`Mr. Olympics' comes off bench

Broadcasting: Jim McKay thought the games were over for him when NBC got the Olympics, but now it seems to be only the start of overtime.

Winter Olympics Salt Lake City 2002


January 30, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

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

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

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

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

But two men who got their starts in television as assistants to McKay decided otherwise. NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol appealed to his ABC counterpart, Howard Katz, who agreed to the unusual deal. Katz was a production assistant to McKay 27 years ago, and Ebersol was McKay's first researcher during the 1968 Summer and Winter games.

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

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

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

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

He jokes that in his temporary assignment at NBC, he's a bit like Ross Perot'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," he says. "It's unexplained territory."

Costas, who has covered five Summer Games but not a Winter Olympics, is clearly delighted to be working with McKay. "It will be like being transported back 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 of participants. Forty years of sports reporting has taught McKay that the Olympics "never turn out the way you think," and TV has to be ready to switch gears.

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

He did it without a script, without a TelePrompTer. He didn't have the gaggle 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 ghastly news with quiet dignity: "My father once told me when I was a kid that our greatest hopes and worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears are realized tonight. They're gone. They're all gone."

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

To this day, though, McKay downplays that performance. "It all happened very 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 people remember."

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

When asked to name other unanticipated stories, he quickly clicks off a number of pleasant surprises: the plucky Jamaican bobsled team and hapless English ski jumper Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards in 1988 and wrestler Rulon Gardner's stunning victory over three-time Olympic gold medallist Alexander Karelin of Russia in the 2000 Summer Games.

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

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

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

"But you won't have a group of college kids beating the greatest hockey team 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 to recognize that story and weave it together."

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