Wide World of Sports

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Wide World of Sports

As TV sets were becoming staples in American households during the 1950s, individual sporting events made for popular, low-cost programming. Then, at the dawn of the 1960s, Wide World of Sports, also known as ABC's Wide World of Sports, debuted. The show was a new type of sports program. Rather than focus on one sport, it presented a variety of athletic events in one show. Each week, Wide World of Sports transported the viewer across the United States and around the world. The show featured many athletes who otherwise would not be seen on television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3): bobsled racers, bodybuilders, gymnasts, figure skaters, ski jumpers, surfers, swimmers, divers, auto racers, stunt motorcyclists, rodeo performers, and track-and-field athletes. All the while, the show spotlighted the human side of sports. In addition to presenting races, bouts, and meets (often live via satellite), Wide World of Sports revolutionized sports coverage by including "up close and personal" features on athletes. The show's rallying cry, "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat," not only became one of the most familiar catchphrases on TV but captured the essence of athletic competition.

Over the years, many high-profile sportscasters were associated with Wide World of Sports, including Frank Gifford (1930–), Chris Schenkel (1923–), Howard Cosell (1918–1995), Bud Palmer (1920–), and Keith Jackson (1928–). The one sports commentator most closely associated with the show, however, is Jim McKay (1921–). He was on hand for the very first broadcast, which aired on April 29, 1961, and featured the Drake Relays, from Des Moines, Iowa, and the Penn Relays, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Relays are track-and-field events.) Across the decades, McKay traveled over 4.5 million miles to cover events for the program, reporting on over one hundred different sports in forty-plus countries and across the United States. McKay earned further fame as a longtime host of the Olympics (see entry under 1900s—Sports and Games in volume 1). In 1968, he became the first sportscaster ever to win an Emmy Award, for his work on Wide World of Sports.

The show's format was the brainchild of Roone Arledge (1931–), the future ABC Sports and News president. The show ran for ninety minutes on Saturdays, and occasionally appeared on Sundays. Sporting events that later merited their own separate coverage—the Wimbledon tennis tournament, World Cup soccer, the British Open golf tournament—first aired on Wide World of Sports.

The success of Wide World of Sports, and other ground-breaking endeavors such as Monday Night Football (see entry under 1970s—Sports and Games in volume 4), helped solidify the status of ABC as the major network dominating sports coverage. With the rise of ESPN (see entry under 1970s—TV and Radio in volume 4) as an all-day sports network, Wide World of Sports began losing its shine in the late 1980s. On January 3, 1998, it was announced that the show had been canceled. On April 29, 2001, ABC aired a two-hour-long fortieth anniversary retrospective.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

McKay, Jim, with Jim McPhee. The Real McKay: My Wide World of Sports. New York: Dutton, 1998.

Sugar, Bert Randolph. Thrill of Victory: The Inside Story of ABC Sports. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.