POSTED BY STUART LEVINE
Growing up a sports nut in the 1970s, Saturday afternoon always meant three things: NBC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week, ABC’s Professional Bowlers Tour and “Wide World of Sports.”
The latter was hosted every week by Jim McKay, who passed away this morning at the age of 86. I can still hear his voice in the intro, “The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” Visually, those words were always set against that unfortunate ski jumper tumbling, head over feet, down the side of a mountain. That poor guy, how horrible to always be know as the guy synonymous with “defeat.”
McKay would bounce all over the globe with “Wide World,” from cliffdiving in Mexico, to table tennis in Asia, to log rolling in Scotland. He seemed to get a big kick chipping a golf ball over the Great Wall of China, back when traveling to China was something special and unique.
He also was a big fan of horse racing, and would always stand in front of the twin spires at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of every May for the Kentucky Derby. Hosting the Derby coverage was special to McKay, a Maryland resident who owned a horse farm and loved thoroughbreds.
But where McKay earned his reputation as one of the giants of television came during one of the ugliest incidents in the history of sports competition: the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. There, under the dark of night, a Palestine terrorist group killed Israeli athletes and coaches, turning the Games into a political arena and place of mourning for Jews all around the world.
Covering the story, McKay ended up on the air for something like 16 consecutive hours. The incident culminated, tragically, at the local airport, where nine Israelis were murdered. A visibly shaken McKay, upon hearing the news, just looked into the camera and said, “They’re all gone.”
His remarkable coverage of the events in Munich would be his legacy. He would go on to cover several more Olympics for ABC and was as important in making the Olympics such a massive television event for decades to come as Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton or Nadia Comenici.
There are very few giants of sports broadcasting around anymore, and McKay — a newspaperman who could write as well as anyone with a mic in their hands — has to be considered one of those who helped turn sports from the back page to the front page, and into the billion dollar business it is today.
He certainly might not agree with that, nor would he want to think sports has become so corporate anymore that it has lost its sense of place in the world. Chances are, he would’ve loved to be at Belmont Park today, watching to see if Big Brown was Triple Crown worthy.