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COUNTDOWN TO THE OLYMPICS : 9 Days Until the Games

He Is Better Than the Average McKay

Television: Respected broadcaster will once again weave his magical stories at the Games.

January 30, 2002|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONKTON, Md. — Everyone has his own story, Jim McKay is saying, and that's what makes the Olympics so great, so different from every other sporting enterprise.

There is, for instance, the tale of Billy Fiske, the first American killed in World War II, who was a star rider in the 1930s at the Cresta Run in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the sport of skeleton--a sort of head-first luge--was developed. And there is Eddie the Eagle, the low-flying Brit at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Not to mention the Jamaican bobsled team.

And the unthinkable victory of wrestler Rulon Gardner, who won gold in Sydney, defeating the seeming man-monster from Siberia, Alexander Karelin. There is a smile and a sigh at the memory of Gardner's triumph--as much a triumph of will as it was athletic skill.

"When you predict what kind of Olympics it's going to be, that almost never comes true. There's something that's different about the Olympics. Here's a Greco-Roman wrestler, a farm kid from Wyoming, beating the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, and Americans cared about it!

"That's because," and here McKay lets you in on a secret you already know, the secret that's nonetheless worth discovering time and again, "it's the old expression: It's all about people. It's all about human beings."

Is there anyone in the history of sports television who tells a story better than McKay? For a generation, his voice came to define the Olympics on TV--from the Rome Summer Olympics in 1960, where he worked for CBS, and then through a run of 10 Games for ABC, through the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.

At the Munich Games in 1972, his reporting on the kidnapping and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches forever defined him even as it elevated the television medium and the notion of sports broadcasting. Even now, 30 years later, he says, "People say, 'You did such a great job in Munich.' They still do. They stop me at the supermarket and so on. I say, 'Thank you.' It's all I can say."

Now McKay is poised for one final Olympics run on TV. But not on ABC--this time, from Salt Lake City for NBC. ABC's senior executives willingly agreed to share McKay with rival NBC, and he can be expected from Salt Lake to do what he does best, engage in the art of a story well told.

For instance, about halfway through the Games, according to the NBC plan, McKay will be featured doing the narration to a piece about the 1980 U.S.-Soviet Union hockey game, the "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Olympics.

"The upset is always the great story to me," McKay says, and of the Americans' semifinal round victory over the Soviets in 1980, he adds, "I really think it's the greatest upset in the history of sports, anywhere, anytime."

During the Salt Lake Games, McKay can also be expected to narrate a few other features. He says he already has done one on the icons of American figure skating, Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming.

Most nights during the Games, however, the NBC plan is for McKay to appear in studio with Bob Costas, to share observations about the day's events. "An Olympic essayist," Costas said in a telephone interview, adding, "The idea is for people to walk away saying, 'Only Jim McKay could have brought us that, or at least in quite that way.'"

Don Ohlmeyer, who over the years served as a producer and senior executive at ABC and NBC, said, "So much of sports television is populated by people who think it's about statistics. It's not about statistics. It's about story telling." Costas also observed, "They say the camera is a truth detector. People say if they were at the Olympics, they'd like to sit next to him and watch it."

For instance, a few days ago, relaxing in a comfortable chair in the farmhouse he and his wife of 53 years, Margaret, share in Maryland's horse country, McKay observed: "Tonya Harding, you saw this week, she's going to be evicted. That's certainly the ultimate of something. And: "The biggest change since we started covering [the Olympics] is admitting professionals. I think it been a double-edged sword. To a great extent, it has eliminated shamateurism," the word that in the 1970s and 1980s was often used to describe professionals masquerading as amateurs to retain Olympic eligibility.

"On the other hand, there will never ever be another [1980] Team USA in hockey." Now, he said, "We've got an all-star team of guys who will practice for thee days and come out and play. That's a great loss."

And this: "At first I thought they were bringing in hotdog skiing purely for the ratings." But, he said, he and Margaret were watching TV one night and aerial skiing came on, and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Eric Bergoust seemed to be "a very appealing young guy. I had always thought of them as juvenile delinquents in that sport. But they look like sincere kids having a good time. So I've really changed my mind."

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