"HI. IT'S Jim McKay."
He was returning a call seeking his insights into the state of theOlympics. The sound of his voice on the other end of the line was startling,nevertheless, partly because it's so familiar from his decades on the air,partly because it's like conversing with Zeus on Mount Olympus himself, soidentifiable is the man with the world's greatest international sportsfestival. His work has won a closetful of Emmys, and his reportage of thefatal hostage-taking of Israeli athletes in Munich, West Germany, in 1972 --"They're all gone" -- is a signature moment in sportscasting. His name isvirtually synonymous with Maryland's Preakness, too.
Sitting it out
The semiretired Mr. McKay isn't in Nagano, Japan, for the Winter Olympicseven though a company offered to jet him there to give dinner talks. His son,Sean McManus, is, however, as president of CBS Sports. The elder Mr. McKay --he changed his last name for TV -- mentions he was touched by a recent phonecall from Japan. It was from Jim Nantz, anchor of CBS' Olympics coverage, whorevered Mr. McKay's work growing up. "You'll be sitting beside me," he toldhis idol.
Jim McKay remains a great believer in the Olympic movement, but he soundsagitated about its direction. He misses the neophytes like Eddie "The Eagle"Edwards, the gawky British ski jumper of a few years back who looked as apt toinjure himself as he was to fly off the jumping ramp.
He paraphrases modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin: Theglory isn't the thrill of victory, but the will to compete. It's one reason hehas a huge, soft spot for speed skating. The sport often seems like one bigfamily, and, indeed, many participants are related.
There's little reason to be in speed skating but for love of the sport,because there's no professional level.
Mr. McKay's passion to see the anonymous compete has its limits, however.He sounds appalled at the introduction of ballroom dancing at the Sydney,Australia, Games in 2000. Just because it's been popular on British televisionfor years doesn't mean it belongs in an Olympiad, he says. He recalls whenmany viewers balked at the idea of beach volleyball being included in his"Wide World of Sports" program; now it's an Olympic event, too.
The games' commercialism, on and off the field, is a common lament, onewith which Mr. McKay concurs. "I've never been an apostle of the 'dream team'concept. What's the big achievement of the U.S. beating Angola by 60 points inbasketball?"
Conversely, he calls the U.S. hockey team's victory over the powerfulSoviets at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 "the greatest upset in the history ofsport anytime, anywhere." That's a mouthful coming from a man not given to thehyperbole of some of his fellow broadcasters. "The Mets beating the Orioles?That was all professional athletes, but this was different."
The price tag of the games is also breathtaking to one who's seen theOlympics evolve. "In Squaw Valley, [Calif., in 1960], XTC CBS paid $50,000 forthe rights; and four years later, when it was $250,000 in Innsbruck,[Austria,] everyone said it was folly. And when Roone [Arledge] paid $25million for Montreal [in 1976], everyone said, 'Now, they've gone too far.'And now NBC has paid several billion through 2008 to host the games."
Jim McKay's introduction to television is a story inspirational enough forone of those treacly "Up Close and Personal" Olympic segments. After buying alocal TV station, the owners of The Sun heard that a reporter named McManushad done some theater and might be comfortable in front of a camera.
The rest is history: He turned out to be great for TV, and it was good tohim and his wife, Margaret, also a former newspaper reporter. They're nowlimited partners of the Baltimore Orioles, but that status didn't keep Mr.McKay from sounding as enthralled as any kid in a bird cap anticipating springtraining. "That was something about the O's getting Ozzie Guillen, huh?"
Jim, don't you own the team?
Mr. McKay, a lifelong Baltimorean, hails from the same mold as cityschools reformer Walter Sondheim Jr. and James W. Rouse, the urban visionarywho developed Harborplace -- individuals who'd accomplished as much as onecould for the betterment and promotion of Maryland and yet remain so purelyhumble about it. As the conversation ends, you mention that you heard hisnarration recently on a McDonald's restaurant radio advertisement for a BigMac/Olympics promotion.
"Oh, you heard that?" Mr. Olympics asks. "You're not going to think lessof me, are you?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun