08 June 2008

Yellow Blazer

Jim McKay was older, balding, neither photogenic nor a particularly confident orator. He knew horses, mostly, and did not exactly convey thick-necked masculine duende in the anchor chair. Let's face it - a young Jim McKay today might not even land an entry level network sportscasting job. So, how could someone like that be, maybe, the greatest sports commentator in the history of television?

First, he didnt have much competition, especially early on. That's not a cut, it's just that when Wide World of Sports debuted in 1961, it began to fill and expand an unsatiated, pent up demand for televised sports. Much of what's aired today doesnt fulfill that basic need so much as fight for market share on redundant subject matter. How many times, for example, were you "informed" yesterday of Big Brown's loss or the death of Mr McKay? ESPN's rotating tickers and much of today's "coverage" has become superfluous.

Mr McKay wasnt superfluous. He brought to us people and events from places that, back then, no one else was. Places a boy could barely imagine. My first memory of anything Mexican, before I ate a taco or saw a Mexican in person , or read about Mexico in school, was WWoS' black and white footage of cliff diving from Acapulco. The repetitive swan dives would bore today's attention spans, but it was riveting and exotic in its day. If McKay hosted wrist wrestling from Petaluma, CA, by Monday morning my classmates and I had fashioned tiny elbow boxes from notebook paper and tape, and were wrist to wrist at recess. Barrel jumping from Wisconsin inspired playground 'barrels' of tree limbs or anything we could find. He was positioned as the integral tour guide of our sheltered lives.

The second reason for his historical standing was the man. He seemed like an inquisitive but slightly reserved uncle from an earlier age, the kind who might take you out on the lake, point out interesting things and probably even let you bait your own hook. His cheerful good company often inspired a familial fondness amongst guys my age. He was smart and insightful, but like any good reporter, was more student than teacher, elevating his subjects, both the events and principals, by melting into the background, respectful and intrigued, letting their expertise and humanity preside.


My mother purchased identical T-shirts for my eldest brother and me in the summer of '72, for the upcoming Munich Games. They were gold with Munchen in black letters over a red horizontal band across the chest, bisected by a stylized bavarian lion. I was eleven and this was the first Olympics I fully engaged. We sat on the sofa, in our marigold garb, and rooted on Americans in the opening ceremonies through the early events.

When the kidnapping occured, my initial concern was whether the Games would be suspended. An adult coach had been killed, but kidnappings and hijackings of the era were often bloodless affairs, leverage for the release of political prisoners. The extended seige was eerily gray and disquieting, but to an eleven year old the Olympics were still a symbol of American strength, sports' equivalent of Bonanza or Gunsmoke. Besides, the trapped athletes were worth much more alive, as collateral, so something would be worked out, with the whole world watching.

Everybody, I think, has a moment in their childhood when a horror, even a faraway horror, stops time and that childhood, for most intents and purposes, ends. For many, it was when JFK was shot. For younger folks, the first Challenger disaster or, certainly, 9/11. For me, it was when Jim McKay huddled with Chris Schenkel, turned to 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 there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone."

Much has been made over the past twenty four hours about the expression "They're all gone" and that's what resonated at the time. Just prior, ABC had received an erroneous report that the hostages were saved, so McKay seemed as shocked as I was - that these young athletes, kids really, could be murdered - at the Olympics.

A couple points about McKay's delivery that day. First, is the briefly personal intro about his dad. Today's newscasters are taught to separate world events from any hint of informality, but McKay eloquently braced viewers for the awful reality of his next sentence. Second, he doesnt cite any particular authority, like German police, as a source - it is simply "they". That wouldnt fly today, but this initial, heartbreaking update isnt about the German, or any other, authority and McKay seemed to instinctively sense that. Third, and most chilling, is his emphasis on the word "nine", as if even he didnt realize how many were truly at risk.

I doubt Jim McKay could ever land an anchor job today. He had none of the required glamourous attributes, but inside had all the right stuff - making the world smaller with honest wonder and a cultivated decency. A decency content with relating to the world that the young Israelis were victims, rather than commercially viable heroes. A decency that never strayed from the sense of human loss, without ferreting out gore or falling into the depths of schadenfreude - commercial television's contemporary staple.

In Connecticut, I learned that young athletes, my heroes, could die in an instant, that even after Hitler people were trying to kill Jews, and from the understated and dignified Jim McKay, that both of these revelations were unspeakably sad. We folded the golden shirts ourselves, neatly into the bottom of a large bureau, never to be worn again.


Russell said...

Excellent entry. Obviously I've never heard of Jim McKay but I'm guessing that every country and every generation of that country has a similar figure that transcends sport whether by accident or design.

Jeff said...

Class Act.

Not much more I can say that you haven't already.

Nothing but respect.

Michael Norton said...

Great eulogy.

You lived in a more intellectually upscale neighborhood than I did, though. My chums only recognized four sports--and even hockey was suspect. WWoS was for old farts.

Of course now I'm old I recognize the genius and contribution WWoS and Jim McKay made.

Michael Norton
Some Clubhouse

Matt said...

I'm confident Wide World's Demolition Derby got good ratings in Oklahoma :-)

Seriously, I can relate to the old fart thing. There was that air to alot of the segments. I thought the hunting was unbearably dull, for example. For others, maybe it was the bowling.

Everybody remembers the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat", but what made WWoS great to me was the "the constant variety of sport".It was like the weather in San Francisco - if you didnt like it, wait ten minutes.

Michael Norton said...

Ironically, Matt, I grew up in San Francisco, not Oklahoma (lol)

Even though we didn't seem to like WWoS, we were so infatuated with sports that we would have watched anything with "sports" in the title, even against our own inclinations. So in that way WWoS did inculcate in us the notion that there was more to sports than just baseball, football, basketball and hockey.

Michael Norton
Some Clubhouse

Michael Norton said...

One other note: when I moved to (rural) Oklahoma in high school, there was not WWoS. In fact, there was no ABC, NBC or CBS (and, of course, this was in the age before cable). The only broadcast signal available was PBS.

And everyone thought Okies were dumb... ;-)

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