Wide World's impact was worldwide
ABC Sports Online
ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings remembers the impact that Wide World of Sports had, not only on the athletic world, but on the political climates of an everchanging world. In an excerpt from an exclusive interview conducted for the 40th Anniversary celebration, Mr. Jennings reflected on Wide World's worldwide impact.
Are you surprised that Wide World of Sports is celebrating its 40th Anniversary?
I'm not the slightest bit surprised that Wide World of Sports lasted as long as it did, nor that it was good as it was. I grew up on it and for a long time in my life Wide World took me places I could only dream of going.
And I think the great thing about it in all of those years was that it took me not just to
great sports events large and small, consequential and inconsequential, important and awed, but that it also told me a lot about the places where they were being held. And so every week I got a tour of a Wide World and I never quite got [LAUGHS] over it.
|1978: Nadia Comaneci does her routine on the balance beam during the World Championships.|
What are your earliest memories?
Well I grew up skiing and so I think that my earliest memories are great ski jumping competitions. I grew up in western Quebec in Canada and so [LAUGHS] I also remember a lot of log rolling and a lot of lumberjack competitions and I was attracted to those. And I think that, for me, solidified why I thought Wide World was so great, because it did ski jumping and it did log rolling and lumberjack competitions as well as doing a lot of competitive sports as well.
I always felt the program was going to take me somewhere and show me something that was interesting, even if I didn't know that I wanted to know about it.
Can you share some of your thoughts and memories about Jim McKay?
Jim McKay. I wrote the introduction to Jim McKay's memoirs and in it I said what I have always believed. While I think I've had the best job in information television as the anchor person for ABC News, the job I really wanted a lot of the time was Jim McKay's job as the anchor of Wide World of Sports. Actually, I think Jim probably wanted mine at times, too.
The year of 1964 was a turbulent time in America. Can you discuss the countries that America was at odds with?
In the 1960's, we were deep in the Cold War and Americans, or, those of us in the West, generally saw the world through the prism of Soviet /American relations. I always thought it was staggering when Wide World penetrated the Iron Curtain. In retrospect, I think it was even more diplomacy than we imagined at the time when Wide World got events like figure skating, hockey, swimming and gymnastics behind the Iron Curtain.
While we didn't think of it, I think as dramatically at the time as we might in retrospect, that was another great contribution Wide World made to all of our understandings of different people in different parts of the world. When someone like Nadia Comaneci came to the Olympics, the whole notion of having a team come to participate in international competition was familiar thanks to Wide World. But it was a very, very tense time.
I remember in the mid 1960s when Wide World got the rights to televise the hemispheric playoffs in volleyball between the United States and Cuba. Relations were so tense with Cuba then [LAUGHS] and they're still pretty tense, they said we could cover it but we couldn't send any Americans to cover it. So my boss, the great Roone Arledge, came to me and said, "What do you know about volleyball?" I said, "Absolutely nothing." He said, "Good, you're going to Cuba to be our commentator for the hemispheric playoffs." I, being Canadian. So I went to Toronto and hired a lot of Canadian film crews to go down and cover it but that's how much tension there was at the time.
Cubans wanted to be part of the world. They certainly had used sport in order to elevate their standing in the international community but they wouldn't let Americans in to cover an event. So it was that I, the great volleyball commentator [LAUGHS] who knew nothing about it was sent to cover it.
You've mentioned the tension and with Cuba and Russia. What about Germany and China?
Of course in the mid 1960s, China was still very much the enemy not the adversary or the complicated partner that it is for the United States today, so penetrating China to do a sports event, ping pong is always the one that comes to mind because ping pong diplomacy became part of international currency.
Getting into the Soviet Union to cover sports events was, I wouldn't say it was the absolute beginning of the breakdown of a political division between East and West, but it certainly I think it contributed to the notion that sport has a universality to it which ultimately binds people together.
I remember I was in Berlin when the wall went up. [LAUGHS] I was also there when it came down and I remember how exciting it was when Wide World would get in to East Germany to do something or would have some association with East German athletes or, even in those cases where Wide World did some of the first reporting on the East German sports machines and the Soviet sports machine.
Wide World of Sports should be called Wide World of Sports and Journalism because Jim McKay, Howard Cosell and a lot of the other commentators really believed that sports was about journalism, not just about saying he ran from here to there or she jumped this high, and I think that was what made it so exciting. It gave us this window on the way other people do things in terms of their sports, which really gave us a picture of their whole society.