McKay: A Professional's Professional Is Gone

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Sunday, June 8, 2008; 2:33 PM

"They're all gone."

More than 35 years later, simply typing those words evokes memories of hooded terrorists and an unspeakable massacre.

They were uttered by the great Jim McKay on worldwide television during the 1972 Summer Olympics, after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were kidnapped in the Olympic Village and slaughtered during a failed rescue attempt at the Munich Airport.

McKay, who died Saturday at his home in Monkton, Md., at the age of 86, always described the dark hours of Sept. 5, 1972, as the worst day of his life, even though his work that day in the ABC studio has always been characterized as the finest performance of a man who was arguably the greatest television sports broadcaster of his generation.

"I had to control myself, I was full of emotion," McKay once said of his 16-hour coverage of the hostage crisis. "But when you are a professional, it's important to communicate what it is like, to capture the moment."

A day later, McKay received a telegram from CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite that read, "Dear Jim, today you honored yourself, your network and your industry."

Peter Jennings, the late ABC news anchor who was working as a reporter during the '72 Games, once told the Baltimore Sun, "I've often said to folks on that day in Munich, I don't think anybody better could have been in the chair. I've never been able to imagine anybody else doing it with as much grace and intelligence and precision."

From the day the 26-year-old police reporter was plucked out of the Baltimore Evening Sun newsroom in 1947 and assigned to utter the first words ever heard on a Baltimore station in a fledging new medium called television, McKay was a professional's professional.

His storied career, most of it with ABC, included coverage of 12 Olympic competitions -- from his first, for CBS, at the 1960 Rome Games, to his last, working for NBC at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

He also spent more than 37 years as the original and continuing host of the ABC anthology series, "Wide World of Sports." McKay took the assignment in 1961 from pioneering sports producer Roone Arledge with a promise of just 20 episodes as a summer replacement series. The anthology eventually took him "spanning the globe" to every state in the union and 40 countries to cover more than a hundred different sports. ABC once estimated McKay had logged close to five million miles in the air for "Wide World."

But far more significant was the way McKay covered sports that ranged from the ridiculous -- barrel racing, demolition derby and Acapulco cliff divers -- to the sublime at during so many Olympiads, British Opens and Triple Crown horse races. There was dignity, humanity, often unbridled enthusiasm and, perhaps best of all, a story-telling approach he employed virtually every time he sat or stood in front of a camera.

Occasionally, he even got a bit emotional, particularly when American athletes stood on Olympic victory podiums at the very pinnacle of their respective sports.

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