Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition… this is ABC's Wide World of Sports! Jim McKay, April 29, 1961.
It was a time when most televised sports were local. When there was just one nationally televised baseball game each week during the season and the same for pro football. When the NCAA restricted college football to one televised game per week. In the era before satellite transmission allowed telecast of live games from around the world, there was ABC's Wide World of Sports. And what a new and interesting world it was. Started more to fill-in summer hours than lead a revolution, Wide World of Sports was on the cusp of technological developments such as satellite transmission and videotape while bring a world of sports foreign to the fans of the United States where sports began with baseball transitioned through college football and ended with college basketball. Track and field, gymnastics, swimming and soccer all were mere afterthoughts. Professional wrestling drew more attention among television viewers than pro football and basketball. Boxing was bigger, on television, than the Olympics. Wide World of Sports would be crucial to expanding sports to its current role in everyday life. For some reason one of the moments I remember best was the All-Ireland Hurling final in which two groups of otherwise anonymous men ran up and down a field holding long sticks and trying to pick up a small ball and run toward their opponents goal. Sounds like any number of games in concept but what mad this memorable was when one of the players suddenly dropped his stick whirled around and slugged an opponent in the gut. It was in the open and blatant but memorable. By 1964 the summer and winters Olympics became regular features and so were the competitions in these sports in the off years. "The agony of defeat" which was part of lead in of every telecast in those years was from a European ski jump competition (To be exact the ski jumper was Vinko Bogataj and the mishap occurred on March 21, 1970. Alpine skiing telecasts helped the US Alpine Skiing Association build corporate backing for American amateurs in a sport where the USA was, well amateur. Cold war politics became part the equation with the annual US/USSR track and field meet. The US usually dominated the shorter races while the USSR swept the distance events. Their Soviet counterparts generally outclassed American women. Wild World of Sports, without editorial comment, brought home this disparity and in a time when the USSR was leading the so-called space race there became something personal about who could run 10,000 meters the fastest. And then there was Humble Howard. Before he became known for his interviews with Muhammad Ali and his commentary during telecasts of professional boxing Howard Cosell was mostly known for a fifteen-minute radio spot "Speaking of Sports" on ABC radio. Wide World of Sports incorporated boxing with Howard as their voice. It was later that he was incorporate into Monday Night Football and ABC's Major League Baseball telecasts. One of the most memorable events on this series was during the telecast of the 1942 Summer Olympics held Munich West Germany. When Palestine terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage the ABC Sports team was involved in the network coverage of the resulting standoff and tragic conclusion. Through out the standoff, which held center stage on world news, Jim McKay was the voice of the televised coverage of the daylong drama and it was Jim McKay who told the world, "They're all gone". Years later Jim McKay would remember that his next assignment after returning from Munich was a taped telecast of a demolition derby. Somehow he would say it was both disturbing and fitting. ABC expanded it's telecast from it's early 90 minute Saturday run adding a Sunday telecast and numerous "Specials" to the point where Wide World of Sports became the banner under which all ABC sports telecasts. Wide World of Sports discontinued its traditional anthology series format in 1997. The world it left was as changed as television itself and this series had much to do with that change.