Jim McKay elegantly covered competitions from badminton to barrel jumping. Yet he may best be remembered for that grim day at the Munich Olympics when he broke the news with three simple words: “They’re all gone.” The groundbreaking sportscaster died Saturday of natural causes at his farm in Monkton, Md. He was 86.
McKay was the one who spanned the globe to bring television viewers the constant variety of sports on ABC’s influential “Wide World of Sports,” where he told of “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
A far different kind of agony awaited in 1972 when word came down in Munich that Palestinian terrorists had kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. McKay was summoned from a day off, hurriedly putting clothes over a bathing suit to anchor ABC’s coverage of the drama as the Games stood still.
The commando raid to free the hostages ended awfully. McKay told the world. Later, at the closing ceremony, he read a poem by A.E. Housman, “To an Athlete Dying Young.”
“I had to control myself,” he later recalled. “I was full of emotion. But when you are a professional, it is important to communicate what it is like, to capture the moment.”
President Bush lauded McKay for his “skill and sensitivity” during coverage of the 1972 Olympics.
“He was a talented and eloquent newsman and storyteller whose special gift was his ability to make the viewers at home genuinely care about more than just who won or lost,” Bush said in a statement.
It was “Wide World of Sports” that built ABC Sports into a powerhouse after its debut in 1961. The age before ESPN and a constant video loop of highlights was simpler then, and viewers tuned in to see what new kind of competition McKay could find. ABC estimated McKay traveled 4 million miles on assignment for “Wide World,” covering 40 countries.
When he moved from NBC to ABC Sports, pioneering television executive Roone Arledge specifically sought out McKay.
“Some people… can make something dramatic by the inflections of their voices, without shouting,” Arledge said. “Jim’s not just somebody yelling at you. He has a sense of words, a sense of the drama of the moment.”
Sportscaster Mike Tirico recalled that at his home when growing up in New York “dinner wasn’t served until ‘Wide World of Sports’ was over.” Tirico went on work at four British Opens with McKay.
The New York Yankees paused to remember McKay before their game Saturday. He died hours before Big Brown failed in his attempt to complete the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in McKay’s favorite sport of all, horse racing.
A veteran of the U.S. Navy in World War II, James McManus was a newspaper reporter who transferred to television when the (Baltimore) Sun started its own station. He was the first on-air broadcaster seen in Baltimore, and hosted a three-hour weekday show, “The Sports Parade.”
He moved to New York to do a similar show there dubbed “The Real McKay” by a CBS executive. McManus changed his professional name accordingly.
“He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life,” his son, Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, told the Associated Press on Saturday. “Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t come up to me and say how much they admired my father.”
McKay — understated, dignified and with a clear eye for detail — covered 12 Olympics. His last was in 2002 at Salt Lake City for NBC after he received special permission to get out of his lifetime contract with ABC Sports. NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol began working with McKay as a 19-year-old Olympics researcher in 1968.
“He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered,” Ebersol said. “While we all know what an absolute titan he was in his chosen field, I will always remember him as an extraordinary human being guided by a strong moral compass.”
ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer called McKay “a founding father of sports television.” Added Bob Iger, president and chief executive of the Walt Disney Company: “He was a regular guy who wrote and spoke like a poet.”
McKay left his mark on countless colleagues. Bob Costas called McKay a “singular broadcaster.”
“He brought a reporter’s eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment,” Costas said. “He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports.”
CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz said McKay was the broadcasting hero of his youth.
“I hung onto his every words and wrote him letters when I was a kid,” he said. “I feel like one of the greatest joys of my life was having the chance to get to know him as a friend and father figure.”
McKay was a minority owner of the Baltimore Orioles. Majority owner Peter Angelos regarded him as a “visionary and a pioneer of sports broadcasting” who “never forgot where he came from, or his Maryland roots.”
In addition to McManus, McKay’s survivors include his wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Mary. Margaret met McKay when they were reporters at the Sun, and they would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in October.
“He was a great father and I don’t think he had one single regret when he passed away,” his son said.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.