asked for a theme that would illicit a “vast landscape of snow-covered mountains.”
“They [also] wanted a memorable melody that would capture the emotional dichotomy of the Olympics: the glory and the humility, the greatness and graciousness.”
So Kline got to work in her home studio, working up a synth mockup of an orchestral theme that she felt matched CBS’ desires. She was especially inspired by the idea of people striving for their best, facing their limitations and overcoming them.
The theme came to mind almost immediately — a melody that seems to embody the idea of reaching higher, then higher still.
“I genuinely connected to all the emotions [CBS] described,” Kline said. “I stood in my backyard and looked out into the canyons. Honestly, it was as if the theme wrote itself.”
‘I was shocked’
She submitted the demo, one of about 200 that CBS received. Months passed, and she assumed CBS had already hired another composer. Then she got a call from late CBS producer Doug Towey, the man who later commissioned the network’s famous NCAA basketball theme, who told Kline her theme had been chosen.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me. I was ecstatic.”
From there, it was a whirlwind of activity over a short period. Kline and a team of arrangers had roughly two weeks to come up with about 60 versions of her theme — a pop version, a traditional orchestral version, a laid-back version, a five-second bumper, a 10-second bumper, a 30-second presentation, a 60-second take, a 2 ½ minute version, and so on — before heading to England to record with the London Symphony Orchestra.
“We were still finishing some of the arrangements on the trip to London,” Kline said.
Tamara Kline poses during the recording sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1991. (Photo courtesy of Tamara Kline)
‘It made me smile every time’
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, both from CBS and Kline’s colleagues. For a composer whose music was usually competing with dialogue and sound effects in commercials, having her theme front and center before a national audience was a unique experience.
“To hear it on television, rhythmically cut to Olympic skiers and skaters, or with the beautiful CBS graphics, was absolutely thrilling,” Kline said. “It made me smile every time. And to hear it all day, every day, for 16 days in a row, was pretty surreal.”
Indeed, Kline’s theme was a constant presence. For those two weeks in 1992, then again in 1994 and again in 1998, she had arguably the most-heard tune in the United States.
But even as viewers hummed the theme during the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Kline’s anthem was already on its way out. Before CBS could secure another Winter Olympics, before the theme could further ingrain itself in America’s conscience, NBC surprised everyone in 1995 with a major winning bid for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. CBS’ time as an Olympics host was over — and so was Kline’s time as the maestro.
She hoped that CBS would find another use for the theme, or perhaps release the music commercially on CD, but neither happened. Nor did her theme’s prominence lead to other composing assignments, likely because it wasn’t exactly a “score” and wouldn’t have attracted much attention in the commercial and TV/film scoring worlds.
Still, nearly 20 years after its strains last wafted across America, Kline’s theme has a cult-like following among fans of film and television music, and, judging by various message board posts through the years, remains a Holy Grail recording for some.
‘A gold medal for me’
Fans have written to her to ask about a potential CD or digital release, but the chances of that happening are slim. Even Kline doesn’t have the recordings, apart from a few of the shorter renditions. But even if she did, she co-owns the music with CBS, so any proper release would have to be worked out between them.
“I brought it up a few times over the years, but CBS wasn’t really interested,” she said. “They probably didn’t think it would’ve generated much money.”
But knowing that her theme still resonates, albeit in small circles, 20 years after it left the airwaves is its own kind of reward.
“I am surprised and delighted,” she said. “It means so much to me.”
Though she still occasionally writes music and performs, Kline left the music business in the early 2000s after the industry’s culture and landscape began to shift. Budding software and other technology allowed virtually anyone to be considered a composer, which meant the amount of competition proliferated. Meanwhile, music budgets for commercials, TV shows and films started to shrink. Add it all up and it was time to try something new.
“I feel incredibly blessed to have had such a rich and wonderful career in the music business. I look back on those days with awe and gratitude,” she said. “But when music budgets and residuals started getting smaller, and I started getting older, I knew I needed to make a change.”
Kline went back to school to study clinical psychology and now works as a licensed therapist in Beverly Hills — a new life that’s worlds away from the one in which she landed that plum assignment in late 1991.
But don’t think for a minute that she doesn’t still treasure her Olympic experience, even without album sales and fame. Being chosen for an assignment that was previously given to an All-Star composer like Williams was and is a true honor, Kline said.
“It’s a gold medal for me,” she said. “That’s for sure.”
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