"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!"
Just reading those words, I can see the images and hear Jim McKay's voice -- one of the most iconic opening sequences of my life. Anyone who has seen it will remember the image of the ski jumper wiping out -- the ultimate graphic representation of failure. Admittedly, I had to look up his name, and when I found it, I'm quite sure I never knew it in the first place: Vinko Bogataj. I'll bet Vinko is pretty happy that while his image is famous, his name has been forgotten by the general public.
I felt like Vinko the first time I went skiing. My brother Joe, my nephews, and my brother Jim (fantastic skier, visiting from Colorado) all went to Wilmot Mountain. It's basically a bump in the terrain in southern Wisconsin, covered with ice. While there are different "runs," they aren't separated by any natural barriers, so there's nothing to stop people from skiing across the "runs" while they're going down the mountain. I imagine that if you could see it from the air, it would resemble angry ants spilling out of an anthill you just kicked over.
Jim was my appointed teacher. There were no rope pulls or bunny hills; we went straight onto a chairlift. Although he warned me to keep my weight forward upon exiting, I didn't do it correctly, and I ended up "sitting" on the back of my skis and running directly in to a wooden fence. Only about 20 seasoned skiers observed this, and laughed, so not too embarrassing. He explained to me how to snow plow, to turn and to stop. I started down the hill clumsily, and immediately fell. Jim promptly "hockey stopped," spraying me with snow. He told me that was my incentive not to fall down anymore. I think I only fell seven more times that first trip down, but Jim was true to his word, spraying me every time. I'm still not convinced of his unique motivational methods.
I digress; we were talking about the Wide World of Sports. As a kid in the 70s, this was the sports program to watch. There was no cable TV or ESPN. The program was innovative in that it showed all kinds of different competitions, from the U.S. and around the world. While I wasn't enthralled, it was interesting to see and learn a bit about jai-alai, rodeo, curling, Mexican cliff diving and logger sports. I had already seen hurling live due to my Irish heritage, which I kind of liked. Reminiscing about the show with my friend Tommy recently, he remembered when he and his dad first saw hurling on the show. His dad called it "organized murder," or "an athletic form of homicide," neither of which is an entirely inaccurate description.
There were three things that I saw on the program, however, that absolutely captivated me.
One was the incredibly entertaining duo of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. I couldn't really tell what was going on, whether they were trying to be serious or to be clowns. I think it was a bit of both, but it was fascinating. It just might have been the first time that I had seen the defining lines between sport and entertainment so completely blurred, and I couldn't stop watching it.
The second was motocross. It seemed to only come on once a year, but after the first time I saw it, I would religiously scan the TV listings every week to see if it was going to be covered. I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. The race always seemed to be in Carlsbad California, and for a good number of years, the undisputed king of motocross was a Belgian named Roger DeCoster. He became one of my heroes. At the time, all the best riders were European, and it was fun to watch the Americans close the gap a little bit each year. I got to learn words like "berms" and "whoop-de-doo's." Not only were they fun to say, it was thrilling to watch the riders negotiate them.
The third thing I first saw on Wide World of Sports became an absolute obsession: Evel Knievel. He made such a strong impact on me, that it would be an injustice to give him such brief attention. He will be the focus of an upcoming post. I can sum it up this way: some called him courageous, some called him an idiot; all questioned his sanity.
I called him hero.