Obituaries

Groundbreaking Sportscaster McKay Dies

This 1980 file photo originally from ABC-TV shows Jim McKay. McKay, the veteran and eloquent sportscaster thrust into the role of telling Americans about the tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics, died Saturday, June 7, 2008. He was 86.(AP Photo/ABC)
This 1980 file photo originally from ABC-TV shows Jim McKay. McKay, the veteran and eloquent sportscaster thrust into the role of telling Americans about the tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics, died Saturday, June 7, 2008. He was 86.(AP Photo/ABC) (AP)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jim McKay, the sportscaster who brought the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" into U.S. homes as the longtime host of "ABC's Wide World of Sports" and who anchored the network's coverage of the terrorist killings of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, died June 7 at his farm in Monkton, Md., north of Baltimore. He was 86. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Mr. McKay was a versatile sportscaster who exerted a quiet but powerful influence on his craft for more than 40 years. As the host of "Wide World of Sports," he helped popularize dozens of sports, from figure skating to ski jumping to Mexican cliff diving, that had previously been followed by only a small cadre of fans.

His specialty of describing the human pathos that transcended a contest's results helped him become the first sportscaster in television history to win an Emmy Award.

Mr. McKay gained his greatest renown, though, for his sensitive coverage of 12 Olympiads, most notably the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. It was the first time the games had been held in Germany since the "Hitler Olympics" of 1936, which served as artful propaganda for the Third Reich.

When Arab terrorists seized 11 Israeli hostages at Munich's Olympic Village, ABC Chairman Roone Arledge chose Mr. McKay to anchor the network's broadcasts, rather than regular host Chris Schenkel or the better-known Howard Cosell.

"There's a steadiness there," Arledge later explained. "Jim has a depth and a sense of the moment. He has a descriptive ability and can stay on the air for a long time. He would have made a wonderful anchorman at a convention or in an election."

Mr. McKay's calm, dignified presence propelled him from the simplicity of sports to the complexities of international politics and terror. He stayed on the air for 16 hours, his unshaven beard growing thicker by the minute, as he explained to the world how sports had suddenly lost its innocence.

"It was on that tragic day, Sept. 5, 1972," William Taaffe wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1984, "that he became the very image and voice of the Games -- Mr. Olympics."

Mr. McKay described the scene with a plain-spoken eloquence that captured the gravity of the moment. With the ABC broadcast center only 100 yards from the Olympic Village, there was fear that the terrorists might attempt to storm the building and take ABC employees, including Mr. McKay, hostage.

Even after he was joined on the broadcast by Peter Jennings and Lou Cioffi of ABC News, Mr. McKay continued to lead the coverage. As the captors took 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and officials to the Munich airport, Mr. McKay spoke extemporaneously as events unfolded around him.

When the end of the siege came, he described it to a shocked world.

"When I was a kid, my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized," he said. "Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms this -- excuse me, yesterday morning. Nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone."


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