“Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition… This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”
That voice, heard each and every weekend for over 40 years, was the voice of James Kenneth McManus, better known to most as Jim McKay of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a sports variety show, if you will, that covered both mainstream popular sports and obscure sports from the hinterlands of the world. When Roone Arledge, the legendary TV executive, offered McKay the job, he said, “I think I should tell you, this job will involve a certain amount of travel!”
Sure enough, McKay logged over five million frequent flyer miles covering everything from auto racing to ping-pong, lumberjack competitions to barrel jumping, and he took it all seriously. Something different happened every week on “Wide World of Sports” and McKay was the guy who would tell you all the inside information. I was astounded when I heard McKay say in an interview: “We had no research people. I’ve never had a research person, except on the later Olympics that I covered. What I’d do was look in the Encyclopedia Britanica, you’d be surprised they even had an article on even some of the obscure sports. And then we’d get there three days ahead of time and start talking to everyone we could find. It was just a scramble.”
McKay covered the police beat for the Baltimore Sun after graduating from Loyola College of Maryland. When it launched a TV station, because of McKay’s college background in dramatics and debate, he landed a job as host of a variety show on sports, current events and news. Then on to New York to host another variety show, called “The Real McKay.” It was abruptly cancelled, but gave him a respected name in the business, leading to Arledge’s tapping him for the Wide World of Sports gig.
McKay noted, “A lot of it was sports that people had never seen before on television and I liked that idea… Sports like a lot of other things are really about the human beings involved, so the idea was to focus on the individual, first of all because that’s what people are interested in and secondly because we were going to be doing some of these fairly obscure sports. So we thought if we could get them interested in the people, we could get them interested in the sport.”
His most famous broadcasting moment is also what he considered “one of the most terrible moments of my life.” At the Munich Olympic games in 1972, McKay had to launch from jovial coverage of the world games into full-fledged news anchoring when Arab gunmen took Israeli Olympians hostage, killed some in their hotel and a second group at the airport. McKay, always the consummate professional, knew that an American weightlifter, David Berger, was a member of the Israeli team and was sure his family would be watching the program. “My only thought all day was that I was going to be the one to tell this family that their son, their brother, was either alive or dead. I had better get that right.”
With candor and eloquence, McKay got word in his headset of the hostages’ murder and said poignantly, ” When I was a kid my father used to say, ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”
The Bergers, indeed were watching in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and to this day they call McKay a true “mensch,” the Yiddish word for someone with great character and class. This reflects not only their own thoughts, but those of many Americans who felt the impact of the tragedy for various reasons. McKay once noted, “We weren’t used to terrorism, at that time. This was something that came out of the blue. Also, that it was at the scene of the holy of holies of sport—the Olympic games—it made a tremendous impact on people. At least four times a month people come up to me at an airport or supermarket and mention it.”
In 1992, McKay received an Emmy Award in the Individual Achievement category for the ABC Sports special, “Athletes and Addiction: It’s Not a Game.” His voice, now stilled, will never be forgotten.