Jim McKay, the American sportscaster and host of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, is gone. I join the many thousands of viewers who will miss him.
He was the voice of American network sports coverage in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Along with ABC executive producer Roone Arledge, he made sports more than sports; sports became a metaphor, a stage where the public really got to know the athletes, to see them as multidimensional people doing extraordinary things. He and Arledge pioneered the art of the “up close and personal” approach to sports reporting. Over the decades, the style of these features became copied by most networks and the segments became over-produced and kitschy. But before that, in McKay’s early years, they were truly special television moments. Informative and entertaining, they gave sports a perspective that took athletes out of the statistics pages and made them people you really cared about.
He was famous for his narration of the opening montage of the Wide World of Sports program, accompanied by dramatic video. Many Americans and Canadians know the words: “…The thrill of victory… (pause)…and the agony of defeat.”
McKay, of course, earned the most accolades for his reporting and anchoring work during the “Black September” crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics; the tragic kidnapping and killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. But I will always remember him as a kind-hearted, understated and sensible host, who excelled at conveying the mood and emotion of the moment. Columnist Jeremy Schaap, on ESPN’s web site, remembers him as a “reporter with the soul of a poet.” The Chicago Tribune says, “With an understated grace and eloquence, McKay brought the world of sports, ‘The Wide World of Sports’ to be precise, to viewers who had been primarily weaned on baseball and football. He was the first to tell the personal story of athletes, piquing our interest in the cliff diver in Mexico or the race car driver from England.” The New York Times writes, “Mr. McKay was a hype-averse optimist and poetic storyteller.”
My fondest memories are of McKay’s coverage of the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Those two weeks of broadcasts were for me, a 16-year-old aspiring journalist, really magical. I hope to carry on my business with his same sense of decency and good-hearted dignity.
McKay was 86 and died of natural causes.
The New York Times story offers a lot of interesting details about McKay’s experiences. You can read it here.