Sportscasting legend Jim McKay dead at 86

Jim McKay, 86, a longtime television sports journalist, died of natural causes in Maryland, according to a statement from the McKay family. McKay is best known for hosting “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” and 12 Olympic Games. With a remarkable number of firsts in the field of broadcasting, sports commentator Jim McKay has no equal. In 1947, he was the first television broadcaster on the airwaves in Baltimore; in 1968, he became the first sports commentator to win an Emmy Award; and the host of other firsts he achieved make him one of the most respected commentators in the history of broadcasting. Click here to watch a tribute video from the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame ceremony last December.

“Jim McKay was a singular broadcaster,” says NBC’s Bob Costas. “He brought a reporter’s eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment. He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports.”

Born James McManus, the steady-voiced McKay was the first on-camera personality for Baltimore’s first TV station. The station’s producer, director, writer, and news and sports reporter, he was well-equipped to be a pioneer.

McKay began work at ABC Sports in the 1950s, covering everything from international golf to horse racing. In 1961, he hosted the first episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, the project that would define him as a broadcaster and the show went on to become the most successful sports program in the history of television.

As host of Wide World until its final show in 1998, McKay logged more than 4.5 million miles traveling to cover more than 100 sports in 40 countries across the globe, opening spectators’ eyes to pastimes other than baseball and football, such as Irish hurling. Coining catch phases like “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” McKay became a staple in the American household for nearly four decades.

“He is the most unique talent in sportscasting,” NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol told The New York Times in 2002. “He did so much from scratch because so many of the sports he did were out of the mainstream.”

Ebersol worked with McKay for six years at ABC Sports, beginning as a nineteen year-old Olympic researcher for three Olympics (1968: Grenoble, Mexico City; 1972: Mexico City) and as a producer for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” He had the privilege to work him again during NBC’s coverage of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, in a rare agreement arranged by McKay’s son, Sean McManus, President of CBS News and Sports, and through the graciousness of then ABC Sports President Howard Katz who allowed McKay, under an exclusive lifetime contract to ABC, work his 12th Olympics.

“He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered,” says Ebersol today. “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. He was the best husband to his wife, an extraordinary father to his own children and for all of us who had the privilege to grow up around him as boys, he helped shape us into men.”

Adding to his list of firsts was McKay’s trip to Mainland China and the People’s Republic, where he was the first American network sports commentator to set foot during China’s period of isolationism.

Throughout his time with Wide World, McKay put innumerable hours into the assignments that would earn him the most international acclaim, the Olympics. Of his more than 40 years of Olympic coverage, McKay is best-known for his reporting of the Black September attacks on 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich. Those 16 hours of news and sports reporting made him a fixture in the global history of sports commentary and earned him numerous accolades, including two Emmys and the George Polk Memorial Award, given annually to a single journalist whose work represents the most significant reporting of the year.

Overall, McKay covered 12 Olympic Games, from Rome in 1960 to Salt Lake City in 2002, and received an Olympic Medal from the Austrian Government, for his work at the 1976 Innsbruck Games, and the Olympic Order, the highest award of the International Olympic Committee.

In 1968, McKay became the first sports commentator to win an Emmy Award. He now has 13 of the statuettes, including the 1981-82 Award for Outstanding Sports Personality/Host and, a tribute to his versatility, an Emmy for his writing of the opening segments in ABC Sports’ coverage of the Indianapolis 500, the British Open, and the Kentucky Derby. He is the only broadcaster to win Emmys for sports and news broadcasting and for writing.

“He is a brilliant writer with a touch of the poet and a way of seeing things regular folks don’t see,” says Doug Wilson, a producer, director, and one of McKay’s former colleagues. McKay’s contributions are so widespread that a new award had to be created to recognize his achievements.

In 1990, he received the first-ever Lifetime Achievement in Sports award from the National Academy of Television Arts And Sciences, a testament to a devoted storyteller who has spent his life to sharing stories with the world.

“He was the personification of class and style,” adds NBC’s Al Michaels. “There has never been a more respected individual in the business and deservedly so. His love for life could only be matched by his love for Margaret. His enthusiasm permeated every event he covered and thus always made it far more interesting. I always thought of him as a favorite teacher. He was so into whatever it was he was doing that he drew you into every event he covered.”