60 Years Ago Today, A U.S. Sports Phenomenon Was Born
This was the voice-over introduction to the long-running sports program that was a cornerstone to sports fans in the United States on Saturday afternoons, Wide World of Sports. I can remember eagerly watching it weekly, particularly in the 1980s, and wondering with anticipation what sport would be showcased.
I like to think that at least some of my sports fandom can be traced to this show. I suspect others would say the same.
An intermittent sportscaster before his first Olympic assignment with ABC's Rome 1960 coverage, McKay was offered hosting duties for Wide World with the expectation that it might only last 20 weeks. The show ended up lasting for 37 seasons into 1998, with McKay as host for most of the run.
Known for a calm demeanor, McKay became synonymous with the show, and its coverage of "a number of sports not normally seen on TV." As ABC owned Olympic broadcast rights for a number of Games throughout the show's run, coverage overlapped, and McKay was inextricably linked to the Olympics as well. He covered 12 Games in all, most notably Munich 1972, when he delivered the Munich massacre news to the U.S. His heartfelt "They're all gone" continues to be a haunting call of the moment. Memories of my first real Games watching - Los Angeles 1984 - are peppered with visions and sounds of McKay's commentary.
Wide World, meanwhile, did showcase a variety of sports not normally seen at the time. In an era when football and baseball ruled broadcast television, it regularly shined a light on a number of Olympic sports, particularly figure skating, gymnastics, and track & field, but also skiing, swimming, golf, bobsled, tennis, and more. You might also find horse racing, hurling, Little League, or auto racing. Olympic stars such as Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci, Sugar Ray Leonard, Phil Mahre, Mary Lou Retton, Fu Mingxia, Greg Louganis, and Bonnie Blair are just some of the athletes to have been brought into U.S. living rooms outside of the Games.
Famed sportscaster Howard Cosell established himself as a boxing commentator on Wide World. His at-times tense rapport with Olympic champion Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) became legendary.
More enduring that McKay's "spanning the globe" line in the show's intro, is his "agony of defeat". Narrated over a clip of ski jumper Vinko Bogataj's crash in competition, it became a signature element of the show's sports presentation.
On January 3, 1998, Wide World of Sports as an anthology series ended its run, a casualty of the rise of cable television's sports coverage and the migration of sports to ABC's sister network ESPN. The moniker remains owned by the conglomerate, and is most widely associated today as a sports facility/entertainment complex owned by DIsney and ESPN.
Wide World of Sports remains for me a critical and personal piece of sports broadcasting history. The show's devotion to the broader spectrum of sports opened eyes to a bigger world, and helped start me on the path toward Games and Rings. Cheers to the memories.