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Jim McKay’s Sixth Olympics: Munich 1972

Jim McKay for Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Sports at the 1972 Summer Olympics / the Games of the XX Olympiad.
Jim McKay covering the track and field events at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. (Image credit: Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

At the Ancient Olympics in 396 BCE, the ceremonies commenced with a musical competition. The cornets competed for the prize of being chosen the best heralders, and thus entitled to signal events, such as leading the processions of the best athletes and the best coaches into and out of the games. Similarly, in so many ways during the summer and early fall of 1972, many came to Germany to compete as the best announcer and storyteller. Yet one clarion voice -- and character -- stood out.

The 50th anniversary of the Munich Games -- including, horribly, the terrorist massacre of 11 Israeli team members -- is less than five months away. Regrettably today, because of those colleagues since deceased, I find myself among a dwindling and rarer crowd of those who were actually a living part of both those events. Yet, conversely, the Games of the XX Olympiad also meant a first of many opportunities to meet and work with some of the best sports-to-news-to-sports journalists -- while also being just good, decent people -- the world has ever known.

“Sports” Personalities

These include ABC Sports characters and personalities like the late Roone Arledge. Arledge was the president of ABC Sports, whose leadership inside that Olympiapark broadcast center known as Barnathan’s Bungalow, lead five years later to his concurrent appointment by parent ABC Network as the broadcaster’s news president, as well. Another was John Wilcox, who, to this day, I am proud to say is still a close friend and one I reach out to fairly regularly for advice. John was a multi-decade ABC producer and one of the directors of ABC Sports' films unit that third quarter of 1972, using his exploits there to catapult up the executive ladder, at one point becoming Roone’s executive assistant. Yet another was one of the first people to qualify for the moniker I learned from my German-born father, Willy Schaeffler, that of a “mensch,” this one in the form of ABC’s Munich operations planning head, the late and beloved Marvin Bader. Plus, for her work ethic, due diligence, wisdom, and kindness, I became one of thousands who met and respected her from that point on. She was Antoinette “Toni” Brown, the manager for ABC Sports' films unit in Munich. These were my all-time favorites.

Nonetheless, two people stood out for me even above those four. That is because those two had more reasons to not focus on me and instead stay laser-focused on themselves and their sole duties. Yet, both still focused on me. One was the late Peter Jennings, the then head of Middle East reporting for ABC News. Jennings was instead “borrowed” by Arledge to serve for sports in Bavaria, traveling that central European region with a film crew to complete ABC’s iconic “Up Close and Personal” (UC & P) vignettes. I worked for Jennings in Munich for 5-6 weeks as a “production assistant,” which meant I did everything from order beers, sandwiches, and coffee for the crew, to actually direct a film segment in the Munich town center, and later described and arranged footage together with the film editors back in “The Bungalow,” as each piece got rushed to air. I had the good fortune to be able to tell some of that remarkable story of working with Jennings in these columns almost 10 years ago, titled "Peter Jennings’ First Olympics" and "Olympics, Munich '72, Jennings: Post-Script # 1"

McKay the Man

The other iconic personage who excelled because of who -- in his heart -- he was, and the way he displayed his amazing character, was the late James McManus, also known by his stage name Jim McKay. Not long after I first accidentally helped him in the main ABC Munich studio in August and September 1972, he coined a nickname for me, “Shamus,” which matched his Irish roots, but was actually quite a Leprechaun’s leap away from my combined English and German DNA. My father had a saying about someone who “had time for the little people,” and I will always admire Jim’s skill in this area, which most around him were often not very good at. Why, until now, I have not written about Jim McKay and my admiration for him as both a professional and a human being, I do not know. Yet, as the five-decade anniversary of that convergence arrives in the next several months, I know now that if I was ever going to write this tribute, this is the time. And I got some help…

McKay Junior, Mary

In the late summer of 1972, Jim and Margaret McManus’ daughter, known by her married name today as Mary McManus-Guba, was a 19-year-old soon-to-be college sophomore in New York State. She already had a solid friendship with ABC Sports announcer Frank Gifford’s daughter, Vicki, and together they reveled in the relative freedom to move around what the Germans called the Olympiagelande for all the time up until the late, late night of Tuesday, September 5. That even meant near “walk-through” access to the athletes’ Olympic Village, just to the east of Barnathan’s Bungalow… as long as they wore one of the team jackets they were lent by some energetic young members of the Canadian Olympic swim team. 

Reflecting ever-so-fondly on her late dad, she gives great credit for his successes to her late mom, Margaret McManus, who was ever-so-strongly supportive of and tuned into her husband, for 60 years of marriage. “She was his greatest cheerleader. Together, they practiced a humbleness, a humility and a groundedness, that kept them from getting into that stratosphere of conceit,” said Mary. 

Moving to Jim McKay’s on-air performance that day, Mary concluded, “He was there to tell, not be, the story, unlike too many announcers today. He was especially reflective of the thought that he might actually be the one to tell the Berger Family, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, that their son, David, was not coming home.” "He once told me," she explained of her dad, "'I thought all day that day, How might I tell these parents their son is dead?'" 

Taking that one step further into her own experience that day, Mary remembers vividly watching in the early evening hours of what some call the “Hostage Day,” the departure of the two helicopters just above her head to the south turning west toward the military airport 10 or so miles away in Furstenfeldbruck. “Today you couldn’t get within a mile of a spot like that, because of security, but I was at the Village Gate, right there with hundreds of others. It still haunts me: I could see their faces, prisoners in those helicopters! They were right there! We all felt so helpless!” 

"The Germans tried so hard to offer a different Olympics, to erase the stain of 1936 and Nazi Berlin. They didn’t want a military presence, instead we were enveloped by an upbeat, celebratory, spirit of a safe, welcome, hospitality, and the Hofbräuhaus," she said. "It was a really good time, until it wasn’t. With Munich, security globally, but especially the Olympics, became a whole new game. I especially remember how serious and focused the ABC Sports team instantly became. How hyper-focused."

Summarizing the dual topics of her dad's character and how he best displayed them that Tuesday, September 5, 1972, Mary gathered these words: "He didn’t have to be, but he still was: James McManus really was a genuinely good man. He studied his subjects and knew his audiences. And he treated both with great compassion. The fact that people still seem interested in dad at all is a tribute to him and all those qualities."

McKay Junior, Sean

Sean McManus, Mary’s younger brother, was also interviewed for this article. He was a 17-year-old joining his family in Europe when they accompanied their father to his job as the lead announcer for, first, swimming, then track and field, during those Munich 1972 Games in August and September. Today, Sean is 67, chairman of the sports division at CBS, and certainly still deeply involved in rights and other pivotal business affairs for the network. From more than one recent interview, Sean poignantly reminded me of his father’s overall gravitas. 

“As we drove back in the car so late that night, after the tragedy, dad’s thoughts were on the effect the killings would have, not on him or his career, rather on the good that the Olympics might always achieve. The Olympics of Germany’s revival was now the Olympics of the massacre,” Sean said.

“So much of what that day became was because of Roone Arledge,” Sean said. “Roone knew in his gut, that because of dad’s background in news at CBS, his storytelling, and his journalism, his calmness and relatability, that he would be the best in-studio anchor that day.” And, that would be instead of the impressive talents of both ABC Sports’ assigned studio announcer, Chris Schenkel, and ABC News’ Middle East Correspondent, Peter Jennings. Yet, at the break of the news, Arledge instinctively selected his new live, on-air talent for the next 16 hours, before the latter even got out of the sauna at the Sheraton Hotel that morning, around 8 a.m. local time. Featuring a rare all-day trip with Margaret to nearby Salzburg, Austria, September 5 was to be Jim McKay’s one “vacation” day of the entire Munich Olympics.

"In a few hours, we went from the wins and losses of the various teams, to life and death, and from captivating sports to tragically important news, almost miraculously," Sean continued. "Dad got progressively more emotionally and physically drained, and yet he got better in the last hour of his work that day and night, than he was in the first."

When McKay arrived back at his hotel room at 4 a.m. Munich time September 6, Margaret woke and mentioned her relief that the hostages had survived. Jim’s lament, however, was enhanced, because he now had to tell his wife that the German TV she watched when she went to sleep had not yet revealed: that all the hostages were dead. As McKay had had to infamously fashion a couple of hours before for a late-night U.S TV audience of many scores of millions -- and which Margaret could not witness at her hotel in Bavaria -- in his inimical wording laced with such stunning grace, he again paraphrased, “They’re all gone.” It was at that point, late night on Wednesday 19 hours after leaving the Sheraton Tuesday morning, that McKay finally had a chance to absorb the fact that he was still wearing his damp swimsuit from the morning before in the pool.

The Games’ Impact

Back at Barnathan’s Bungalow Wednesday daytime, with 3-4 hours of sleep, McKay pulled a telegram envelope from his Bungalow letter box. Inside was a congratulatory message from his own news idol, CBS News’ Walter Cronkite.

Jim and Margaret McManus waited months before they were able to witness the on-air telecasts of the Munich Games, and specifically September 5. Moreover, it took the many, many bags of mail McKay received after those competitions, to start to develop a decent understanding of the impact his work had on the American public, on his own career, and on ABC. McKay, personally, won two TV Emmy Awards for 1972, one for sports announcing and one for news. And because of their foundational work in Munich, Arledge a half decade later added head of ABC News to his resume. Plus, as Arledge himself later explained decades later during a tribute to him at Central Park’s Tavern On The Green, the risk taken by bidding a then-astronomical $25 million for the Munich TV rights, backed by the actual performance of the producers and announcers and other talent in Munich, had finally put ABC on the map as a telecaster of national status. ABC’s founder Leonard Goldenson would perhaps one day compete admirably with his counterparts, William Paley and the CBS he founded, as well as the NBC David Sarnoff created.

“Whenever someone came up to him at an airport or a sports event, they would always say, ‘I’ll never forget you at Munich.’ Not another Olympics or the Indy 500. Munich had such an incredible impact,” Sean said.

ABC Sports in Munich’s Producers and Directors

Five key production people are alive today and made time to speak with me about our idol McKay. He is one of those rare people who very few in life speak ill of, so the remainder of this project remained a joy. Those producers and directors are Jim Jennett, Jim Spence, Doug Wilson, Dennis Lewin, and Howard Katz.

Jim Jennett was inside the Bungalow for much of September 5, 1972, serving as sports’ control room associate director. His job was to be a “traffic cop,” as he words it, coordinating all the video and live elements, and the timing -- especially with the main studio at ABC HQ in New York City -- for the two weeks’ worth of Olympic telecasts. The rather tall -- even by today’s standards -- 1966 graduate of University of Missouri’s school of journalism, remembers Munich much for his work directly with Arledge. Subtly merging this article’s subject matter with himself and Arledge in the earliest morning of September 5, 1972, upon word of the terrorist attack, Jennett said, “When the story broke, Roone knew he needed someone with real chops, someone with the most heart, and he had to step on some toes to get there.” Of course, Arledge chose McKay. “What a brilliant and gutsy thing to do,” said Jennett.  

Jennett’s memory of the day of the Munich Massacre was seeing his colleagues lift and place a huge studio live telecast camera on top of the 15-foot-high berm just east of Barnathan’s Bungalow. It faced the Israeli delegation’s rooms that had been attacked on Connally Strasse. He said, “That was the first time I realized the true significance of what was happening. Before that, it was just ‘get to the studio on time and coordinate the feeds and timings.’”

Of McKay’s character, Jennett most remembers McKay’s “love of what he was doing…he so admired the sports, the athletes, and just the storytelling of it all.” Not surprisingly, when asked about what made Jim McKay’s soul click, what made him work so well as a human being, he insisted, unprompted, “Margaret was the answer. She was a spouse like none other, they were so close and perfect for each other, the way they treated one another, that affection, the admiration. Whenever you saw them together, it brought a smile to your face.”

Jim Spence, the No. 2 executive at ABC Sports for eight years, also recently shared a tale or two about Munich 1972 and the diminutive announcer (in height only) from Maryland. Approaching Barnathan's Bungalow that fateful midday after a luncheon meeting where he discussed the forthcoming Montreal Summer Games with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1972's sports VP of program planning asked his driver to let him out at the entrance to an adjacent indoor arena. Already having learned about the terrorist attack from a very troubling phone call that morning with the aforementioned Marvin Bader, Jim Spence, Arledge's "right and left hand man" is, to this day, captured by the contrast of the fans still cheering the ongoing Games that day. Meanwhile, several hundred yards away, two Israelis had already been murdered and some of the worst of human evil was rushing forward like a badly oiled Frankensteinian timepiece. "In front of me was a friendly volleyball competition; a short walk to the east, the worst in the way of hate and terror, and a horror," Spence. The reflection was amplified when Spence reflected back: he -- accompanied by McKay and others -- had six or seven hours earlier exited the broadcast studio and control room in the dark at 6 a.m. local time, to head back to the hotel, very likely having been noticed by the terrorists themselves, as they were staging nearby to break into the Olympic athletes' village, and then to attack the Israeli delegation.

ABC Sports control room at the 1972 Summer Olympics / the Games of the XX Olympiad.

The ABC Sports control room at the 1972 Summer Olympics. (Image credit: ABC via Getty Images)

As for his views of McKay, "He was the face and voice of ABC's Wide World of Sports", Spence said. "He really did get to the substance of an event, making the competitions feel important to the audience and causing the viewer to care about the participants -- not only through his delivery and articulation, but so importantly through his writing, Spence said. "Jim McKay was just brilliant in capturing the essence and excitement of the events he covered, with the words he wrote and spoke on the air."

Being admittedly rather television-geekie, Spence concluded his admiration of the man from Baltimore, extolling his on-air ability to both listen to producers via an ear-piece, while concurrently reading from a script or printed announcement or speaking to an audience of millions while looking directly into a huge metal box that was the camera. "It was seamless, he was amazing the way he could do that," said Spence. “He had great respect for athletes -- both the stars and the unknowns. He had absolute integrity. I have often said he was the Walter Cronkite of sports television."

Doug Wilson, yet another icon of ABC Sports from the earliest to most of its later days was, in 1972, working as a 30-something producer/director, who would by most accounts eventually become one of McKay’s best friends. Wilson had started at ABC in 1958, a college graduate of Colgate University in upstate New York. He likes telling sports stories of his Garden City High School in Long Island beating Arledge’s Mepham High School in Merrick, Long Island during the 1940s-1960s. Mepham was known nationally as a wrestling powerhouse, and Arledge managed its wrestling teams.

Wilson’s fondest and strongest memory of McKay in Munich was his reliance on A.E. Houseman and the poet’s iconic poem, “To An Athlete Dying Young”, to summarize the tragedy of Munich during the nighttime funeral and tribute held by the IOC on Thursday, September 7, 1972. McKay even being familiar with the magic words was indicative of his love for knowledge, and to almost always, ahead of time, research the people, places, and event and sports he was covering.

Yet, likely my favorite was Wilson’s tale of McKay characteristically placing his first and middle fingers together by his eye and nose, which the few who really knew him meant he was really angry. The cause of his ire that day? It was his WWOS producer/director colleague, Doug Wilson, very late at night, who tried relentlessly to identify the perfect woodwind music to accompany a voice-over, making a tired and restless McKay redo the piece over and over, at which point McKay complained to Arledge, “What’s with Wilson and his damned flutes?” 

“Whether it was grand prix auto racing, barrel racing, or the Olympics, Jim McKay never took the event nor the people for granted. He was always grateful for the role he played, which is why so many people say the Olympics coverage -- the history and what it was like to be there -- will always have something missing, even today,” Wilson said as only a good friend can.

Dennis Lewin grew up in a sports-centric family in New York City, went as a 16-year-old to Michigan State University, and started as a 21-year-old production assistant for ABC’s WWOS and ABC’s other sports programming in August 1966. He arrived for ABC Sports’ Olympic coverage in Munich, six years later, as a full-fledged producer. Among his responsibilities by then was coordinating the production of WWOS and producing Monday Night Football. Lewin had a ton of both accurate and fond recollections of McKay, who was the on-air host of WWOS. “He became a great friend, I would do anything for him,” said Lewin.

In Munich 50 years ago, the 27-year-old who grew up in Queens was the ABC Sports producer for the dominant sports during the Games’ first week: swimming, diving, and gymnastics. That meant that even though McKay had been assigned to gymnastics, the two still had many interactions inside “The Bungalow.” On that Tuesday, those sports had ended, thus during the intensity of the day, Lewin sat in the control room next to ABC’s Games’ coordinating producer, Geoff Mason. Lewin recalls at that point his contributions were minimal. He was always there to help, but there was “not much” he could add. Others inside and outside that control room had the storytelling well in hand.

Lewin’s main memory of time with McKay, comes from Thursday, September 7, the day after the actual shootout at the Furstenfeldbruck airport. He remembers them both being so troubled by the insensitive, shallow, and inappropriate words of the then-president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Avery Brundage, at the public “memorial” inside the main Olympic Stadium.

As for McKay, Lewin said, “Jim McKay was the best, both as a friend and a talent. I always looked forward to that production schedule with his name on the same line as mine. His humanity, knowledge of the world, history, his way of communicating. He never talked down to you. You would want him to be both your best friend, and your favorite uncle. One of a kind…” were his words as they trailed off into a mutual, respectful silence.

Howard Katz was, like me, one of the youngest among the several hundred shown in the “ABC At The 1972 Summer Olympics, Munich” photo below. Katz was the Olympic film unit’s lead production assistant coming into and during those Munich Games. His was a position I later assumed after graduating from Cal Berkeley in 1975 with an undergraduate degree in communications & public policy. I am honored to say we have stayed friends since.

McKay memories abound for the now 72-year-old former president of ABC Sports and NFL senior VP for scheduling. They start with the voice-over narrations McKay did for most of the UC & P athlete vignettes ABC Sports prepared leading up to the Munich Games. Katz helped Jim prepare, gathering research, taking notes during global filming expeditions, and other aides. Katz vividly remembers, too, being, coincidentally, in the same passenger van that fateful September 5, 1972 morning, as a last-minute passenger with a wet swimsuit on under his slacks hailed the driver. That extra rider was, of course, McKay. They were headed to the broadcast center.

As McKay was to me, so was he to Katz: “A special person who cared about people,” are his quite-ample words. “P.A.s [production assistants] were treated like dirt. Jim was kind, decent, and understanding to the P.A.s. That did a ton for morale. He was amazingly approachable. A man of conscience, decency, in a business that was all-consuming and demanding, he still managed to make his family a priority. He understood folks, what made the world tick. He understood the human spirit.”

“And then, as a professional, he could look into a camera and see millions of people, yet he saw them one at a time, you thought he was talking directly only to you and your family. He had this incredible knack to say and do the right things at the right time,” Katz said. As president of ABC Sports during the Salt Lake Winter Olympics timeframe, Katz broke all the rules of fierce internecine network rivalry by granting NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol’s wish to employ McKay as “ABC Sports’ Jim McKay, Special On-Camera Contributor.” Katz sums up, “After gaining Margaret’s blessing, it was just the right thing to do.” Like me, Katz didn’t just admire McKay, he learned from him.

A final thought from Katz: “I had planned to visit the German concentration camp near Munich, Dachau, but after the tragedy, I could not. Conversely, 30 years after, when it came time to authorize and support a 'Munich 1972 Commemoration Co-Narrated by Peter Jennings and Jim McKay’ -- which was awarded an Academy of TV Arts & Sciences Emmy Award for 'Best Edited Special' -– that was the award that made me proudest! We told the best story!”

For the record, efforts were made to reach out to former ABC Sports operations or production leaders Bob Iger, Roger Goodman, and Jack Gallivan. For various reasons, each was unavailable at press time.

Summing Up McKay, Munich, and 1972…

Where was the world in 1972? For context, The Godfather was released by Paramount Pictures and popular songs included Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” Roberta Fleck’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” and Looking Glass’s “Brandy.” President Richard Nixon visited and began opening the U.S. to China; the Committee to Re-Elect the (that same) President (CREEP) broke into the Democratic National HQ in Washington, DC; the U.S.’s Bobby Fisher defeated chess master Boris Spassky; and the Dow Jones Industrial Average first went above 1,000.

No doubt -- and always a great loss to the world -- history and legacy will forever first associate those XX Summer Olympic Games with the Israeli Massacre. I cannot help but to image the huge pool of blood beneath one of the helicopters, their terrified faces, and the dozens of grandchildren of those 11 Israelis and one German police officer who will never be.

Yet, in the end after Munich, there was some victory. The Olympics survived. Many athletes excelled there, as they always do, and their careers took off. When I try to balance, and think of the positives of what Peter Jennings said remained, “a successful experiment in human relations,” I think of those who seized the moment and showed what they were made of. Those men and women became the future foundation of the American Broadcasting Corporation, and of many more entities, included among those many CBS, NBC, ESPN and the NFL. Among the top two or three was one James McManus, AKA Jim McKay.

Indeed, in the battle among thousands or more to be that lead clarion, none will ever doubt for Munich 1972, it was McKay. As well, when it came to his own and others’ character development, toward a man of character and worth, Munich, ABC and McKay are synonymous. 

McKay and I once talked between U C & P takes and voice-overs, oddly perhaps, about William Shakespeare. Along with A.E. Houseman, the bard from Stratford-on-Avon was another one of McKay’s favorite literary heroes. We talked specifically about Hamlet, Polonius, Act 1, Scene III, and McKay pointed me to these words, which he took to heart ever so well, indeed, mostly just by sharing that balance with the others who filled the world around him.

“This Above All:/To Thine Own Self Be True/And It Must Follow/As The Night The Day/Thou Canst Not Then/Be False To Any Man!”

Nor, did I ever see, was he, Jim McKay. ■

Jimmy Schaeffler (AKA “Shamus Schaeffler”) is chairman and CSO of The Carmel Group, a west coast-based telecom consultancy founded in 1995. He can be reached at jimmy@carmelgroup.com.

Jimmy Schaeffler (AKA “Shamus Schaeffler”) is chairman and CSO of The Carmel Group, a west coast-based consultancy founded in 1995. He can be reached at jimmy@carmelgroup.com.