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."
Mr. McKay won two Emmy Awards for his steady coverage of the crisis, one for sports and one for news -- the only time a sports reporter has received an Emmy in news.
"He brought a reporter's eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment," broadcaster Bob Costas said in a statement. "He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports.
James Kenneth McManus -- Mr. McKay's legal name throughout his life -- was born Sept. 24, 1921, in Philadelphia. He moved with his family to Baltimore when he was 14 and was a 1943 graduate of Loyola College, where he was class president and excelled in theater, journalism and debate.
After commanding a Navy minesweeper during World War II, he returned to Baltimore and found a job as a reporter with the Evening Sun. When the paper began a television station in 1947, Mr. McManus (as he was then known) was given a daily sports show and became the first host of a broadcast produced in Baltimore.
In 1950, he moved to New York and WCBS-TV. When an executive decided to name his show "The Real McKay," James McManus became forever known as Jim McKay. He did a variety of television work, including weather game shows and a popular courtroom drama, "The Verdict Is Yours." He also covered the Masters golf tournament and the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome for CBS.
When ABC's Arledge devised "Wide World of Sports," he turned to Mr. McKay. The show premiered April 29, 1961, and Mr. McKay remained its host for more than 25 years, intoning the famous lines that opened each week's edition: "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."
Mr. McKay traveled to all 50 states and more than 40 countries to present a sporting smorgasbord, from skiing and gymnastics to weightlifting, speed skating, Grand Prix auto racing, barrel jumping and demolition derbies.
" 'Wide World,' in effect, created a new sports world -- outside of baseball, basketball and football -- and brought that world into our homes for the first time, establishing a foothold in our athletic culture for previously neglected games," Norman Chad wrote in The Washington Post in 1987. "Kids, suddenly, wanted to be gymnasts and figure skaters, and viewers were enchanted by the new pastimes."
Painfully shy in his early years, he overcame his hesitancy in front of a microphone when early TV host Arthur Godfrey told him to imagine that he was speaking to one person. For Mr. McKay, that ideal listener was always his wife, who wrote syndicated television and political columns as Margaret McManus.
In addition to "Wide World," Mr. McKay covered major golf tournaments and horse races -- his two favorite sports -- and was a fixture of ABC's Olympic coverage through 1988. He cut back his appearances on "Wide World" in the late 1980s, and the show ended its 36-year run in 1997. Mr. McKay narrated many sports specials, won 13 Emmy Awards and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995.
In later years, Mr. McKay raised thoroughbred horses on his farm and launched the Maryland Million stakes race at Pimlico for horses bred within the state.
He was invited by Costas, one of his leading proteges, to share the anchor's booth at the Winter Olympics in 2002. Mr. McKay wrote a second volume of memoirs in 1998 and produced an autobiographical documentary for HBO in 2003.
His son, Sean McManus, followed his father into broadcasting and is president of CBS News and Sports.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. McKay is survived by a daughter, Mary Guba of Sparks, Md., and three grandchildren.