Commentary

McKay remembered as a reporter with soul of a poet

Originally Published: June 7, 2008
By Jeremy Schaap | Special to ESPN.com

When ABC was able to confirm that the German attempt to rescue the Israeli Olympic hostages in Munich had failed and all the hostages were dead, Jim McKay wasn't thinking about the tens of millions of viewers who were waiting for him to communicate what had happened. He was thinking only about two of them: David Berger's parents, sitting at home in suburban Cleveland. He knew that in all likelihood, his would be the voice -- the first -- telling them that their son, a 28-year-old Olympic weightlifter, was dead.

Sad and visibly tired, but composed, McKay gathered himself and said, "They're all gone." The Bergers, whose hopes had been raised by false reports that the hostages had been freed, then knew the truth.

That was 36 years ago, and McKay's reporting during the Olympic hostage crisis will endure as the standard by which all such reporting is judged. Not sports reporting. Just reporting. Of all the news, bad and good, terrifying and uplifting, that television hosts have delivered to the American people, perhaps the only moment that compares was nine years earlier, when Walter Cronkite removed his glasses, dried his eyes and told the nation that John F. Kennedy had died.

Shortly after McKay delivered the tragic news in Munich, he received a telegram. "Dear Jim," it read. "Today you honored yourself, your network and your industry. -- Walter Cronkite."

McKay was special not just because he was a solid reporter in a field dominated by men who had been trained to call games. He was special because he was a reporter with the soul of a poet, his twin talents perfectly matched to his assignments.

In the hands of someone less sincere, it might have seemed maudlin to recite several lines from A.E. Housman's poem "To An Athlete Dying Young," even in the Munich aftermath. But when McKay memorialized the slain Israelis by saying, "Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honors out/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man," it could not have been more poignant or more fitting. Of course, long before Munich, the American people had come to trust McKay.

As the host of "ABC's Wide World of Sports," McKay spent the 1960s and 1970s spanning the globe, calling everything from mainstream events, such as the Indianapolis 500, to the most obscure and seemingly silly sports, such as barrel jumping. Unfailingly, he treated the barrel jumpers and cliff divers and bicycle polo players with the same respect he afforded Mario Andretti and Mark Spitz and Bill Shoemaker. If there was a defining McKay characteristic, that was it. He respected his subjects. He never stripped them of their dignity. It would have been all too easy to play the small sports for laughs. McKay didn't. Sure, he would have fun -- he was by no means a stick in the mud -- but not at the expense of the athletes or their families.

Case in point: the 1965 world barrel jumping championship. (Barrel jumping, long a staple of Wide World, is simply long jumping on ice skates, over uniformly sized barrels). A young man from Lake Placid, N.Y., named Ken Lebel was attempting to break the world record by clearing 17 barrels, and when he succeeded, McKay was almost overcome with emotion. "Nobody in the history of the sport ever did it before," he said. "There's Kenny's wife, just as tearfully excited as if her husband had just won the World Series." Looking now at the grainy footage, it's clear that McKay was just as excited as Mrs. Lebel.

And it was McKay who was the primary voice at the Olympics for a quarter-century -- the quarter-century when the Olympics mattered most, when the games were all but defined by the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, when for two separate fortnights every four years little else seemed to matter. With McKay setting the tone for Olympics coverage, first on CBS and then on ABC, the athletes from behind the Iron Curtain were never demonized, even if it was clear that the system that nurtured them was morally reprehensible. McKay and his boss, Roone Arledge, did not resort to Hollywood tactics. They never made Olga Korbut or Sergei Makarov or Nadia Comaneci into Ivan Dragos. In his heart, McKay might have preferred to see the American pixies defeat the Red pixies and our amateurs defeat their pros, but it never showed.

In the end, McKay will stay with us because of all the ways in which he exemplified journalistic professionalism, informed by true grace, a poet's touch and simple humanity. Unlike Housman's athlete, he lived long -- 86 years -- but not long enough to see his renown outrun. It's unlikely that it ever will be.

Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is the substitute host of Outside the Lines and the Sports Reporters. He is also a frequent contributor to ABC's World News Tonight and Nightline.

Jeremy Schaap

SportsCenter Reporter/Host, Classic Sports Reporters
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."