AS THE longtime host of ABC's Wide World of Sports, an athletics variety show that might seem quaint (or possibly even absurd) in today's all-access age, Jim McKay dealt with—more like celebrated, actually—a ridiculous spectrum of effort. He took logrolling just as seriously as the Masters, endorsed cliff diving as wholeheartedly as the Indy 500 and was every bit as gung ho for barrel jumping as for the Triple Crown.
This is an article from the June 16, 2008 issue
For him, it seemed no problem. McKay, who died last Saturday at the age of 86, was of a preironic generation of broadcaster who was more likely to find sports fun than funny. It's not that he couldn't tell the difference between calling Le Mans and a demolition derby, just that he was able to locate as much poetry in the latter as the former. Everybody and everything had a story, and if he had to chip a golf ball over the Great Wall of China to find it, he was happy to do so.
That all-purpose geniality did not come at the expense of credibility, though. He was at times criticized for his transparency of emotion, especially during his Olympic coverage (he hosted or reported on 12 of them), when his red-white-and-blue colors tended to show through. One writer, reviewing his performance during the 1984 Winter Games, said the Olympics allowed McKay "to play Uncle Sam for two weeks." But he had earned his stripes (and stars) by then and become one of television's most trusted voices.
It was during the 1972 Munich Olympics, after Arab terrorists had kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes, that McKay (and not ABC colleague Howard Cosell) was called upon to anchor sport's loss of innocence. He presided over the drama for 15 hours (wearing, beneath his camera-ready clothing, the same damp swimsuit he had on when summoned to the studio) until the fatal denouement. Turning toward the camera, in words that remain as chilling today as they were then, McKay said, "They're all gone." Though he fit A.E. Housman's poem To an Athlete Dying Young into ABC's coverage of the closing ceremonies, it was McKay's line reading of history, not Housman's rhymes, that echo today.
Happily for him, his job mostly meant bringing good news. Tabbed in 1961 by Roone Arledge (then an ABC executive producer) to be the host of a new sports anthology, McKay became a kind of explorer, traveling nearly five million miles, across 40 countries, over the next 36 years to seek out and report on sport's exotic secrets. Who in this country knew there was such a thing as hurling until McKay returned from Ireland with film (and a learned explanation) of this ancient activity? And cliff diving? Until McKay wrangled a bunch of Acapulco divers (they were paid $10 per dive) for ABC's footage, there had not been a pressing interest in this presumably death-defying performance.
It was McKay's spirit of evangelism, spreading the gospel, that fit so perfectly with Arledge's vision for Wide World of Sports. McKay did plenty of conventional reporting—he was a mainstay at the big horse races and familiar at major golf events, as well as all those Olympics, and he did earn 13 Emmys—but it was his eagerness to announce every offbeat recreation out there that so affected a certain generation, one slowly being weaned from traditional sports, freed up for the panoply of experience to come. It helped that he was so democratic; he had realized that one man's baseball is another man's motorcycle jumping and had not bothered to insist upon a hierarchy. A cohort of mixed martial arts enthusiasts, snowboarders and motocross racers thanks him.
It was no secret that McKay preferred the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, and that, along with his innocent optimism and snark-free sincerity, probably makes him hopelessly old-fashioned. Yet it's easy to believe that somehow that geniality, that generosity of spirit—not to mention those cliff divers—would have endeared him to viewers even in these (wide) world-weary times.