By Doug Wilson ’57
They crouch in starting blocks, balance on the edge of a three-story platform, pause at center ice, or stare nose to nose in the middle of a ring. In the back of a TV mobile van, we don headsets, lock eyes on monitors, hover over switches, and direct our cameras. In a sense, we are no different than the athletes we’re about to cover. We share the same emotions: butterflies, anticipation, tension, adrenaline — all of it — as the countdown continues.
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … BAM!
Twenty million people are watching what you’re doing.
I was addicted to that rush for 50 years as a member of the crew at ABC Sports, the innovator in sports television, and its marquee sports anthology program, ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
What a life. An odyssey in the company of broadcast giants like Jim McKay, Curt Gowdy, Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and Al Michaels, and enriched by a line of Olympic gold medalists and larger-than-life icons, many of whom became good friends, such as Evel Knievel, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton, Nadia Comaneci, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Stewart … and on and on.
To be involved daily in the human drama of athletic competition all over the world was beyond imagining. And now, six years after walking away from it, that life takes on an almost surreal quality.
It was a classic workaholic’s immersion. Euphoric highs and anxious lows. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
It was also a stage-struck former Thirteen leader’s dream, a Masque and Triangle wannabe-actor’s goal: to be in the theater. Yet, this was even grander than that. It was sports theater! The difference was that, on Broadway, the script had already been written. Our job in the stadium was to follow the plot lines in whatever direction they went. All the world was, indeed, our stage, and the athletes our players.
Yes, the human drama. That’s what we were compelled to televise. Not just the scores, stats, and who won and lost, but much more. What makes the athletes tick. What it was like to experience the event, to feel the ambiance, to be in Moscow or Minneapolis, Boston or Beijing. That’s essentially what made ABC’s Wide World of Sports successful.
In the 1960s, it was a new approach to sports coverage. Today, it’s expected. The legacy was embedded in the coverage of the Sochi Olympics as we watched feature segments about security and terrorism, hotel accommodations still under construction, Russian laws about gay relationships, profiles on individual athletes, even the weather — all manner of entertainment and information — intermixed with the (sometimes controversial) human drama of the actual competition and outcomes.
It all began in 1961 with a proposal for a program that would present sports unfamiliar to most people. Leonard Goldenson, the great CEO and creator of the ABC Television Network, didn’t think much of the idea. He thought it would never be profitable, but sanctioned it as a way to fill the void during football’s off season. Thirty-seven years later, Wide World of Sports went off the air as a regularly scheduled program.
The program had become part of American culture, allowing viewers a unique window into sports while expanding their consciousness about world events of historic significance from the very beginning. On July 15, 1961, with the Cold War in full swing and tension high among the superpowers, all eyes were on Moscow — and ABC — as the American and Soviet teams marched side by side into Lenin Stadium.
While whites and blacks struggled with civil rights at home and the leaders of the Free World and the Eastern Bloc aimed nuclear missiles at one another, 70,000 Soviet spectators and millions of American TV viewers watched six world records fall and cheered on a black female sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, and a Siberian high jumper, Valery Brumel. U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev patted each other on the back in the VIP booth. That historic telecast showed what Wide World would document over and over: that sports can, and will, override political confrontations.
Many people, especially women, often tell me how ABC’s Wide World of Sports bonded them with their fathers each Saturday, as they ceremoniously sat together and absorbed the wonder of it, listening to Jim McKay deliver the show’s classic opening phrase “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The words remain a part of American vernacular 53 years after first being heard.
What a life. This retired producer/director is grateful for this opportunity to say that it would not have been lived if he hadn’t gone to Colgate. I first experienced the wonder of TV production when singer and TV personality Perry Como kindly invited me to rehearsals for The Chesterfield Supper Club. But I wouldn’t have met him if Lou Backiel ’29, a friend of my parents, hadn’t introduced me to him at the Garden City Country Club, where I had been working and was about to leave for my freshman year in Hamilton.
Later, as a neophyte college graduate, I was offered an interview with another Colgate alumnus and classmate of my father’s, RCA corporate vice president O.E. Dunlap ’20, which resulted in my being hired as a page/guide at NBC. And finally, Harold Day ’28, who came to me after two Thirteen concerts, told me he couldn’t make me a star, but to call him if I wanted to work in any other phase of television. He was vice president of daytime sales at ABC. The network had just opened up to daytime programming, building back from two shows, Who Do You Trust? starring Johnny Carson, and a local show from Philadelphia called American Bandstand. There were 40 people interviewed. I got the job … and my voyage into the human drama of athletic competition began.