A true pro at the Olympics: TV host Jim McKay

Eric Heiden, Linda Fratianne, Ingemar Stenmark, et al. may be the stars on the ice and snow, but the most familiar face by far during the current Winter Olympic telecasts is that of the man who is telling us all about it -- Jim McKay.

It's no contest, really, for while the others come and go, McKay is the one constant presence on the screen as host for 51 1/2 hours of coverage spread over 13 days of competition.

Also, of course, while most of the athletic stars change every four years, McKay has become "Mr. Olympics" to millions of Americans who can hardly envision the quadrennial spectacle without his low key but always expert and knowledgable commentary.

We may have had a World Series without the Yankees last year, and it looks as though we're going to have a Miss America pageant without Bert Parks next fall, but an Olympic year without Jim McKay? Never! There hasn't been one, at any rate, all through the 1960s and '70s -- and he's there again for these first games of the '80s.

McKay's professionalism and unpretentiousness (not qualities one necessarily associates automatically with TV announcers) come through in person just as they do on the screen. It becomes quickly apparent while talking to the veteran ABC commentator, in fact, that his success is no accident.

"I see my job as trying to present an overview," he said here in explaining how he prepares to cover a vast event like the Olympics. "I try to anticipate what the personality of a particular games will be, and then convey that to the audience. Sometimes the personality changes during the course of the games -- and you have to sense such changes and make the audience aware of them.

"In Mexico City the question was whether they knew how to run an Olympics. It seemed as though it was going to be a disaster -- student riots, people getting shot in the streets, the Russians going into Czechoslovakia. But during the games everything changed. There was a warm feeling -- a feeling that here was a small nation doing the best it could.

"In Munich they were supposed to be the serene games. They started that way, too, but then the tragedy changed everything.

"In Montreal, we thought of it as a confrontation between the big powers, but it ended up as an Olympics in which small nations got more than their share of the limelight. Nadia Comaneci was from Romania, you had the success of East Germany, and there were all those athletes from small countries winning the track and field events.

"Lake Placid? I see it as 'Our Town' -- a Grover's Corner kind of place. The people speak our language, and the town is familiar to a lot of us from previous visits. Of course, the personality could change during these games, too, but you have to have your idea in advance -- then just be flexible if things go differently from the way you expected."

It was in Munich in 1972, of course, that McKay cemented his name among the top rank of TV commentators. He was on the air almost continuously for 20 hours during the terrorist raid on the Olympic Village that resulted in the deaths of 11 Israeli athletes, and his commentary seemed to articulate perfectly the sadness, outrage, and helplessness felt by all as the story unfolded.

McKay, the first sports commentator to win an Emmy award in 1968 and currently the possessor of seven, received two in 1972 -- one for his sports coverage and the other for his news reporting of the tragedy. He is perhaps proudest, though, of a simple telegram he found in his mailbox at Munich praising his work and concluding with the words: "You were a credit to the network, yourself, and the profession" -- Walter Cronkite.

McKay began his career as a newspaperman, learning the facts of journalistic life as a police and general-assignment reporter for the Baltimore Sun in the mid-1940s. His entry into TV was actually pretty much a fluke -- the paper acquired a station and, eager to get on the air quickly, picked a few of its reporters and turned them into instant newscasters.

This was 1948, and no one knew where TV was headed, but McKay soon found himself helping to host and produce a three-hour show, and two years later he was hired by CBS. He started with a variety show there, but soon gravitated to sports, then in 1961 moved to ABC, where he has been host of "Wide World of Sports" as well as the network's main Olympic man ever since.

Jim covered the 1960 Rome Olympics for CBS, and has been at Innsbruck in 1964 , Grenoble and Mexico City in 1968, Munich in 1972, Innsbruck and Montreal in 1976, and now Lake Placid. That's 8 of the last 10, including at least one each time around -- a string that figures to continue, since ABC has the rights for the 1984 Los Angeles games.

Asked if he ever felt his role as studio host was a hindrance in terms of getting out and really learning the "personality" he is trying to convey, McKay said he didn't think so.

"You can do it best from one central spot," he said. "This way you see all the monitors, and you hear all the commentary."

But wouldn't he rather get out once in a while where the action is?

"Only in the summer!" he smiled.

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