By Paul McMullen
The Olympic icon spent his formative years on the north side of Baltimore, transcended his medium and deepened our appreciation of the breadth of humanity.
Michael Phelps? Perhaps.
Jim McKay? Definitely.
It has been four years since the passing of Baltimore’s first great gift to the Olympics, 40 years since the sports broadcaster called the last of four moments that captivated mass audiences today’s fragmented media can only dream of.
In 1963, Walter Cronkite told America that President John F. Kennedy was dead.
Three months later, Ed Sullivan brought the Beatles into our living room.
In 1969, the entire planet listened for Neil Armstrong’s voice as we watched the first human walk on the moon.
In 1972, at the Munich Olympics, it was left to McKay to deliver the horrific coda to what was for most viewers their first encounter with terrorism. Correcting erroneous reports of the rescue of 11 Israelis who had been taken hostage by Palestinians, McKay looked to be the eyes of age as he intoned, “They’re all gone.”
Broadcasters in McKay’s era held sway before the Internet and ubiquitous social media transferred power, as the Pew Research Center once put it, from those who cover the news to those who make it.
That said, McKay probably would have reveled in the cable and webcast options that NBC will provide from the London Olympics, the network’s long overdue acknowledgement that in 2012, Americans demand news immediately, not on a tape-delayed basis.
Are you a fan of volleyball – the real, 6-on-6 kind, not the beach version concocted to appeal to the lowest common denominator – or weightlifting? You will be able to watch those pursuits live from London on cable or your iPhone, without the narrow red, white and blue lens that NBC will provide in prime time.
In other words, it will be as vast as the vista McKay presented to us once every four years from the Olympics, and every Saturday on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which he hosted for 37 years.
Before the Travel Channel and Al Jazeera, when egg foo young and pizza were exotic ethnic dishes, our leading ambassadors on foreign culture were McKay and Julia Child.
The Summer Olympics included more nations than are members of the U.N., and it was as if McKay wanted us to know something of each one. As the Cold War peaked, he took as much pleasure in introducing us to the tiny Russian gymnast and the intimidating Cuban boxer as he did the miler from Kansas.
Where did McKay acquire that worldview?
He moved to Baltimore from Philadelphia as a teen, and finished his high school studies at what is now Loyola Blakefield. From there, he earned his bachelor’s degree at what is now Loyola University Maryland. The good Jesuits at both institutions still tell their charges to find God in all things. When the camera turned on McKay, it seems as if their charism was writ large on his cue cards.
Paul McMullen is the managing editor of the Catholic Review.