The Wide World of Sports Edition

On broadcast, Olympics, and the thrill of victory

Mark Slavonia (MJS) is an investor, a pilot, and an avid cyclist. He wrote about kitchen ballet, Bike Everesting, Rowing Machines, Traveler’s Checks, and This Old House. He posts other things that are interesting on his website and on Twitter

Mark here. NBC seems to have gone out of its way to make it difficult and frustrating to watch the Summer Olympics this year. But from 1964 to 1988, the heyday of network broadcast television, the Olympics were broadcast by ABC. After first getting the rights to the Olympics, ABC considered a different problem than time zones and internet spoilers—how do you get viewers interested in sports other than baseball, (American) football, and basketball? 

Part of their answer was Wide World of Sports, a show produced by ABC’s head of sports Roone Arledge and hosted by Jim McKay. The idea was to broadcast a wide range of sports that might be unfamiliar to U.S. fans, building interest and storylines that would benefit ABC’s Olympic coverage. The strategy was very successful. ABC’s Olympics broadcasts were highly rated, and Wide World of Sports itself became a popular and acclaimed program. 

The opening credits featured a sports montage backed by McKay’s unforgettable narration:

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport
The thrill of victory
And the agony of defeat
The human drama of athletic competition
This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports

Why is this interesting?

The opening montage varied from year to year but a consistent feature was a dramatic clip of Yugoslavian ski-jumper Vinko Bogataj’s spectacular crash in a 1970 competition. Bogataj escaped with minor injuries and gained lasting fame as the athlete forever associated with the agony of defeat. 

The sports featured on Wide World of Sports were eclectic and international. Viewers were offered gymnastics, rock climbing, Formula 1 racing, figure skating, track and field, boxing, table tennis, chess, triathlons, and countless other sports plus lighter fare like the Harlem Globetrotters and motorcycle jumps by Evil Knievel. American skiers got their first glimpse of the fearsome Hahnenkamm downhill. Cyclists were introduced to the Tour de France way back in 1975 before a single American had even entered the race, and to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix in 1989. ABC could often purchase the U.S. rights to broadcast these events inexpensively and rely on local television crews for the video feed and production, reducing the cost of Wide World of Sports. 

The modern Olympics and its big-money partnership between network TV and seldom-broadcast sports now seems inevitable. In reality, it was the result of dedicated promotion and hard work, much of which was done by ABC and its first-rate sports broadcasting team in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.  If you’re a fan of a sport that’s outside of the American mainstream, there’s a good chance that America saw it first on Wide World of Sports. (MJS)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Mark (MJS)

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