`Mr. Olympics' comes off bench

Sun Staff

No one could ever accuse Jim McKay of signing up for another Olympicsbecause he's resume building. Or because he needs the paycheck.

"It sounds like fun," says McKay of his handshake deal to cover his 12thOlympiad. "It's one more time around the block."

ABC, McKay's home network for 40 years, last year agreed to lend him to NBCfor the Winter Games.

"I remember when NBC locked up the games for what seemed like forever, Ilooked at my wife and said, `Well, Margaret, that's it. It looks like ourOlympic days are over,' " recalls McKay, 80, at his farm in Monkton.

But two men who got their starts in television as assistants to McKaydecided otherwise. NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol appealed to his ABCcounterpart, Howard Katz, who agreed to the unusual deal. Katz was aproduction assistant to McKay 27 years ago, and Ebersol was McKay's firstresearcher during the 1968 Summer and Winter games.

"It was just totally unexpected," says McKay. "There's no writtenagreement. No money exchanged hands. How often can you say that these days?"

NBC will present 375.5 hours of coverage, beginning with the openingceremony Feb. 8 through the extinguishing of the Olympic caldron at theclosing ceremony on Feb. 24. In addition to daily network coverage, NBC willuse its two cable outlets - CNBC and MSNBC.

As special correspondent, McKay will be in the studio every evening withNBC anchor Bob Costas and will be contributing athlete profiles now knowngenerically as "up close and personals."

"Many people complain about them," McKay acknowledges, "but many peoplewouldn't care about the Olympics if they didn't know something about theathletes and their backgrounds. As long as they're focused and honest, thepieces serve a purpose."

He jokes that in his temporary assignment at NBC, he's a bit like RossPerot's running mate, James Stockdale, asking at his vice presidential debate,"Who am I? Why am I here?"

"I've been the host, but nothing like this. It's none of the above," hesays. "It's unexplained territory."

Costas, who has covered five Summer Games but not a Winter Olympics, isclearly delighted to be working with McKay. "It will be like being transportedback to the 1950s and getting to broadcast with Red Barber or Mel Allen. ...[McKay] defined the craft, defined this assignment," he says.

Few sports events have the ability to surprise the way the Olympics do,given ever-shifting world politics, the length of the games and the number ofparticipants. Forty years of sports reporting has taught McKay that theOlympics "never turn out the way you think," and TV has to be ready to switchgears.

At no time was that more apparent than in 1972, when McKay's broadcastingreputation went from solid to solid gold. After getting a call while sittingin his hotel sauna, he raced to the studio to anchor 16 hours of coverage asterrorists kidnapped and killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at theMunich Games.

He did it without a script, without a TelePrompTer. He didn't have thegaggle of in-studio experts and the crutch of flashy graphics in use today.

When he received the news of their deaths, McKay passed along the ghastlynews with quiet dignity: "My father once told me when I was a kid that ourgreatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears arerealized tonight. They're gone. They're all gone."

Ebersol says: "No one ever rose to the occasion on the news and sports sidelike him."

To this day, though, McKay downplays that performance. "It all happenedvery quickly. I was just doing my job. It's funny how you say three words -`They're all gone' - and out of your whole career, that's what peopleremember."

Instead, he credits his two years as a city reporter at the BaltimoreEvening Sun with giving him a strong foundation. "After that, the reportingtechnique is the same, whether it's news or sports."

When asked to name other unanticipated stories, he quickly clicks off anumber of pleasant surprises: the plucky Jamaican bobsled team and haplessEnglish ski jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards in 1988 and wrestler RulonGardner's stunning victory over three-time Olympic gold medallist AlexanderKarelin of Russia in the 2000 Summer Games.

"Who would've thought that anyone would watch Greco-Roman wrestling?" hesays, and then chuckles. "Well, they were that night."

With NHL players competing, agents signing athletes and endorsement dealseverywhere, McKay acknowledges the amateur nature of the Games has changed.

"Something's been lost, but something's been gained," he says. "It used tobe a $100 bill left in a shoe in the locker room - very demeaning to both theathlete and the sponsor.

"But you won't have a group of college kids beating the greatest hockeyteam in the world. That 1980 game was the greatest upset in any sport,anytime, anywhere."

Though he doesn't see anything this year surpassing that "Miracle on Ice"thrill, he's keeping his eyes open.

"The games will write their own story," he says. "Our job will be torecognize that story and weave it together."

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