Jun 9, 2008

Jim McKay

Over the weekend I heard the news of the passing of Jim McKay. If you are young, you might remember him from the recent Olympics coverage with Bob Costas where he seemed frail, and perhaps a bit slow and confused. Such is the way with network TV I suppose with it's tendency to try and package stories with slick graphics and short sound bites. What you might have seen, if he was allowed the time, was a man who chose his words carefully. You might have still seen the younger version of the man who won 12 Emmy awards, and is the only man to have ever won an Emmy for sports and news broadcasting and writing.

He was better known as the man who logged over 4 1/2 million miles traveling around the world as the host of "ABC's Wide World of Sports," McKay spent the 1960s and 1970s "spanning the globe", as the host of Wide World of Sports.

McKay provided the famous voice-over that accompanied the opening, in which viewers were reminded of the show's mission ("Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports") and what lay ahead ("the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat").

ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap wrote some good memories about McKay:

When ABC was able to confirm that the German attempt to rescue the Israeli Olympic hostages in Munich had failed and all the hostages were dead, Jim McKay wasn't thinking about the tens of millions of viewers who were waiting for him to communicate what had happened. He was thinking only about two of them: David Berger's parents, sitting at home in suburban Cleveland. He knew that in all likelihood, his would be the voice -- the first -- telling them that their son, a 28-year-old Olympic weightlifter, was dead.

Sad and visibly tired, but composed, McKay gathered himself and said, "They're all gone." The Bergers, whose hopes had been raised by false reports that the hostages had been freed, then knew the truth.

That was 36 years ago, and McKay's reporting during the Olympic hostage crisis will endure as the standard by which all such reporting is judged. Not sports reporting. Just reporting. Of all the news, bad and good, terrifying and uplifting, that television hosts have delivered to the American people, perhaps the only moment that compares was nine years earlier, when Walter Cronkite removed his glasses, dried his eyes and told the nation that John F. Kennedy had died.

Shortly after McKay delivered the tragic news in Munich, he received a telegram. "Dear Jim," it read. "Today you honored yourself, your network and your industry. -- Walter Cronkite."

McKay was special not just because he was a solid reporter in a field dominated by men who had been trained to call games. He was special because he was a reporter with the soul of a poet, his twin talents perfectly matched to his assignments.

In the hands of someone less sincere, it might have seemed maudlin to recite several lines from A.E. Housman's poem "To An Athlete Dying Young," even in the Munich aftermath. But when McKay memorialized the slain Israelis by saying, "Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honors out/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man," it could not have been more poignant or more fitting. Of course, long before Munich, the American people had come to trust McKay.

As the host of "ABC's Wide World of Sports," McKay spent the 1960s and 1970s spanning the globe, calling everything from mainstream events, such as the Indianapolis 500, to the most obscure and seemingly silly sports, such as barrel jumping. Unfailingly, he treated the barrel jumpers and cliff divers and bicycle polo players with the same respect he afforded Mario Andretti and Mark Spitz and Bill Shoemaker. If there was a defining McKay characteristic, that was it. He respected his subjects. He never stripped them of their dignity. It would have been all too easy to play the small sports for laughs. McKay didn't. Sure, he would have fun -- he was by no means a stick in the mud -- but not at the expense of the athletes or their families.

Case in point: the 1965 world barrel jumping championship. (Barrel jumping, long a staple of Wide World, is simply long jumping on ice skates, over uniformly sized barrels). A young man from Lake Placid, N.Y., named Ken Lebel was attempting to break the world record by clearing 17 barrels, and when he succeeded, McKay was almost overcome with emotion. "Nobody in the history of the sport ever did it before," he said. "There's Kenny's wife, just as tearfully excited as if her husband had just won the World Series." Looking now at the grainy footage, it's clear that McKay was just as excited as Mrs. Lebel.

And it was McKay who was the primary voice at the Olympics for a quarter-century -- the quarter-century when the Olympics mattered most, when the games were all but defined by the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, when for two separate fortnights every four years little else seemed to matter. With McKay setting the tone for Olympics coverage, first on CBS and then on ABC, the athletes from behind the Iron Curtain were never demonized, even if it was clear that the system that nurtured them was morally reprehensible. McKay and his boss, Roone Arledge, did not resort to Hollywood tactics. They never made Olga Korbut or Sergei Makarov or Nadia Comaneci into Ivan Dragos. In his heart, McKay might have preferred to see the American pixies defeat the Red pixies and our amateurs defeat their pros, but it never showed.

In the end, McKay will stay with us because of all the ways in which he exemplified journalistic professionalism, informed by true grace, a poet's touch and simple humanity. Unlike Housman's athlete, he lived long -- 86 years -- but not long enough to see his renown outrun. It's unlikely that it ever will be.

Can you imagine any reporter today, let alone a sports reporter, pulling off quoting A.E. Housman?

Finally, a video from an interview with a shaken Don Ohlmeyer after he heard the news of Jim McKays death:


  1. I never followed sports even a little bit, but I know that vox-- "the agony of defeat." I had no idea he was so accomplished.

    Nice tribute!

  2. wow! he was an icon from our childhood ... every saturday after cartoons wide world of sports was on ... you can't watch the olympics without thinking of him ... sad

  3. I can't imagine a sportscaster today who could reference a book. I remember Dennis Miller mentioning "The Bell Jar" on Monday Night Football, and sports radio people all saying no one knew that book.

    It was then I decided I should stop listening to sports radio.

  4. Oh no, I hadn't heard that. Now that's sad - I really enjoyed him.

  5. Everything I know about sport, I can attribute to this man. This was a much treasured Saturday afternoon pleasure. I learned to appreciate the nuances of down-hill skying, as that was Dad's favorite. He learned to ski himself, by trial and error, on a set of barrelstaves that he fashioned into skis and traversed the large hill that comprised the better part of the family farm. Frozen Cow-Pies are to be avoided at all costs. The agony of defeat was brought home in more than one story.


  6. the Olympics will never be the same.

  7. I remember him from the late 1970s and early 1980s when WWS was on during the weekend when nothing else ever was. So my friends and I would watch it for kicks. He was good.

  8. Ex-Steeler Dwight White passed recently, too. Sucks.