For 20 years, it has survived on equal parts thrill of victory and agony of defeat, on Jim McKay's calm voice of reason and Howard Cosell's bom-bastic bluster, on dumb demolition derby and delicious Dorothy Hamill.
And now, the people at ABC are celebrating 20 years of "Wide World of Sports" this weekend with a 90-minute special Saturday night and shows No. 1,081 Saturday and Sunday afternoons. In its regular time slots, "Wide World" still manages to pull down ratings that made it the No. 1 weekend sports series for the first quarter of 1981.
Not bad for a show that started out in the rain 20 Aprils ago at the Penn Relays, ostensibly as a 20-week summer replacement. In the years since, there have been 119 varieties of so-called sports, live and taped on location from 48 countries, 46 states and the District of Columbia.
McKay, the former Baltimore newspaperman who handled that first show, is still very much involved in "Wide World," even after 4 million miles of air travel in pursuit of cliff divers, arm wrestlers and barrel jumpers, among others.
Of course, McKay -- and everyone else at ABC -- likes to emphasize the positive. Until "Wide World" zoomed in up close and personally, they will tell you, sports like gymnastics and figure skating were relatively unknown.
"Before we did them, they'd be lucky to draw 200 people," McKay said the other day. "I read a few weeks ago that when they held the world figure-skating championships in Hartford, they'd been sold out months in advance. I'd like to think we had a lot to do with that."
"Wide World" had a lot to do with other innovations, many of them technological. The very first summer, Wide World put a microphone in the helmet of a professional football quarterback, the first time Rep. Jack Kemp had himself a national television audience, you might say.
"Wide World" had been a laboratory for ABC Sports," Jim Spence, senior vice president of ABC Sports, said in a recent interview with Associated Press. "In those early years, we experimented with all aspects of the program -- camera angles, editing, format, new electronic technology. And the lessons were learned have been incorporated into all ABC sports coverage."
And yet, to this day, watching "Wide World" also can be a somewhat maddening experience, thanks mostly to Roone Arledge, now president of ABC News and Sports and the man who came up with the original concept.
It's called the Big Tesse and the formula is quite simple. You merely take your best event of the day -- a title fight, a performance by Nadia, a world-record mile -- and keep plugging it through the car races, the wind surfers and the log rollers. Sometimes you might jump back and forth between events, the better to keep the audience around for the entire show.
Even McKay admitted that this segmented approach "is sometimes annoying and obtrusive, but it does get the job done.
"In one of our earlier years, we had figure skating and demolition derby on the same show. Roone said that if he just put figure skating on, we wouldn't have a very big audience. But once you've got them for the demolition derby, they'll probably stay to watch the figure skating, too. The action sports were used to get people to watch things they normally wouldn't. And once they saw figure skating or gymnastics, they liked it and came back."
Still, they also came back to check out rocket jumps over canyons and all the other garbage we now know as trashports. For this we can also thank "Wide World" or damn it.
"I don't buy that," McKay said. "Sure, we've had our share of barrel jumpers and that sort of thing, but it was always legitimate competition. That was our rule of thumb, and we tried to stay with it over the years. Our overall concept was that there was a lot of sports not being tried by television, and we tried where nobody else would."
McKay has seen most of those sports, pseudo or otherwise, and he has his own collection of memorable moments over the years.
One of them probably kept "Wide World" alive in the beginning -- a world-record high jump by Valeri Brumel on the show's first trip to the Soviet Union. "If there was a key moment for 'Wide World', that was it," McKay said. "It generated a lot of excitement, and I think it kept us from going off the air."
McKay also recalled covering Dorothy Hamill in the World Figure Skating Championship in Germany in 1975, the year before she won the gold medal at the Olympics.
"The skater before Dorothy was from Munich, and she skated very well," McKay said. "She got good marks, but the crowd thought she deserved better and they started booing the judges, throwing stuff on the ice. The officials, meanwhile, stupidly put Dorothy out there, and when she skated out, she thought the crowd was after her and she burst into tears.
"She went off and her father and her coach tried to console her. Another official came up and told her they would put somebody else out ahead of her so she could compose herself for a few minutes. But Dorothy walked back out there, faced the crowd and had the greatest performance of her life up until then. That got to the core of what an athlete really is. And that's really what 'Wide World' is all about."