McKay Set the Standard for Sports Broadcasters

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By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 9, 2008; 6:07 PM

It is difficult to know where to begin a column on Jim McKay. That's because he was so many things to so many people. He was ABC's Wide World of Sports. He was the voice of the Olympic Games. He was the premier voice of golf for so long that he was part of another announcer's signature line: Whenever roving reporter Bob Rosburg declared a shot to be impossible he would always say, "that one's dead Jim."

Perhaps the simplest way to put it is this: Jim McKay was to sports broadcasting what Babe Ruth was to home run hitting. In a sense, he invented the genre. Others have come behind him and achieved greatly, but the notion of being able to handle anything and everything started with McKay.

He passed away on Saturday at the age of 86. What the people putting out Sunday morning's Washington Post were thinking when they stuck the story of his life on the obituary page as if he were the weekend anchor at one of the local television stations is beyond comprehension.

You don't put Babe Ruth on the obit page. You put him on A1.

McKay will always be remembered as the host and voice of Wide World of Sports. Even non-sports fans can quote his famous "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" line from the opening of the show. He also will be remembered forever for his remarkable handling of what was arguably the darkest moment in the history of sports: the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

McKay had been on the air for nearly 16 hours when word finally came that all the hostages were dead. The exhaustion he felt at that moment and the despair probably can't be put into tangible terms. Within seconds after being told what had happened at the airport, McKay, in a voice steady but filled with emotion, looked into the camera and said:

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

"They're all gone."

Those last three words are what we all remember most clearly about that awful day and night. If you gave the most skilled writer an entire day, he or she could not have been more eloquent than McKay was in that moment. "They're all gone," spoke to exactly how we all felt. Complete despair, anger and frustration because the rescue attempt had been so completely botched.

For his handling of that day's events, McKay won an Emmy Award for news broadcasting making him the first and, to this day, the only sportscaster to do so. He won countless other Emmys for his work in sports long before there were Emmy Awards given out strictly for sports broadcasting. If he had been working full-time when the sports Emmys were launched, he would have needed a wing on his house to hold them all.

What made McKay so good, besides his skills as a reporter and his work ethic, was the fact that he never saw himself as a big star the way the anchor monsters of today always seem to do. The likelihood that he would ever have been caught on YouTube screaming at people a la Chris Berman is about the same as the likelihood that he would give himself a nickname like "The Schwam."

Bob Carpenter, who is now the television voice of the Washington Nationals, remembers working as an on-course reporter for ESPN at the 1982 PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club when he had his first McKay experience.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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