Over three decades, ABC's Jim McKay was America's premiere Olympic broadcaster. Though he covered 11 Olympics, he will always be remembered best for his coverage of the terrorist attack that killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Games. In largely unscripted moments over several exhausting days, McKay's professionalism and his humanity vividly brought the tragedy home to America. ABC's and McKay's last Olympics was in Calgary in 1988. But ABC surprised rival NBC by offering to lend them McKay, now 80, for their Salt Lake City team. McKay talked with NEWSWEEK's national sports correspondent Mark Starr about Olympics past and present.
NEWSWEEK: What are you looking forward to most in Salt Lake?
Jim McKay: It sounds corny, but it's the human stories. Remember Australia and the big farm kid from Wyoming in Greco-Roman wrestling who defeated the unbeaten world champion, then did a cartwheel. The unexpected stories are always the best. I also like the offbeat stories. In Calgary I loved Eddie the Eagle, the English ski jumper who was a plasterer by profession. And the Jamaican bobsled team. There's always some stuff that's a lot of fun.
You don't sound like you've become the least bit cynical?
Way back, when all this stuff became my career, I thought sports in and of itself is not important. Not really. It's a contrived set of rules and so forth. But it can serve a purpose. It really can be inspirational to kids and even grownups sometimes. So I thought my job is not to expose the banality that is here, as is your duty in political reporting or international reporting, but to look for excellence. If in looking for excellence, I find the opposite, obviously I have to report it. But that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for excellence to say, "Hey look what this person did. Look where they're from and look what they went through to do it." But only if it's true.
What do you think of as your greatest Olympic legacy?
I guess it's that day in Munich. I hate even to say it, but that particular day was the greatest push forward my career ever had. That's the truth. And it is, in fact, the most memorable Olympics in my mind for that one terrible reason. I thought at that time, 1972, that nothing worse could ever happen. And in the field of sports it certainly hasn't and, hopefully, never will. But we've now found out something even much, much, much bigger could happen. My wife and I live on a farm and that morning [of September 11] our farm manager rushed in and said, "You've got to turn on the television." One plane had crashed at that point, and when the second plane came in, and it was obvious that it was terrorists the first thought in my mind was Munich.
Do you expect this Olympics to have special meaning in the wake of 9-11?
Well, sure I do. But I don't think anybody knows what mood it will take. It certainly has a symbolic meaning that all the countries are coming despite [9-11]. Security certainly will be a story unto itself: $320 million worth of security, and I believe there are 10,000 people total will be working on security alone at these Olympic games. So it's going to be pretty obvious even though they're trying not to make it any more obvious than they have to.
Will that visible security presence detract from the Olympics?
In '84 in Los Angeles, there was a lot of security, and it wasn't too obtrusive. But this is clearly different. Thinking about security and danger is really a part of everybody's life in this country now. You get on an airplane and you feel a little bit differently than you did before, looking at people's shoes and things like that.
You got a little first-hand taste of the Olympic security?
Yes, they made their point rather well. We were coming back from the NBC meetings in Salt Lake in November on a private GE plane. We had just taken off, maybe three minutes climbing up over town and then the captain came on and said, "Sorry, we have lost our radio and we've got to go back." So he turned around. I thought, "This is a pain in the neck, but it happens, and I went back to reading my book. And after a few minutes, I happened to glance up, and there was an F-16 about 100 feet away from my window wagging its wings. I wasn't scared. My first reaction was that obviously it's an American plane, not a terrorist plane, and I thought they had just come out to take a look at us because they couldn't communicate with us on the radio. But two of them, one on either side, escorted us right into an airport, not to Salt Lake, but to Ogden, Utah. It was a good example of how very well organized they are. So there's obviously a great concern about the security, but I go out there thinking-and being of Irish decent I knock on wood-nothing is going to happen. And that if they try anything they'll probably get caught.
What has changed the most at the Olympics since your heyday?
The biggest changes has been from the so-called amateurs to honest professionalism, and I think it's a double-edged sword. It has done away with what we used to call "shamateurism" where someone would find a $100 bill in their track shoe with a message saying "good luck" or something like that and the name of a shoe company. That was demeaning to everybody from the sponsor to the athlete. On the other hand there will never again be anything like a Team USA in the hockey game against the Soviets in Lake Placid. Here were college kids beating not only the best hockey team in the Olympics, but the best hockey team in the world. To me it was the greatest upset in the history of sports, anywhere, anytime, any sport.
That must have been special.
That's the most memorable thing I've seen in the Olympics. I remember it was at least 11 o'clock at night, maybe later, and we were still on air and Roone [Arledge] said, "We've got a shot, see what you think of this." And they popped up this shot and down the little main street of Lake Placid were coming a whole large bunch of American kids, maybe a hundred of them, carrying the flag and singing "God Bless America." Nobody had done that in a long time from the '60s on and that was an extremely moving moment.
Have the Olympics lost the novelty, both with the change to every two years as well as how much sports is on TV these days?
I'm not a big fan of the way they changed it to have the Olympics every two years because it used to be huge thing. Used to be it would build, build, build, and you'd have the winter and the summer. Now you just finish one, when you get ready for another. Which is not much fun for the guys at NBC, because they just constantly do it. But I think people still look forward to it. Perhaps more to the winter games because I think women can get more involved because of the colorful atmosphere and the beauty of the games rather than people running around a stadium in ... well we used to say in their underwear, but now it's more like they're at the beach.
What Olympic trend disturbs you the most?
The drug thing is the most disturbing thing, of course. I was looking through one of the research books that NBC is putting out for the games and there must be 10 pages on the drug situation. There's so much technical stuff and names of the drugs I've never heard of. It reads more like a medical textbook. Maybe there isn't any way we can totally eliminate it. It seems whenever they think of a new test, they think of a new way to get around the test it seems. So I was thinking-and I hope this doesn't seem overly philosophical-that maybe we have to settle for this. Try as hard as they can to keep them under control and stop them if the can. But I don't think they can because in every element of society, whether it's sports or whether it's business or anything else, there's always going to be a certain percentage of people who will be willing to cheat. Now you may catch a lot of them, but I don't think it'll ever totally disappear.
Anything else really distress you?
I don't know whether distress is the right word, but the commercialism is obviously much, much higher than it even was back then, and it was pretty high, even in 1960. But just watch anything on television and the commercials are just endless. But maybe if the International Olympic Committee would like to give the [TV] rights for half of what they get now, well then maybe there would be fewer commercials. Maybe not, too.
We've gotten pretty accustomed to Olympics on TV, and it seems there's a lot more criticism and carping about the coverage today?
Well, there used to a TV critic in The New York Times, Jack Gould, and he didn't like anything I did or anything about our coverage of the Olympics back then, either. Obviously today you're more scrutinized. You're more under the microscope now because so many people are out there watching. I'll tell you a big change: from totally black-and-white to totally color TV. They'll now use black-and-white once in a while for dramatic effect. I think the fact that old Olympics and old sports generally were in black-and-white make them sort of more interesting. It's an historic thing in itself that they're in black-and-white, like an old silent movie.
Will the live competition help?
The fact that it's in the United States and a great deal of it, the nighttime events, will be live, that's going to make a big difference. I think it's going to be a very unusual Games and a very good one. I sure hope so.
What's your take on Bob Costas, who'd have to be considered your successor as TV's Mr. Olympics?
I think he's extremely talented. I've known him for a good many years, and I like him. Bob is as knowledgeable as anyone in the world in all facets of sports and he's interested in other things, too. I think his job in Australia was extremely difficult. It's an unusual experience at any time to sit in this huge dark room on a chair by yourself with lights shining in your eyes. And then trying to make something that happened yesterday exciting to people back home who already know that it happened. I thought that overall he did a hell of a job there. I'm looking forward to working with him.
What exactly will your role be?
One thing I know is, I don't want to try to appear to be co-host with Bob. But I don't think my job is just to be the old guy in the rocker reminiscing about the good old days. It's to somehow connect my career with this particular Salt Lake Olympics.