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“When we told him that he’s been in the billboard every year since 1970, he couldn’t believe it. This is a man who appears on television 130 times a year.”
— Doug Wilson, a producer for ABC, discussing with The New York Times the unusual status of Vinko Bogataj, a Slovenian ski jumper who became famous because of a 1970 fall at an event in Germany that was captured by a camera crew for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The show has not been on the air in more than two decades, but when it was, you were guaranteed to see that fall in the introduction, next to the voice of announcer Jim McKay saying the phrase “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” Bogataj got the agony part.
Why, separate from Vinko Bogataj’s nosedive, Wide World of Sports was one of the most important shows in the history of TV
ABC’s Wide World of Sports was the kind of show that only worked in the days before cable.
And it’s also a great example of the way that pop-culture phenomena can lose its luster due to a lack of exposure. If you’re under the age of 30, you may not remember this show at all.
Airing on lazy Saturday afternoons when the competition was somewhat limited (especially during the fairly slow time of year between the end of basketball season and the start of football season), the show very effectively disproved the idea that there wasn’t room for every sport on network television.
The show’s time-delayed format allowed ABC the opportunity to show off a wide array of culture, an impressive feat for a broadcast television show in the U.S. It effectively took the National Geographic approach to televised sports.
The show was pivotal for its time. In the decades before massive sponsorships and shoe deals, ABC gave an array of athletic endeavors the kind of appreciative spirit that was rare on television at the time. Wide World played a key role in bringing important sporting events to screens around the country, including Muhammad Ali’s most iconic boxing matches and the debut pro game of soon-to-be NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It also brought mainstream fame to once-obscure sports, like auto racing. But it also found plenty of room for rattlesnake hunts, soap box derby races, table tennis (In North Korea! In 1979!), and weightlifting.
This strategy wasn’t an accident. The legendary producer Roone Arledge, who helped foster the idea behind Wide World of Sports (though it was created by his boss, Edgar Scherick) and later helped turn Peter Jennings into an iconic anchor, came to ABC at a time before sports had earned its place at the television table.
“I was always fascinated by sports, and I thought that it was one of those things that television ought to be able to do very well but wasn't doing well at the time,” he explained in a 1992 Los Angeles Times interview.
Wide World, first aired in 1961, was one part of ABC’s multi-tier strategy to do sports well—one that also included Monday Night Football, of course, and once involved the Olympics as well.
(As a highlight of just how valuable sports became thanks to the influence of ABC and Arledge, the network paid less than $600,000 for the rights to air the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria—an amount that, even considering inflation, is a steal at less than $5 million. Two decades later, ABC paid $91.5 million for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. For this year’s, Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, NBC paid $963 million. And Summer Olympics events these days cost even more.)
Wide World, which highlighted a diverse number of sports just like the Olympics proper, showed that part of what made television great was the sheer diversity of subject matter.
The show, due to its anthology nature and focus on sports that didn’t have players with $30 million contracts, didn’t cost very much to make. It wasn’t like the sporting events it highlighted ever aired live. And as a result, it stayed on the air for 37 seasons, an impressive amount of time for a single show.
Unfortunately, television’s evolution made the show quickly fall out of date.
It wasn’t due to a fading interest in obscure sports. As I know from first-hand experience due to the fact that Andrew Egan’s breakdown of professional cornhole drives impressive search traffic every time ESPN features the sport on the air, obscure sporting events are still a thing.
But cable, YouTube, and (more recently) dedicated over-the-top online channels have made it possible for even the most obscure of sports leagues to receive a sizable amount of notice. And at the same time, Disney’s eventual ownership of both ESPN and ABC soon had the effect of completely downplaying ABC’s own sports coverage. If you want to watch a soap box derby race in 2018, you just have to turn on ESPN8, The Ocho. By 1998, Wide World of Sports was a thing of the past.
Anyway, enough about why Wide World of Sports is one of the greatest television shows in history; if you weren’t aware, now you are.
Now, let’s talk about Vinko Bogataj falling down.
“Agonosis: The syndrome of tuning into ‘Wide World of Sports’ every Saturday just to watch the skier rack himself.”
— A sniglet—a.k.a. a made-up word that sounds real, as we covered earlier this year—that makes specific reference to Vinko Bogataj’s infamous stumble. The sniglet highlights just how mainstream the fall actually became as an American cultural phenomenon.
The agony of defeat: Why Vinko Bogataj became an unlikely pop culture icon
On March 21, 1970, ABC Sports brought the world the International Ski Flying Championship from the German city of Oberstdorf, an event that took place two weeks earlier.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, the event would come to change Vinko Bogataj’s life. A 22-year-old competitor from Slovenia, he was one of many people who jumped that day. However, the only thing that most people remember about the incident is his fall, which happened essentially because the snow made the ramp slicker than he was anticipating.
It could have happened to anyone. It happened to him.
The footage, suitably, is dramatic. In a lot of ways, the stumble looks much worse than it actually was, with his skis plowing into the crowd and the fall decking him, hard. It’s a great clip, made better by the fact that Bogataj wasn’t seriously injured. (That’s part of the reason ABC was OK with using it.)
In the context of the event, it highlighted a certain type of sportsmanship, the kind that never quits. Bogataj wanted to go back up and jump again! However, he was taken to the hospital instead, where he was found to have an ankle injury and a light concussion. Still, he called the event to emphasize that he was fine—a concern of his in no small part because his family was watching.
It’s a great story that highlights the way that true athletes stick with it even in times of failure. And certainly, ABC’s use of the clip in the Wide World of Sports intro spoke to this to some degree. But the problem is that the clip strips the story of its context. Out of context, it becomes something else—a blooper of sorts. People generally saw the clip, unaware of its story, in part because the clip was years old by the time it ran.
Morning in Lesce, a work by Vinko Bogataj. (via Internet Archive)
Anyway, after a recovery period, Bogataj returned to the sport, though his skill at ski jumping was never the same. Eventually, he receded to his normal life, becoming a factory worker for a number of years and raising a family in his native (at the time) Yugoslavia. He even became an artist! But in 1981, two decades after Wide World of Sports went on the air, ABC decided that it wanted to have an anniversary event for what had become one of its longest-running hits.
A 2010 piece on RealClearSports, by the sportswriter Dave Seminara, breaks down the impact of the repeated showings of the clip had on American culture as well as Bogataj. (The piece, unfortunately, is no longer on RealClearSports; there’s a version on the Internet Archive, however.)
Per Seminara, Bogataj only discovered his fame after being contacted by ABC to take part in the Wide World of Sports anniversary event in New York City. And when he was introduced in a clip that explained his post-stumble life, it turned out that he held a level of fame comparable to the major athletes in the room that night. Two athletes received standing ovations that night, both playing a key role in defining the show’s success. One was Muhammad Ali. The other was Vinko Bogataj.
“Before the evening was out, Muhammad Ali came over to Vinko Bogataj, and Muhammad asked Vinko for his autograph,” Doug Wilson, the producer who was at Oberstdorf on the day the network captured the dramatic video, told Seminara.
Of course, the video had some notable downsides as well. The repeated, almost numbing, use of the clip was seen as damaging to the sport of ski jumping, with the U.S. Ski Federation formally protesting the use of the clip, which ABC producers refused to drop, even though every other part of the intro was fairly malleable. Ski jumping enthusiasts even claim that the clip led to a decline in the sport’s popularity in the U.S., and affected its support in the Olympics.
“The Ski Federation hated it for years and years,” former ABC Sports producer Dave Lewin told Seminara. “They felt it was harming the growth of their sport, because so many people were seeing Vinko crash that it was scaring people off from taking up ski jumping.”
Bogataj, for his part, embraced the clip that somehow became the one part of his life that became famous. What else was he going to do? He became so closely associated with this phenomenon—a viral video before videos went viral—that it really only made sense for him to embrace his cult status as the guy who fell down in a dramatic way.
It took him a while to get past his shock, however.
“Now I am used to it,” he told The New York Times, through an interpreter, in 1986. “Every human being must be glad he’s famous at one time.”
“I was aware that it probably looked pretty bad. But I had a feeling that I was going to see a certain picture. And as it turned out, it was almost exactly like I picture it in my head. But I still get nervous when I see it.”
— Vinko Bogataj, describing his reaction after seeing the video of his fall for the first time in an interview with Philadelphia Daily News columnist Rich Hoffman dating to 1984. (He was at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo that year, assisting the Yugoslavian ski-jumping team, and Hoffman was a reporter at the Olympics.) He insists, however, that the fall didn’t actually hurt. “I didn’t feel any pain at first,” he added. “I was just angry it happened. People kept telling me that it had to hurt. It looked so dangerous.”
Recently, there’s been a lot of chatter online about the role of privacy in our real-world interactions, how people that did not ask to become famous have a sense of fame or even infamy thrust upon them.
It’s easier than ever to make someone famous online, whether they’d like to be or not. It’s particularly easy to do so with a clip of just a few seconds long. It took 15 seconds of sunlight to turn “Permit Patty” into an infamous figure. The clip didn’t have much in the way of context at first, but it still had a significant effect.
This is something we’re seeing more of, and it creates complicated issues, in part because, unlike America’s Funniest Home Videos, the video subjects didn’t solicit the fame or infamy. It found them.
If you really wanted to, you could draw a line between “the agony of defeat” and “Plane Bae.” (“Star Wars Kid,” whose life story has an inspiring arc, would probably be right in the middle of that line.)
I’m not saying that we necessarily should, but the parallels are there. In both cases, it was a person who did something small that somehow put them at the center of someone else’s story that went big. (The “someone else” in the latter case being a major television network, but I digress.)
In the case of “Plane Bae,” that led to an apology, and it created a useful conversation about the role of the bystander in a viral phenomenon. The subject of the unwanted social media attention felt compelled to speak out through a lawyer about her desire for privacy.
As for “the agony of defeat,” it gave Bogataj an unusual kind of fame, the kind he can’t really do anything with other than disappear for a bit and reappear every few years when people have forgotten about him for a little while.
Vinko Bogataj’s tale, on television sets thousands of miles from his home, became one about the agony of defeat, a story that repeated every Saturday afternoon for nearly 30 years. It didn’t benefit from algorithms or search engines. A megaphone shouted his most awkward moment from the rooftops, repeatedly.
Bogataj, unknowingly and unwittingly, helped sell Americans on television as a window to sports. His role was relatively small—at a tightly edited five seconds, his nosedive was a third of the length of Permit Patty’s recorded output—but it helped promote something tangible and valuable: a broader understanding of global culture.
The problem, of course, is that—not unlike the woman involved in “Plane Bae”—he had no say in that use. ABC owned the footage, sure, but its repeated use over many years was most assuredly not what Vinko signed up for when he took part in that event.
I’m not saying that he should have received the thrill of victory instead of the agony of defeat, but shouldn’t he have had a say in the matter?