U.S. Cycling’s TV Debut
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It was 1964. Color television barely existed. There were just three TV networks, and sports content was mostly limited to baseball, basketball and football. The first non-mainstream coverage came through the wildly popular ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” It was the one chance for traditionally non-American sports and their athletes to get any kind of national recognition. The biggest boost that year came with 12 “Wide World of Sports” segments that covered the U.S. Olympic trials. It was the heady chance for cycling to showcase itself to a growing TV audience, its first shot at the Big Time.
Words: Dave Chauner
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
I was a 14-year-old newbie hooked on cycling. Back then, the Olympics was the only thing that gave any kind of legitimacy to my passion. So when I heard that Jim McKay and his “Wide World of Sports” crew would be covering the U.S. Olympic track cycling trials at a new velodrome in Kissena Park, Long Island, I had to be there.
On the train, bus and cab rides from Philadelphia through New York to Kissena, I dreamed how magic it would be to see America’s rough-and-tumble sprinters duke it out in the trials: New Jersey’s flamboyant Jackie Simes, big Jim Rossi from Chicago and California’s multi-time national champ Jack Disney.
The Kissena Park crowd swelled to several hundred and there were the cameras: big black-and-white monsters connected by cables to a truck in the parking lot, one trained on McKay in his ABC blazer and the other panning the track. After East Coasters Simes and Alan Grieco dominated the match sprints, it was time for the semifinals of the tandem sprint. The New Jersey team of Allen Bell and Bobby Binetti were up against Chicago’s Rossi and Gordon Rudolph. It was getting late in the day and I wondered how long ABC could stay. Bell, steering the New Jersey tandem, had the reputation as a rugged competitor not averse to running opponents off the track, while stoker Binetti was built like a fireplug. But Rossi and Rudolph, both well over 6 feet, didn’t look like the kind of guys you could push around.
It seemed like forever to get the match started. I looked over at McKay who was listening intently on his headphones and not looking at the track. Finally, the big tandems got rolling and so did the camera. Bell and Binetti fiercely held Rossi and Rudolph to the edge of the track. There was contact and gasps from the crowd as the two big tandems came thundering down the straightaway. Rossi’s hand shot up in victory. But did they win? Was there a foul? Bell was shaking his head. No one seemed to know. The officials were confused, the crowd was mumbling, some were yelling.
“This is the last time we cover this fucking sport!”
McKay was again listening to his headset, microphone limply at his side. Three Amateur Bicycle League of America officials approached McKay with a question. He shook his head. A while later, the tandems returned to the start amid shouts and fist shaking. Binetti’s mother, all 200 pounds of her, planted herself on the track in front of the tandems, her arms crossed in protest. Confusion reigned. The afternoon shadows were lengthening. McKay looked at his watch and shook his head to the cameraman. They started to pack up. Mrs. Binetti was still sitting on the track, refusing to budge.
As dusk descended, I followed McKay to the truck. He leaned close to his assistant and said, “This is the last time we cover this fucking sport!” “No, no, no!” I thought. Cycling’s first shot at the Big Time and we blew it with incompetent officials, an angry parent and a disappearing audience.
Twelve years later, I was a journalist covering the 1976 Olympics at the flashy Montreal Olympics indoor velodrome. On the quiet afternoon before the sprint finals, I spotted McKay on the infield with his ABC production team preparing for that night’s coverage. I walked up to him, introduced myself and mentioned the scene at the 1964 Olympic trials. He remembered. We had a good laugh. During his commentary, McKay mentioned how small cycling had been when he had seen his first track race in 1964—and now look how big it had become!
From issue 50. Buy it here.