Jim McKay, the venerable and eloquent sportscaster thrust into the role of telling Americans about the tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics, has died. He was 86. McKay died June 7th of natural causes at his farm in Monkton, MD., said son Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. The broadcaster who considered horse racing his favorite sport died only hours before Big Brown attempted to win a Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.
Jim McKay was host of the influential "ABC's Wide World of Sports" for more than 40 years, starting in 1961. The weekend series introduced viewers to all manner of strange, compelling and far-flung sports events. The show provided an international reach long before exotic backdrops became a staple of sports television.
McKay provided the famous voice-over that accompanied the opening, in which viewers were reminded of the show's mission ("Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports") and what lay ahead ("the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat"). McKay -- understated, dignified and with a clear eye for detail -- covered 12 Olympics, but none more memorably than the Summer Games in Munich, Germany. He was the anchor when events turned grim with the news that Palestinian terrorists had kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes.
It was left to McKay to tell Americans when a commando raid to rescue the athletes ended in tragedy. "They're all gone," McKay said. The terse, haunting comment was replayed many times through the years when the events of Munich were chronicled.
"I had to control myself. I was full of emotion," McKay recalled. "But when you are a professional, it is important to communicate what it is like, to capture the moment." Sports, McKay said, lost its innocence that day.
"Jim was at his best during what had to be his most difficult assignment, hosting with skill and sensitivity ABC's blanket coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis," President Bush said in a statement. " We are also grateful for Jim's service to his country as a Naval officer aboard a minesweeper during World War II." He won both a news and sports Emmy Award for his coverage of the Munich Olympics, in addition to the prestigious George Polk Memorial award.
"In the long run, that's the most memorable single moment of my career," said McKay, who also was in the studio for the United States' "Miracle on Ice" men's hockey victory over the Soviet Union in 1980. "I don't know what else would match that."
A veteran of the U.S. Navy in World War II, McKay was the first on-air television broadcaster seen in Baltimore. He worked at CBS Sports briefly, but did his most memorable work at ABC Sports when it dominated the business under leader Roone Arledge.
"He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life," McManus said. "Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't come up to me and say how much they admired my father." McKay was the first sportscaster to win an Emmy Award. His 12th Emmy, in 1988, was not for his talents as a broadcaster but as the writer of the openings for ABC Sports' coverage of the 1987 Indianapolis 500, the British Open and the Kentucky Derby. He is the only broadcaster to have won Emmys for sports and news broadcasting and writing.
"Jim McKay was an icon, a legend in broadcasting. He helped build ABC Sports and the Indianapolis 500 through a true partnership and always remained a friend and a fan," Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George said in a statement. "The Indianapolis Motor Speedway family offers its condolences to his family."
ABC calculated that McKay traveled some 4½ million miles to work events. He covered more than 100 different sports in 40 countries. In 2002, McKay received the International Olympic Committee's highest honor, the Olympic Order. "He was a founding father of sports television, one of the most respected commentators in the history of broadcasting and journalism," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. "
Bob Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said: "Jim was a regular guy who wrote and spoke like a poet. He loved sports. To him, sports defined life -- full of drama, adventure, accomplishment and disappointment. The thrill of victory for some, the agony of defeat for others. Jim was as likable off camera as on, a true friend to all those who worked with him or watched him."
McKay's first television broadcast assignment was a horse race at Pimlico in 1947. It was the start of a love affair -- horse racing captivated him like nothing else. "There are few things in sport as exciting or beautiful as two strong thoroughbreds, neck and neck, charging toward the finish," he once said.
Racecaller Dave Johnson worked with McKay during horse racing telecasts. "How many Saturday afternoons did we spend with Jim McKay?" he said from Belmont Park. "Maybe more than with family members. Never a cross word out of him, such a decent human being."
Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, worked with McKay for six years at ABC Sports. "He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered," he said. "While we all know what an absolute titan he was in his chosen field, I will always remember him as an extraordinary human being guided by a strong moral compass."
U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said McKay set a standard for sports journalism. "Jim is synonymous with the Olympic Games." he said. "As host of ABC's Olympic coverage, he brought into our homes the triumphs and struggles of athletes from around the world."
The New York Yankees paused to remember McKay before the national anthem Saturday, and fans at a packed Yankee Stadium responded with applause.
McKay left his mark on countless colleagues. Bob Costas called McKay a "singular broadcaster." "He brought a reporter's eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment," Costas said. "He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports."
Al Michaels described McKay as the "personification of class and style." "His enthusiasm permeated every event he covered and thus always made it far more interesting," he said. "I always thought of him as a favorite teacher."
Mike Tirico, covering the NBA Finals in Boston for ABC and ESPN, worked four British Opens with McKay. He said McKay held a special place in the Tirico household while growing up in Queens. "Dinner wasn't served on Saturday night until 'Wide World of Sports' was over," Tirico said.
Jim McManus (McKay's real name) was born in Philadelphia on September 24, 1921, and moved to Baltimore when he was 15. He graduated from Loyola College there, then entered the United States Navy. McKay also was a minority owner of the Baltimore Orioles.
"Even with all of his national and international success, Jim never forgot where he came from, or his Maryland roots," Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos said. "He built the Maryland Million to showcase the best in our state's horse racing industry, and he was a valued partner in the Orioles ownership group. He will be greatly missed, but we are grateful for his life and legacy."
In addition to McManus, McKay's survivors include his wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Mary.