When the Director’s Guild of America gave Doug Wilson its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, the word Lifetime must have seemed adequate. By 2008, when he retired, it seemed an understatement.
Wilson worked on ABC’s Wide World of Sports as a director or producer for 50 years — nearly the entire existence of the landmark show. He says he covered 51 sports for that show, traveling the globe.
He produced and directed for 10 Olympics Games for ABC and Roone Arledge. Most of all, though, he made his reputation for excellence directing figure-skating competitions. He says he witnessed 360 performances featuring some of the Olympics’ most beloved American heroes: Scott Hamilton, Dorothy Hamel, Peggy Fleming, JoJo Starbuck.
“I tried to make the camera part of the performance,” he says.
He would go to rehearsals and, at the end of the day, ask the coaches if the skaters could talk to him rinkside. “I’d have them play their music and start a stopwatch, and they’d draw what they are doing at certain points in the song on special paper I had made.”
That worked to a point. But it was tough to decipher all those chicken scratches. So Wilson began watching the performances and speaking camera directions to his assistant. She would furiously write down what he said at what point in the music and in the routine. Later on, they would decipher them and, by the day of the performance, decode that into instructions for the crew.
It worked. One of his favorites, and one that brought him much acclaim, was Brian Boitano’s Gold Medal performance at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Chicago Tribune Olympics expert Phil Hersch, on the 20th anniversary of the skate, said, “There may have never been a greater sports performance under pressure than what Brian Boitano did at the final at the 1988 Games.”
Wilson’s directed rendition of that performance has been seen over and over again.
Amazingly, after the Games, Boitano got in touch with Wilson who recalls that the skater declared, “‘I want to skate on a glacier in Alaska.’ I told him, ‘Well, I don’t think a glacier will be possible.’” But ABC found a lake 3½ hours north of Anchorage, amid mountains and wilderness and nothing else, and there Wilson produced a performance that he says was “really a spiritual happening.”
Boitano described it as “the closest I’d come to being so touched I cried during a skating performance” on a YouTube video of the event. It’s worth watching.
Wilson’s 2013 autobiography, The World Was Our Stage, recalls, “Just by showing up for work I regularly saw people do extraordinary things.”
Wide World of Sports revolutionized television, letting people learn about the real lives of the athletes they saw. It was a formula perfected by ABC’s Olympics telecasts and carried over to ABC News when Arledge took the reins there, too.
The 84-year old Wilson has decades’ worth of stories. Some just indicate how far television and technology have come. Today, live transmissions from Olympic sites are old hat. In 1964, pioneering satellite Telstar was orbiting Earth. “I remember we had something like a 20-minute window to upload material,” Wilson recalls, “or we’d miss it.”
And he remembers that sad Olympics in 1972. He didn’t have a hand in covering what he repeatedly calls “the horror” but can’t forget being in the control room when Jim McKay famously and sadly announced, “They’re all gone” about the 11 Israeli athletes killed by Arab terrorists.
“Whenever anybody tries to trace the history of terrorism,” Wilson says, “they trace it back to the 1972 Olympics. That was the beginning.”
There are silly stories, too. Evel Knievel , though “not a very good motorcyclist,” was a shrewd businessman whose stunts often showed up on Wide World.
In 1975, he planned a stunt in which he would jump over a group of London buses at the 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium. Days before the jump, Wilson recalls, the stunt performer discovered that only 3,000 tickets had been sold. So, when he arrived in London, Knievel went on a rampage of insulting Britons to get them riled enough to show up to jeer him and hope for the worst.
He filled the stadium and successfully flew over 12 buses. Unfortunately, 13 were lined up. He fractured his pelvis and broke a hand, and Wide World and Wilson had a great story to tell.
Wilson arrived at WWS in 1963, two years after its debut, and was there at the end in 1998.
But the show leaves deep memories with viewers who remember it all, particularly its opening montage where the show famously promised to deliver stories about “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
It’s that “defeat” footage viewers remember.
In 1970, Vinko Bogataj, a young Yugoslavian ski jumper, crashed spectacularly, his body bouncing around like a pinball. His career was over, but the incident lived on for years in that opening montage. Wilson directed coverage of that jump. It’s “his” footage that viewers saw week after week on Saturday afternoons.
In 1980, Wide World of Sports had a celebration of its 20th season at the Waldorf Astoria and invited Bogataj to attend. He was at the hotel bar in the afternoon, speaking in his native tongue to Wilson through his interpreter. Eastern European waiters overheard the conversation and figured out who he was.
“He’s ‘Agony of Defeat!’ one of them exclaimed, and soon the bar was abuzz. Bogataj couldn’t believe the reception.
Wilson recalls, “I told him, ‘Tonight at the event, some of the greatest athletes in the world will be there, but, when Jim McKay introduces you, just watch: you’ll get a standing ovation. ‘But I fell!’ he protested.”
Wilson was right, of course. The crowd gave him a long sustained “standing O.” And, as the evening was ending, Muhammad Ali came to his table to ask for an autograph.
Wilson has hundreds of stories like that, thanks to a career in TV sports in which, clearly, he has repeatedly enjoyed the “thrill of victory.”