Jim McKay, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 86, was one of the last of a disappearing breed: a journalist who valued his craft too much to succumb to crass commercialism and sensationalist antics, someone who covered his beat with intelligence and sensitivity. All too often nowadays, style is prized over substance: media outlets do not speak about providing accurate and informative coverage but rather trumpet that they report the news first, even if those first reports lack accuracy, depth and context. Some people blame the so-called "blogosphere" for the decline in media standards but while there is certainly much to lament about the style and content of many blogs the real crisis is taking place in the so-called mainstream media--and it has been for quite some time, as the lamentable episodes involving prominent figures such as former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, former CNN News chief Eason Jordan, discredited New York Times writer Jayson Blair and Pulitzer Prize finalist Jack Kelley clearly demonstrate.
McKay is best known for hosting the coverage of 12 different Olympic Games and for hosting ABC's Wide World of Sports, for which he provided the famous opening narration: "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!'"
Among the many honors that McKay received during his long, distinguished career, he was the first sportscaster to win an Emmy Award. He won a total of 13 Emmys, including both a news Emmy and a sports Emmy for his unforgettable coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Arab terrorists massacred 11 Israeli athletes. Once the deaths of the athletes were officially confirmed, McKay delivered the horrible news with just the right words and tone: "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." McKay is the only person who has won Emmys for both sports and news coverage. His Munich coverage also earned him the George Polk Memorial Award, an honor that recognizes the best news reporting of the year.
As word of McKay's death spread throughout the sports world, tributes poured in from his peers and from the athletes he covered. Bob Costas said, "He brought a reporter's eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment. He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports." Dick Ebersol, who worked with McKay at the 1968 Olympics as a 19 year old researcher and is now the chairman of NBC Sports, said, "He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered. 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."
Four-time Indianapolis 500 champion A.J. Foyt praised McKay for something that may seem minor but is actually quite meaningful: "He interviewed me many times and he was always a real gentleman. He didn't ask stupid questions."
With all the current nostalgia about the 1980s NBA Finals battles between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, it was jarring for me to realize that people who are graduating from high school this year were not even born when those games were played. Of course, the heyday of McKay's "Wide World of Sports" telecasts goes back even further than that; I was very, very young back then but I remember watching those shows and looking forward to hearing McKay's opening narration--I still get goosebumps when I hear him say "the human drama of athletic competition." If you are not old enough to remember the 1970s or 1980s it is difficult to really explain the significance of "Wide World of Sports," because now you can watch virtually any sporting event in the world on TV, on your computer or even on your cellphone. Scores and highlights are literally at your fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That was just a pipe dream back then; if you were a kid living on the East Coast and wanted to know the scores of West Coast games you sometimes had to wait almost a full day because that information would not be in the morning newspaper and may or may not have been mentioned during a local TV sportscast (SportsCenter did not exist until 1979 and did not become a TV staple for several years). In many ways, sports were a much more local phenomenon in that era, but "Wide World" provided a glimpse into the lives of athletes in different countries unlike anything else that you could see at that time.
Here is a very nicely rendered Jim McKay tribute by Jeremy Schaap, whose father Dick Schaap was also an exceptional sports journalist:
McKay Remembered as a Reporter With the Soul of a Poet