These moments of defeat pale in comparison with Bogataj's

Posted: February 14, 2014

THE OPENING sequence, in many ways, defined sports television in the 1960s and '70s and '80s. On Saturday afternoon, pretty much every Saturday afternoon, the familiar music would play in the background and the great Jim McKay would read these words:

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport.

The thrill of victory . . .

. . . and the agony of defeat.

The human drama of athletic competition.

This is ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

The video that accompanied the narration changed over the years, except for one part - the agony-of-defeat part. As soon as ABC got the tape of a 1970 ski-jumping event in Oberstdorf, in what was then West Germany, the image was set - of Vinko Bogataj, a ski jumper from Slovenia, tumbling and falling off the ramp, taking out a sign and landing in the crowd.

In what might be my favorite Olympic moment, I got to meet the Agony of Defeat Guy in Sarajevo in 1984 - and to find out that his attitude about the whole thing was just about perfect.

As he said, "I look at it this way. I would prefer it to be a shot of me being a champion. But if it can't be, well, why not?"

We see it every Olympics, the kaleidoscope of losing, the pictures of Shaun White and Shani Davis and the rest. This was different, though. Bogataj had made a universal connection with American sports fans and understood it well. Acclaimed ABC producer Roone Arledge wrote the line, McKay delivered it, and Bogataj cemented it in our consciousness. Even now, I cannot watch ski jumping at the Olympics without thinking about it. The other day, I looked on-demand at a clip of a ski-jumping fall during the competition and it was nothing - just a bit of a stumble and fall on the landing.

Bogataj's fall was legendary. As weather conditions deteriorated that day in Oberstdorf, the jump was getting too fast to be safe - but he went anyway.

"I realized that something was wrong," he said. "I tried not to go, tried to stop myself. But the speed was too big, about 105 kilometers an hour [about 65 mph]. So I did everything I was able to do . . .

"Twenty meters from the edge, I fell on the right side of the ski jump. When I was lying on the ground, everyone was afraid to even touch me. They were afraid something serious had happened. They went to get the doctor. The first reaction came when I tried to get up myself. Then the people came.

"I didn't feel any pain at first. I was just angry it happened. People kept telling me that it had to hurt. It looked so dangerous."

A few years after it began using the tape, ABC sent Bogataj a copy. He said: "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."

In 1980, ABC had a big dinner in New York for some of the more memorable participants in the "Wide World of Sports" series. Two received a standing ovation - Muhammad Ali and Vinko Bogataj. Said Bogataj: "It was one of the most beautiful and pleasant moments of my life."

Kind of a journeyman jumper, Bogataj said that he was never the same after the fall, that he could never shake just a sliver of inner fear. He never jumped in the Olympics. He worked as a coach, and as a truck driver after that, and he also worked as an artist. When we talked, in an interview arranged for a few reporters by ABC, he was in Sarajevo to work as a starter at the 70-meter ski jump.

That day, as he stood on the hill, Bogataj watched as one of the few medal favorites from Yugoslavia, Primoz Ulaga, completely bombed and finished second-to-last in the competition. Bogataj and Ulaga were friends, both from Slovenia, which was one of the socialist republics that then stood unsteadily beneath the same national umbrella. Sarajevo is in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a different republic.

About 25,000 spectators filled the hill that day, ready to cheer on Ulaga. When he did so badly, they all left - but not before a vicious round of booing and whistling in derision.

Bogataj explained away the reaction as coming from a group of people who did not understand the sport. Another guy told me the truth about the booing.

"Why? He's Slovenian," he said.

Seven years later, Yugoslavia fell apart. Eight years later, the war came. "Wide World of Sports" ended its series run in 1998. McKay died in 2008. Wikipedia says Bogataj is 65 today and living in Slovenia.

Several versions of the video are on YouTube and have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Just search for "agony of defeat."


Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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