NEW YORK Jim McKay, the venerable and eloquent sportscaster thrust into the role of telling Americans about the tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics, has died. He was 86.
McKay died Saturday of natural causes at his farm in Monkton, Md., said son Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. The broadcaster who considered horse racing his favorite sport died only hours before Big Brown attempted to win a Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.
He was host of ABC's influential "Wide World of Sports" for more than 40 years, starting in 1961. The weekend series introduced viewers to all manner of strange, compelling and far-flung sports events. The show provided an international reach long before exotic backdrops became a staple of sports television.
McKay provided the famous voice-over that accompanied the opening in which viewers were reminded of the show's mission ("spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports") and what lay ahead ("the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat").
McKay understated, dignified and with a clear eye for detail covered 12 Olympics, but none more memorably than the Summer Games in Munich, Germany. He was the anchor when events turned grim with the news that Palestinian terrorists kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes. It was left to McKay to tell Americans when a commando raid to rescue the athletes ended in tragedy.
"They're all gone," McKay said.
The terse, haunting comment was replayed many times through the years when the events of Munich were chronicled.
"I had to control myself. I was full of emotion," McKay recalled. "But when you are a professional, it is important to communicate what it is like, to capture the moment."
Sports, McKay said, lost its innocence that day.
He won both a news and sports Emmy Award for his coverage of the Munich Olympics in addition to the prestigious George Polk award.
"In the long run, that's the most memorable single moment of my career," said McKay, an Emmy Award winning broadcaster who was also in the studio for the United States' "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union. "I don't know what else would match that."
A veteran of the U.S. Navy in World War II, McKay was the first on-air television broadcaster seen in Baltimore. He worked at CBS Sports briefly, but did his most memorable work at ABC Sports when it dominated the business under leader Roone Arledge.
"He had a remarkable career and a remarkable life," McManus said. "Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't come up to me and say how much they admired my father."
McKay was the first sportscaster to win an Emmy Award. He won 12, the last in 1988. ABC calculated that McKay traveled some 4 1/2 million miles to work events. He covered more than 100 different sports in 40 countries. In 2002, McKay received the International Olympic Committee's highest honor the Olympic Order.
"He was a founding father of sports television, one of the most respected commentators in the history of broadcasting and journalism," said George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN and ABC Sports. "
Added Bob Iger, president and chief executive of The Walt Disney Company: "He was a regular guy who wrote and spoke like a poet."
McKay's first television broadcast assignment was a horse race at Pimlico in 1947. It was the start of a love affair horse racing captivated him like nothing else.
"There are few things in sport as exciting or beautiful as two strong thoroughbreds, neck and neck, charging toward the finish," he once said.
Racecaller Dave Johnson worked with McKay during horse racing telecasts.
"How many Saturday afternoons did we spend with Jim McKay?" he said from Belmont Park. "Maybe more than with family members. Never a cross word out of him, such a decent human being."
Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports and Olympics, worked with McKay for six years at ABC Sports.
"He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered," he said. "While we all know what an absolute titan he was in his chosen field, I will always remember him as an extraordinary human being guided by a strong moral compass."
U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said McKay set a standard for sports journalism.
"Jim is synonymous with the Olympic Games." he said. "As host of ABC's Olympic coverage, he brought into our homes the triumphs and struggles of athletes from around the world."
The New York Yankees paused to remember McKay before the national anthem Saturday, and fans at a packed Yankee Stadium responded with applause.
McKay left his mark on countless colleagues. Bob Costas called McKay a "singular broadcaster."
"He brought a reporter's eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment," Costas said. "He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports."
Al Michaels described McKay as the "personification of class and style."
"His enthusiasm permeated every event he covered and thus always made it far more interesting," he said. "I always thought of him as a favorite teacher."
Mike Tirico, covering the NBA finals in Boston for ABC and ESPN, worked four British Opens with McKay. He said McKay held a special place in his household while growing up in Queens in New York.
"Dinner wasn't served on Saturday night until 'Wide World of Sports' was over," Tirico said.
In addition to McManus, McKay's survivors include his wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Mary.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.