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Death 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 McKay.

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 done Ironman.

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 the beginning.

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 entrance.

“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, 1921-2008.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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