Wide World of Sports

Back in the Stone Age, and only three television channels, watching sports was severely limited by today’s standards. Thanks to my pal T.J. for the idea to revisit the old days of mostly black & white television.

ABC’s Wide World of Sports, on Saturday afternoons, was a cavalcade of sports programming. No, it was not your regular outlet for football, basketball or baseball. Those sports were represented on television with a few games, but not the firehose of wall-to-wall programming like today.

So, what did the show feature? And by the way, I’m not going to talk about the “agony of defeat” skier featured in the show’s intro.

Jim McKay

The show ran from 1961-1998, a remarkable run. Jim McKay was the main host and it was produced by Roone Arledge. Each week you could expect several different sports events, usually ones you did not typically see, or championships and title games. McKay would become a household name as he juggled hosting this program with many other sporting events including the Olympic Games.

He was there in Munich in 1972 for the Summer Olympics, doing much of the reporting, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were taken hostage and later killed. He was on the air for 14 hours, because the network had nothing else to present, as this event was happening in real time. Arledge instructed McKay to just keep talking to fill the air. International telecasts were much different then. McKay was filling in for fellow broadcaster Chris Schenkel that day. He had the sad job of reporting the fate of the Israelis.

“When I was a kid my father used to say ‘Our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms this morn– yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”

Arledge would create Monday Night Football and numerous other sports shows (like the trash show, Battle of the Network Stars), and also take on the responsibility for the news division.

In the early days, what you saw was in black & white, low definition and often taped, not live. This was before the wide use of satellite technology. The expectations were much different then.

From Wikipedia: Wimbledon (1961), the Indianapolis 500, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship (1962), the Daytona 500 (1962), the U.S. Figure Skating Championships (1962), Monaco Grand Prix (1967), the Little League World Series (1961), The British Open Golf Tournament (1961), the X-Games (1994) and the Grey Cup (1962). NASCAR Grand National/Winston Cup races, figure skating, skiing, gymnastics and track and field were Olympic sports appearing on the show. Other sports that were featured included trout fishing, boxing, soapbox derby racing, rattlesnake hunt, dogsled racing, swimming and diving, yacht racing, rugby, Evel Knievel motorcycle jumping, bicycling racing, mountain climbing, bowling, hurling, rodeo, curling, jai-alai, firefighter’s competitions, wrist wrestling, powerlifting, surfing, logger sports, demolition derby, slow pitch softball, barrel jumping, badminton and Mexican cliff diving.

I loved this promo, from the quick editing and effects to the driving, passionate music.

I’m sure it was challenging to create drama and interest in some of these sporting events. The ABC crew consisted of seasoned professionals and they did their best to draw the viewer into the barrel jumping or demolition derby action. The use of replay, multiple angles and skilled announcing helped to capture the essence of athletic competition. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat were difficult to transcend each week, but worked hard to introduce the viewer to the competitors and tell their stories.

My favorite sporting events from this era were the cliff diving, ski jumping and the Indy 500.

Okay, back to the agony of defeat. The skier who wiped-out on the ramp was Slovenian skier Vinko Bogataj. He was a successful skier, but the accident, captured in the footage used in the Wide World of Sports intro, while making him famous, prevented him from any further skiing success. He turned to painting. See his story below.


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