This week marks an important mark in the sports world. A special television program, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, celebrates its golden anniversary as a show that changed how sports are viewed even in the present day.
For those they were not around during that time including myself, here is a quick history lesson on this groundbreaking show. Back on April 29, 1961, the network needed a filler program for the summer months, so they sent a young up-and-coming sportscaster, Jim McKay, to broadcast the Penn Relays, which was a well-known track meet. The same show also had coverage of the Drake Relays. Both of those track meets are still going strong, today.
Of course, the program became a huge hit and it stayed on until 1997. During its history, the program covered everything and I mean everything from frog jumping to the Indianapolis 500. Like mentioned earlier, I was in middle school when the show ended, so I missed it during its heyday. However, I have watched as many clips as possible on you tube, the special programs on ESPN Classic and I own the 40th anniversary DVD program. So, I tried to catch up the best I can, but it does not beat seeing it for the first time.
I was blown away with the coverage. Not only with the type of events presented, but how they made you feel like you was part of the action with never-seen-before camera angles. Another thing, they did well was profiles on the different athletes of each sport. Listening to each of their stories brought out a lot of emotion.
The show’s open had McKay uttering those famous words, “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.” Of course in that same clip, you would see the little league baseball team celebrating victory at the World Series to the ski jumper, Vinko Bogataj falling off the launching ramp. It demonstrated what the show was about.
With sports as its backdrop, the show went to places that not too many Americans were allowed to go back then. For example, during that same year the program began, ABC was the first network to cover a sporting event in the then-Soviet Union. It was a track meet between the two countries, the United States and the U.S.S.R.
Ten years later, the network went to Cuba for a volleyball match between the two nations, the only problem was no Americans were allowed in the country. So, ABC sent another young broadcaster that had Canadian citizenship, you might remember him from the channel’s news program, World News Tonight, Peter Jennings. WWOS was one of the few programs that traveled around the world, and you always learned a valuable lesson about that part of the globe.
Finally, the show will be mostly remembered for some of the athletes that became famous like the motorcycle daredevil, Evel Knievel and the classic interviews between two legends in their field, boxer Muhammad Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell. Others included Nadia Comaneci, Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Billie Jean King and many others.
I know I have only touched the surface, but hopefully I gave a true account of the show that will always be remembered for setting the mark on how sports are broadcasted today.
Note: I found a five-minute clip that ESPN put on you tube that talks about the history of the show. It was originally broadcasted on their program “Outside the Lines” a few days ago. This clip will give you a true sense on what the program meant to the viewers and the people that helped bring it to the living rooms each week. I hope you enjoy.