In the beginning, there was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And Jim McKay had it with him wherever he went, from Bridgeport to "A Bridge Too Far."
"It was a savior during those early days of 'Wide World of Sports;' you'd be amazed what good, concise articles it has on just about every game known to man," said McKay, on the occasion of the show's 30th anniversary special on ABC Sunday (4:30 p.m.)
What an adventure it has been the last three decades, not only for the veteran anchor of the program, but for viewers who grew up enjoying the full spectrum of sports, often presented in travelogue fashion.
Armed with his trusty reference books, McKay says ABC would be at the event site early and "I'd start talking to everyone I could find, not being embarrassed to ask dumb questions."
"First time we were in Prague [Czechoslovakia]," he said, "the show's producer, Roone Arledge, mounted a camera on a cow catcher on the front of a truck and sent it around to capture the sights and sounds of the city."
Creativity was the show's calling card from the outset and as its introduction states -- "bringing you the constant variety of sport," -- the subjects were out there and ABC took to "spanning the globe" to bring them to us.
"Right from the start it was apparent figure skating would have appeal," McKay said. "But there were other events where you'd never guess they'd come on and get so big. For instance, we did a gymnastics meet, probably the national championships, in a high school gym outside Cleveland. It was in June, there was no air conditioning, it must have been 100 degrees in the hall, and there were about 100 spectators there."
It wasn't but a few years later that McKay spoke the memorable line about "a little girl romping playfully through a field of flowers" as Olga Korbut drew the attention of the world with her performance at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Four years later, it was Nadia Comaneci, then Mary Lou Retton, and gymnastics was made forever.
"Our goal always was to seek out legitimate events, the stuff that didn't get on TV much or had been on the periphery, and let the viewers make up their minds about it," McKay said. "Freshness was always important and the advanced technology of today has helped to keep events looking fresh and different."
McKay, for one, was always expert in coming on the air, giving a quick and detailed explanation of what was about to be seen, to the point where you immediately took on a rooting interest. And the individual was always of prime importance.
"You know, we didn't do a fight the first three years," he said, "and it wasn't the sport of boxing but a personality that interested us. His name was Cassius Clay [a.k.a. Muhammad Ali]. Then there was Jean-Claude Killy, Evel Knievel, Susan Butcher, Meadowlark Lemon, all terrific personalities that lent so much to the event."
These days, the ABC trucks roll up, McKay, Al Michaels, Frank Gifford or the other hired hands get out and they're treated like royalty. McKay remembers slightly different receptions:
"It was '24 Hours of LeMans,' we didn't even know what the event was and we had to wait in line for three hours at city hall just to get credentials. Come the day of the race, we're there in the pits and, just before the race starts, the gendarmes come up and take our credentials, explaining they were good only until the race started. We spent the next several hours sneaking in and out of the Ferrari pit to talk to [American] Phil Hill."
The constant variety . . . the very first show featured track and field from the Penn and Drake relays . . . thence to the British soccer championship . . . then LeMans. There were the rodeos, the barrel-jumping and the daredevils. All came and went and the human aspect remained. McKay could be counted on to exhaust the pages of a 10-year passport in a matter of months.
"Valery Brumel, young, handsome, appealing," McKay recalled. "Set world records on three straight U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meets we covered. Jim Beatty ran the first sub-four minute mile indoors with us. We had seen Killy so many times before his great triple in the Olympics, downhill, slalom and giant slalom." Ah, the rush of memories.
For years, "Wide World" would take an obscure event, popularize it here in the U.S. and move on as another network would gain squatter's rights via a rights fee.
"Basically," McKay said, "Wide World's philosophy is pretty much the same as it always was: doing the events not that widely reported in the American press. There was a time when a lot of results weren't readily known. But today, nearly everything gets reported immediately and we go live or same day [tape] as much as possible."
Still, there will always be events where knowing the result before a show doesn't make that much difference (e.g. the Iditarod, the Race Across America, etc.) and ABC will be there with the goods.
Long live Vinko Bogataj, the Yugoslavian forklift operator, who, if he hadn't wiped out on that ski jump, would never have gained immortality as Mr. "Agony of Defeat."