Ken Jennings' record ‘Jeopardy!' run nearly ended in his very first game on a sports question


Ken Jennings, a cast member in the ABC television series “Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time,” poses at the 2020 ABC Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Tooling through the DVR and came across a rebroadcast of Ken Jennings' first Jeopardy! win in 2004, and holy cow if he didn't nearly lose his very first appearance on a sports question.

Before Jennings could win a record 74 consecutive matches or make millions as our nation's foremost expert on all things trivia, he needed to win his debut, and it came down to a Final Jeopardy question on the 2000 Olympics.

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Jennings loves the Olympics and never misses them, he wrote in his autobiography, Brainiac, but it just so happens the Sydney games perfectly coincided with his honeymoon in London, so he didn't catch a single event.

He breathed a sigh of relief, though, at the answer: "She's the first female track & field athlete to win medals in five different events at a single Olympics."

Leading challenger Julia Lazarus by only $1,400, Jennings knew the answer was Marion Jones, who hadn't yet been disgraced when the episode aired in 2004. Here's where things get dicey, though.

Jennings simply wrote "Jones," which could've been interpreted as a guess of a common name. But after consulting with the judges, host Alex Trebek declared the answer valid because, "in terms of female athletes, there aren't that many."

Jennings explained his thought process to Vulture this week.

"I had been trained by years of 'Jeopardy!' watching and college quiz bowls that you only give the last name," he said. "Because there's then an additional opportunity to introduce some kind of error. By default, I just wrote down 'Who is Jones?' I didn't even think what a common last name that is. It wasn't until Alex revealed my answer that I realized it looked like I just guessed a random last name. Who is Jones? Who is Smith? Who is Williams? There was what seemed like an eternity of a pause. He looked at the judges' table. It didn't take too long before he got a nod.

"I don't think it was a tough judgment call. The 'Jeopardy!' rule is almost always 'the last name is acceptable by itself' unless there's a particular ambiguity, like Benjamin Harrison versus William Henry Harrison or something like that. I did think for a moment, 'There are probably a number of American athletes named Jones, is it not clear I meant Marion Jones?' I remember feeling this wave of euphoria when Alex said it was correct. Somehow, against all odds in these 20 minutes, I survived."

He didn't just survive, he thrived. And to think, if the judges had rejected his answer, he would've finished last, and no one would know his name.

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