On a rainy Saturday in April 1961, a young, crew-cut TV broadcaster stood trackside at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field awaiting the start of the 67th annual Penn Relays. His name was Jim McKay, and he was getting set to anchor ABC’s Wide World of Sports, a show that would change TV athletics forever. Thirty years later it’s the longest-running sports anthology in history.
The show’s early days (a two-hour retrospective will air April 28 at 4 p.m.) were less than breathtaking. Wide World made it to broadcast only after an aggressive push by its 29-year-old producer, Roone Arledge (now president of ABC News), who had previously produced the Shari Lewis puppet show for a New York TV station. But Wide World, after a first-ever TV trip that year to the USSR for a U.S.-Soviet track meet, began to be noticed. By winter, the show was a hit, and its opening lines, ”Spanning the globe…to bring you the constant variety of sport…the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” (scribbled by Arledge on the back of an airline ticket a few minutes before the first show) soon became a sports anthem.
Over the years, Wide World has visited 55 countries to cover 120 sports and quasi-sports ranging from golf in Scotland to frog-jumping in Calaveras County, Calif. It pioneered slow motion and the instant replay, catapulted gymnastics and figure skating into popularity, and placed cameras just about everywhere: under water, atop speeding cars, on the tips of skis. ”We don’t just cover the sport, we center around the people who make the sport,” says Curt Gowdy Jr., Wide World’s producer. The show has given viewers such unforgettable images as Muhammad Ali dancing in the ring, Olga Korbut straining on the balance beam, Peggy Fleming gliding across the ice, Evel Knievel flying his motorcycle, and, of course, the classic ”agony of defeat” man — ski jumper Vinko Bogataj. Now a factory worker in Lesce, Yugoslavia, Bogataj spectacularly botched his takeoff in a 1970 competition. If for no other reason, wiped-out amateurs could thank ABC’s Wide World of Sports for the solace of Bogataj’s show-opening super- tumble ever since.
TIME CAPSULE: April 29, 1961
Federico Fellini’s hot, decadent La Dolce Vita was premiering, and Del Shannon’s peppy ”Runaway” was the hit song. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich topped the non-fiction best-seller list. On TV, the Westerns Gunsmoke and Wagon Train were the best-rated shows.