of The Gatekeeper.
By Tom Demerly.
Jim McKay has died.
And a gate has been forever closed.
This is the gate through which most of us passed
to become who we are now: Endurance athletes. Jim McKay was
the gatekeeper to most of us, holder of the sacred key to the
land where we glimpsed “The Thrill of Victory”.
It is what got most of us hooked on this sport.
It was a time before the internet and the beginning
of the running boom. We had a box in our living room and through
that box most of us, as children, could travel around the world
to exotic locales and unusual sporting events: The cliff divers
in Acapulco, the ice skate barrel jumpers, the men who fished
for giant marlin, the grizzled stock car drivers (this was before
NASCAR) who smoked and had southern accents and drank Budweiser,
the dashing Formula 1 drivers, the barely intelligible European
downhill skiers, the mountain climbers and the very first extreme
athlete, Evel Knievel. And then there was that one time a woman
pooped her pants and crawled to the finish line. Remember that
one? I thought you did. It may have been what got you started
in this sport. It did me.
I remember the intro. It gives me chills to this
day: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety
of sports…” …Spanning the globe…Think
of it. The ability to travel around the world to see and participate
in a myriad of sports: Danger, risk, skill. Imagine how grand
it must be. As a child I remember thinking it was right up there
with the Apollo moon landings. I still do. The intro music was
brassy and epic, a fanfare, like the trumpets and drums announcing
the arrival of the gladiators in the coliseum of ancient Rome.
It was all very formal, very dignified, a combination of National
Geographic and the X-Games.
“…Spanning the Globe.”
According to U.S.A.T. demographics 78.6 % of us
are in the age range to have passed through Jim McKay’s
gate on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. We spanned the globe
with him through the cathode ray tube. McKay, the long time
host of the weekly television sports magazine invited us to
witness “The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Defeat.”
His intro tagline has become a modern cliché. It featured
the grainy film of that awful ski jump crash by the hapless
Slovenian Vinko Bogataj. In a strange twist of irony Bogataj
was invited back to ABC for a vignette during an anniversary
show and had a car crash on the way to the studio. He told Jim
McKay, “Every time I’m on ABC I crash”.
Most of our ideas about sports were formed watching
Jim McKay’s show: That we should be good sportsmen. That
we should be daring and brave. That we should take risk and
have skill. That we should practice and train and use special
equipment and eat special foods. That we should travel the world
in search of sport and adventure. People did two things on Sunday
back then: Went to church and watched Jim McKay on The Wide
World of Sports.
There is nothing like McKay’s Wide World
of Sports now. It was the one conduit through which we got the
“constant variety“of new and unusual sports. Sports
programming used to be only football, baseball or Wide World
of Sports. McKay and Wide World was our only exposure to the
“fringe sports” like cliff diving, triathlon, rattlesnake
hunting. Wide world actually had a show that featured rattlesnake
hunting that spun off into “The American Sportsmen”,
one of many Wide World spin-off programs.
Now we have so many sports media outlets it is
utter chaos. Between the web and cable the chances of getting
one program that features an amalgam of new and interesting
sports is nil. There is no one way to see “The constant
variety of sports”. You would have to survey websites
and sports specialty channels for months to glean the synopsis
you got from ninety minutes with Wide World of Sports and Jim
We watch TV differently these days, at least young
people do. My wife, 23 years my junior, watches programs in
seven second sound bites. If it doesn’t grab her in seven
seconds it is doomed to the harsh judgement of the remote. We
didn’t have remotes back in the days of Wide World of
Sports. We had to get up to change the channels and there were
only three. As such, we were more lenient in our viewing choices
and gave programs more of a chance. It suited the poetic, sing-song
style of Jim McKay. Even if we weren’t interested in some
ridiculous curling competition we’d at least give it a
few minutes, at least until that miscreant rube Howard Cosell
showed up. Thank goodness Cosell never did commentary for the
Ironman. If he had, it’s likely Mohammed Ali might have
I worry that young people will never have that
eclectic exposure to sport and adventure afforded by Jim McKay
and Wide World of Sports; that they will never see the subject
matter treated with such care, dignity, respect and reverence.
That they will never be so gently inspired. Sports casters today
have adopted an uncouth rap star, in-your-face style that lacks
poise and relies on volume. Perhaps the only exception is the
duo of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin.
No mention of Jim McKay is complete without acknowledging
the broadcast he made from the 20th Olympics in Munich, 1972.
Terrorists took eleven Israeli athletes hostage. All eleven
athletes and coaches perished in a failed rescue attempt. During
the broadcast McKay transitioned instantly from colorful sportscaster
to the man who would herald the beginning of the modern dark
age: The dawn of terrorism. Terrorism existed well before Munich,
but Munich put it live on TV around the world and Jim McKay
was our conduit. He hosted a marathon, round-the-clock vigil
at his broadcast desk bringing us the news live for nearly 24
hours. This was ten years before CNN and 24 hours news. It was
a tense and frightening time. Little did we know it was only
So Jim McKay is gone and who will replace him?
No one will. No person can be replaced and trying is a waste
of time. Just the same I wager there will be a trend in sports
casting where the volume is brought down, the tone becomes more
lyrical. What I fear is that there will never be the inspiration
to “Span the Globe” again. I’m afraid the
gate has closed once and for all, and I am so thankful its keeper
invited me to pass through before he left his post tending the
“Spanning the globe to bring
you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory…
and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…
This is ABC's Wide World of Sports!” Jim McKay,