Lost in the Movies: The Olympic Films, part 3 of 7: Summer 1992 / 1988 / 1984 / 1980 & Winter 1960 / 1964 / 1968

The Olympic Films, part 3 of 7: Summer 1992 / 1988 / 1984 / 1980 & Winter 1960 / 1964 / 1968


for the introduction & line-up of monthly capsules
running from August 2021 to February 2022


Marathon, dir. Carlos Saura
Summer 1992 - Barcelona, Spain

Marathon is bookended by the men's marathon, starting gun on one side and stretcher-strewn finish line on the other, interspersing clips from the event throughout so that when a title pops up reading "mile thirteen" we know we're halfway through the - literal - runtime. Although it embraces many events, the longest, most grueling competition of the entire Olympics serves as the film's centerpiece and thematic touchstone. The women's marathon is also featured, in a different fashion: in a single sequence but with extended attention as runner after runner collapses in exhaustion after completing the race. At times, this sequence - with its slow, tense pacing, frames crowded with medics, muted background noise, somber score, and focus on the haunted expressions of the enervated athletes - resembles a war film more than a sports documentary. Few of the Olympics portraits I've watched thus far have lingered over exhaustion like this (or at all); they generally emphasize endurance and euphoria, but Saura may be as interested in when the adrenaline stops pumping. The experience of the film is especially visceral as we aren't given any interviews, let alone narration, to guide us through. Rare context is provided only incidentally, by commentators whose voices we can discern (if we're fortunate enough to speak the unsubtitled languages) mostly as background color.

One rare exception occurs when jai alai players tease the cameraman about breaking his equipment with their powerful throw. This precedes a well-photographed practice session that displays the filmmakers' prowess as well as the athletes', the facile operator keeping up with the bouncing ball and hustling team members. Employing the polar opposite of Bud Greenspan's approach, Saura encourages us to experience these moments more as sensation than narrative. And so, without even attempting to have the subjects explain what they are going through, Marathon may actually bring us closer to their direct experience; unsurprisingly, an athlete's gestures often articulate more than their words. Of course, this is also a highly aestheticized movie and at times we may regard the competitors less as flesh-and-blood humans in a conscious struggle, and more as distant, curious organisms presented for contemplation (the Leni Riefenstahl effect). The film captures something strange and fascinating about physical exertion, the ways in which it both exposes and obscures the act of being. This is also the perfect approach for this particular time period, perhaps the most transitional historic moment of any Olympic Games (its only obvious rivals would be 1968 and 2021, and if the former turned out mostly to be unfulfilled promise/threat, we still don't know where the latter is headed).

The dissolution of the Soviet Union is such a recent development - barely six months past - that there was no way to organize either proper national or collective teams. Instead, the mysteriously "EUN" emblazoned jerseys refer to the "Equipee unifee" ("unified team") on which a dozen former Soviet nations - including Russia itself - competed despite no longer belonging to a single political entity. This didn't hurt their chances (they emerged from the competition with more medals than any other team) but acts as one more disorienting element among many. South Africa, having released Nelson Mandela from prison and in the process of winding down apartheid in favor of multiracial democracy, was invited back for the first time since 1960; indeed, the international harmony (however discombobulated) of '92 was paradoxically one of the most destabilizing things about the experience - this was the first ceremony in twenty years unaffected by boycotts. These were also the first summer games I ever watched (or at least that I can recall watching) and it's interesting to contrast the American TV coverage with this film's heightened, sophisticated air of immersion. Though my memories are vague - I mostly remember the gymnastics - my impression of the event was highly commercialized, with particular emphasis on the professionalized NBA-derived "Dream Team" which allowed an all-star assembly of the biggest players of that time (and arguably, in some cases, before or after), a kind of real world proto-Avengers for basketball fans. We briefly see Michael Jordan and others dunking on their hopeless competition, but for the most part Saura is more interested in a lower-to-the-ground approach (meant, like the film's title, both literally and figuratively).

There are only a handful of filmmakers in this series whose work (or, at least, reputation) I'm familiar with. Saura is one of them though I've only seen his 1977 masterpiece Cria Cuervos, reviewed as part of my Favorites series. Like that work, Marathon is fascinated by the intertwining of mythological archetypes and ever-evolving national mythos: its only onscreen text describes the founding of Barcelona - and the Olympics - by Hercules. It's worth reminding ourselves, amidst all of the more immediate, onscreen social and political upheaval of the late eighties and early nineties, that Spain's own transition from the Francisco Franco dictatorship took place just a decade and a half earlier. Saura's work from that era exhibits pent-up frustration with the authoritarian regime, which had loomed over him since the dark days of the Spanish Civil War in his early childhood. Even in an interview recalling his mounting relief as Franco lay on his deathbed, Saura jokes, "Franco took so long to die that we all had time to buy champagne and store it in the fridge. When he finally died you could hear the corks popping." That sense of stubborn persistence and painful relief is present in the very texture of Marathon, which also employs a jaunty pop song in unusual manner much like Cria Cuervos - in this case, the Freddie Mercury-Monserrate Caballe "Barcelona" rather than Jeanette's "Porque te vas". What's unusual here is Saura's placement of the song at the outset, setting a relieved, playful, exuberant mood at odds with the more sober tone of the rest. The rationale for this is practical - this was the official Olympic song, commissioned for just this occasion - but it also works on a thematic level. It's as if Saura wants to get the climactic energy of Olympic victory, and the broader international zeitgeist, out of the way before reminding us of the long, arduous road it took to get there.


People, Hopes, Medals, dir. Heribert Meisel
Winter 1960 - Squaw Valley, California (USA)

At the dawn of the sixties - still very much in thrall to the upbeat spirit of the late fifties - we glimpse the earliest American Olympics in this collection (the St. Louis '04 and documentaries for L.A./Lake Placid '32 are either lost or unproduced, so I can only glimpse those events through scattered newsreels on YouTube). And these are very American games indeed, capturing the high point of the period that stretched from the opening of Disneyland and the birth of rock 'n' roll to the assassination of JFK and the arrival of the Beatles. And the spirit isn't just American, it's Californian (which, to many eyes, is the most American of all). Presidential candidate and sitting Vice President Richard Nixon is present at the opening ceremony, produced by none other than Walt Disney himself, and while we only briefly glimpsed Sophia Loren in the '56 Italian documentary, now we are presented with an array of Hollywood stars from Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis to Jayne Mansfield and Bing Crosby. Even the name of this Sierra Nevada resort evokes the Western-obsessed ethos of the time (as do the exaggerated wooden Indian statues decorating the arena and the cowboy-hat wearing man on a snowplow). In fact, just last year the name of the resort was finally changed to "Palisades Tahoe" in deference to indigenous concerns that the old term was a slur. Despite all these distinct national traits on view, the film mediates everything through a German narrator and German filmmaker, adding an eccentric twist to the flavor of the '60 Olympics.

Thus far, I've discussed several Olympic films directed which were directed by an American (and/or narrated in English) despite taking place in a foreign country. This time, the dynamic is reversed. Although the American company Marvin Becker Films undertook the production with U.S. and West German financing, and released (or at least created) a now-unavailable American version under the title Faster, Stronger, Higher, the Criterion Collection includes a jaunty German production instead. Peter Cowie's notes for the set are helpful in laying out this production history as well as revealing something I hadn't realized: for several years, the East and West Germans played on a unified team. Cowie also explains why we don't see any bobsledding or other sports requiring new, larger facilities: the location was in over its head already and chose not to build extra facilities. The weather tormented athletes and spectators alike, although the narrator observes cheerful American ingenuity and defiance in response to snowstorms and intermittent rain. There's even more emphasis on skiing than usual as compensation, with endless spills inspiring ironical cutaways to fireworks ("stars, all of them stars," the bemused voiceover intones whenever another skier collapses). All of this is captured in a sprightly manner though the compositions and cutting strategies are nowhere near as striking as they were in the '56 Winter Vertigo (the colors are also muddier, and the picture quality not nearly as sharp - which may be due to 16mm source material). People, Hopes, Medals remains most arresting for the enthusiasm of both the filmmakers and their subjects.

In one memorable sequence, amidst many visits to nervous parents watching their offspring from the sidelines, we are presented with the Owens family: three generations of figure skaters including a fur-clad, nearly eighty-year-old grandmother gliding across the ice. Doing some quick math, I realized this woman would have been born around 1880 (a teenager in the early years of the Olympics), and that her granddaughter - Laurence Owen, a fifteen-year-old competitor - would be about the same age today as this grandmother was in 1960. Unfortunately, however, further research reveals that the happy scene had a tragic ending. Laurence didn't make it to eighty or even to eighteen - in fact, the octogenarian grandmother outlived her energetic granddaughter by eight years. The following winter, Laurence Owen, along with her mother, sister, and the entire U.S. figure skating team, perished in the fatal Sabena Flight 548 crash en route to the 1961 world championship (resulting in its cancellation out of respect for the staggering loss of life). This was a seismic event in skating history, creating a void of both athletes and mentors which had to be filled by younger skaters and foreign coaches. American teams were thereafter banned from flying together to international events. In retrospect, the dark decade to come already casts its shadow back over this bright, happy opening.


Seoul 1988, dir. Lee Kwang-soo
Hand in Hand, dir. Im Kwon-taek
Beyond All Barriers, dir. Lee Ji-won
Summer 1988 - Seoul, South Korea

Twenty-six years after the Sabena tragedy, there was another deadly Olympics-related airline disaster. This one, however, was an intentional terrorist attack on Korean Air Flight 858; according to the confession of one of the bombers, who failed her suicide attempt, the 1987 plot was hatched by Kim Jong Il (son and eventual successor of North Korea's founder and then-leader Kim Il Sung) as an attempt to further destabilize South Korea in the midst of ongoing political turmoil...and discourage other nations from traveling to their southern neighbor/rival for the upcoming Olympics. (Initially sentenced to death, the bomber - who had helped to kill over a hundred people - was eventually pardoned with the explanation that she was a brainwashing victim of her government and not responsible for her actions; she remains in hiding in South Korea to this day.) North Korea denied any culpability although their own explanation of the event has been stricken from the official Wikipedia entry for "giv[ing] undue weight to fringe and politicized conspiracy theory and depend[ing] on unreliable sources" (for posterity's sake, at least, you can read the original edit here). It's certainly true that the North Koreans were heavily invested in co-hosting the games with Seoul and/or wrecking South Korea's publicity coup. The bombing took place after years of frustrating negotiations with the IOC and attempts to rally the USSR, China, and other socialist heavyweights to the cause. 

However, if the Communist government really did intend to derail the games with violence, they obviously failed. Not only did the Olympics bring international prestige to the capitalist and newly democratized south, this was the first time in a dozen years to be widely attended by both sides of the Cold War attended the summer games (only a handful of nations led by Cuba stuck to North Korea's boycott). Oddly, given its magnitude and geopolitical implications, the largest Olympics-related terrorist attack in history barely registered as a footnote by the following year. None of the three films I watched (more than were produced for any other Olympics) mention it even in passing - I only discovered the incident through independent research. In fact, these documentaries present the Olympics as a kind of grand global reunion after years of division given the '80 and '84 boycotts. On the other hand, it's also the case that the Chun Du-Hwan dictatorship made and won their bid in the early eighties in order to solidify their authoritarian rule of the south. In this they failed. Thanks in part to the international spotlight of the upcoming Olympics, the government found itself unable to fully crack down on massive protests and demands for reform and free elections. By 1988, South Korea had become a more liberalized state despite the victory of Chun's designated successor, who defeated a divided field of left-wing candidates with just 36% of the vote.

Many if not most of the Olympic Games have been politicized, but few unfolded in the wake of such a tumultuous prologue. If the bombing is ignored by these films, the democratic reforms are referenced only in oblique asides. Of the three, Hand in Hand is by far the more interested in a generalized international context, specifically the history of bloodshed on the peninsula. By contrast Seoul 1988, first in the Criterion Collection's trilogy (a fourth film just combined elements of the other three and was left out), sticks almost entirely to athletic and ceremonial aspects; the Olympics made an effort to incorporate academic and artistic events as part of a sprawling, tripartite tribute to all fields of human endeavors. The bulk of the lengthy coverage, nearly two and a half hours, meticulously follows a broad range of events - a comprehensive survey incorporating synchronized swimming, table tennis, field hockey, handball, and much else usually ignored by selective editing. For me, Seoul 1988 provided the most absorbing moment-to-moment athletic coverage of any film I've watched thus far. A narrator describes interesting details and sharpens our observations, but we don't cut away to talking head interviews or past events; our attention is drawn to what's unfolding before us. This comes the closest to watching the games unfold on TV but with a more precise, anticipatory approach than live coverage can provide (there's a lot of slow motion in all three of these movies, which occasionally present identical footage within different contexts).

Both this film and Hand in Hand highlight stars like Ben Johnson, a Canadian runner whose triumphant, unexpected record is almost instantly shattered by a doping disqualification, and Florence Griffith Joyce whose ear-to-ear smile dazzles the commentators as much as her confident stride. Flo-Jo's sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, is shown winning gold as well, as is the legendary Carl Lewis - both of whom we've glimpsed at the end of their careers in Atlanta eight years later. Another Atlanta icon featured here is the "Pocket Hercules" weightlifter Naim Sulumanoglu, whose Bulgarian-to-Turkish winding path this series has already covered, thanks to the Atlanta documentary. Here he is a boyish twenty-one, earning his first gold. More wistfully, both films linger on Mary Decker-Slaney's sad eighth-place finish in the 1500m, although Hand in Hand hones in on the details and drama of what led her here more closely, especially the role that politics played in making her miss previous opportunities: kept out of 1980 by the U.S. boycott, in '84 she was tripped by a South African competitor, who herself is kept out of the '88 race. Hand in Hand's director Im Kwon-taek, an internationally-acclaimed filmmaker unafraid to insert his opinion directly into his work, proclaims this sort of ideological meddling an unfair curse upon the athletes, lamenting what could have been - although ironically, Slaney was harmed by exclusion in '80 and non-exclusion in '84. He even comments over the frozen '84 snapshot of a despairing, wounded, sidelined Slaney (then just Decker), "Look at her expression."

Hand in Hand strikes quite a different note than Seoul 1988 from its opening sequences onward. Far more determined to place these games in a broader historical context, Im frequently cuts away to black and white footage of Seoul just thirty-five years earlier. The contrast is stark and shocking. An interview with an Australian commentator who was present as a journalist during the Korean War explains how brutal those war-torn winters were and we see streets filled with rubble, a crying baby exposed to the elements, and soldiers firing weapons where today athletes march with symbols of peace. Jets streaming rainbow colors as they fly over the stadium are juxtaposed with grainy images of bombers dropping their payload on the battered landscape. As the film carries on, the cuts to the past become less frequent, although the narrator still takes care to observe just how many of the events have their origin in war games - shooting, archery, equestrian, and even some of the more innocuous-looking events, like swimming or the high jump, were modeled on the practice a good soldier needed to prepare himself for the battlefield. Fascinated by the yin/yang of Korean views on the duality of man and the universe (manifested, of course, in Korea's own geography since World War II), both this particular film and Seoul's opening/closing ceremonies continually inform us that we must move through the tensions of competition and strife in order to discover a greater unity.

The simplest of this trio, Beyond All Barriers, emphasizes that theme too by sticking almost entirely to those bookending ceremonies. This document of greeting and farewell features pretty spectacular feats of human coordination (perhaps inspiring the even more ambitious Beijing spectacle twenty years later). Participants - and even spectators - form welcoming words and cascade across the field in colorful displays of both design and technique. At one point, hundreds of tae kwon do practitioners chop hundreds of wooden blocks in perfect coordination; at another, hundreds of Technicolor parachutes whirl above the stadium and descend onto the grass one by one. The closing ceremony, with a gleaming silver ball rolled out under the starry sky, is a dazzling night display in contrast to the sweltering afternoon opener (the last time an opening ceremony would be held in the daytime) ending as giant balloon representations of the Korean tiger and Spanish dog - or whatever the loosely-sketched Barcelona mascot is supposed to be - ascend into the air holding hands. "Hand in Hand" is of course not just the title of one of these movies, but the central theme of the games and the literal theme song, written by Giorgio Moroder - a soaring ballad performed by Koreana at the start of Seoul 1988, the end of Hand in Hand, and the middle of Beyond All Barriers. In the third case, this musical montage is the only part of that film to feature sports, via slow motion shots of eighties mullets flopping up and down against sleek, gleaming backdrops, all to the tune of Morodor's very zeitgeist-y pop yearning. I doubt there will be a more quintessentially eighties Olympics experience than this.


IX Olympic Games, Innsbruck 1964, dir. Theo Hormann
Winter 1964 - Innsbruck, Austria

As I've observed many times throughout my Mad Men viewing diary, the evolution of the sixties may be difficult to catch in any given moment, but it's unmistakable when comparing points within a few years of each other. If the '60 event still bounced with the glee of the chipper late fifties, IX Olympic Games instantly captures a different mood. Some of this is coincidental: the evocative gloom of the overcast opening ceremony was down to weather, obviously, but suits the more unsettled mid-sixties already unfolding just a few months after Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas. Other, subtle, almost subconscious elements have more historical weight - including the usual increase in speed and variety (Innsbruck assembled the fastest bobsleigh track in the world after that sport's absence from the American games, and for the first time the dangerous luge sled appeared in competition). This shift also includes elements of style, as when central features of an image are held in close-up atop the rest of the wider shot. The effect is like holding a fuzzy-edged magnifying glass to the screen, giving the early montages a slightly kaleidoscopic feel. And while the hairstyles of the male athletes are still pretty short and straight, some of the winter fashions already suggest a post-fifties sensibility also present when the young competitors dance the Twist in the Olympic Village. Of course, a few years after its introduction that craze was already being superseded by newer musical phenomena: Innsbruck's closing ceremony was held on the very date that the Beatles made their Ed Sullivan Show debut.

As the sun comes out and the main events unfold, the film's narration imposes a more traditional sensibility on the unruly visuals, full of authoritative knowhow, innocent good cheer (especially between the Goitschel sisters who glide to gold and silver in the snow but stumble on the winners' carpet), and - as have all the winter films thus far - a flirtatious appreciation of young women in snow gear; the narrator suggests a beauty contest for the fashionable spectators. Hormann's primary innovation is to provide technical behind-the-scenes details. Earlier documentaries have always made some room for pulling back the curtain of Olympic process but few have ranged so far and wide in their curiosity. An onscreen white line illustrates the quickest route to a winner's score in the bobsleigh "witches' cauldron" turn, and via horizontal split screen we're shown how different competitors fare on that route. Likewise, various slalom runs are juxtaposed side by side (the skiers' moves and timing are surprisingly interchangeable), and Hormann even follows a runner who carries film from the slopes' sideline cameras to a nearby laboratory, where the footage is quickly developed and investigated to assess the performances and the course overall. We even discover how starting order is determined: children pick numbered balls from a basket, randomly determining advantages or disadvantages. Meanwhile with the weather unreliable, snow is transported and re-distributed where needed, while chunks of ice are chopped from the frozen ponds in nice clean blocks and piled along walls by the workers. The story told by this documentary remains one of optimistic ingenuity, however haunted by the forces gathering on the horizon. Now it's time to jump forward twenty years for another bright show of optimism, this time shadowed by (rather than foreshadowing) a dark turn in the games.


16 Days of Glory, dir. Bud Greenspan
Summer 1984 - Los Angeles, CA (USA)

Though I still have many documentaries to go, I feel comfortable calling this one of the foundational films in this collection along with Kon Ichikawa's Tokyo Olympiad and Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia but for rather different reasons (especially in the case of the former, which I've not yet seen but know by reputation). In contrast to one-off Olympic auteurs Ichikawa and Riefenstahl imposing their own unique style upon the format before departing for other work, the prolific Greenspan went on to become the Olympic filmmaker, creating a narrative template that he and others would follow. Moving backwards through the summer games, I can now see the foundation for his later entries. Like that later work, 16 Days of Glory is an anthology of deep-dive individual stories - a single athlete pushing themselves, a friendly or tense competition between contrasting rivals, an entire team seeking national glory - told via footage from the live events, talking head interviews recalling the mindset of the moments, and flashback b-roll to these athletes in their home environments or in past competitions. Here the formula is imbued not only with the storytelling confidence that Greenspan would always retain, but also a 20th Century Fox-funded stylistic sheen which became more workmanlike in later films. There's a gorgeously rich, grainy celluloid texture to the movie, and Greenspan is also helped immensely by the striking color palette of the games, which I was tempted to call "pastel" given the light colors but it's really far too bright for that description (I just stumbled across a fascinating design document for the games, so you can see for yourself).

Of course, we're also back in the blindingly bright light of California, site of the cheery January 1960 Olympiad and launching pad for both of the careers - glitzy show biz and gauzy political - held by the president who opens these games. The reason that this sunny demeanor brackets rather than entirely leaves behind a dark Olympic age is because of what's missing. If the Innsbruck documentary feels like a weak flame flickering in the face of a coming storm then this captures a triumphant bonfire happily feeding off the wreckage of said storm. Namely, almost the entire Soviet bloc is absent due to an ambiguous "nonparticipation" protest (they declined to call it a boycott although most observers went ahead with that description). Largely seen as tit-for-tat revenge following the U.S. boycott of the Moscow in 1980, the decision was also motivated by the heightened tensions of Reagan's first term and a bizarre plot by Southern Californian right-wing activists to sabotage the Soviet team by promoting defections via giant billboards and loud demonstrations. The only Communist attendees were Benin, Congo, Mozambique, and the often ambivalent Romania, in addition to longtime Soviet antagonists Somalia, Yugoslavia, and the People's Republic of China - to whom Greenspan's film appreciatively dedicates an extended passage. China is the only country to receive such isolated treatment (other national teams are highlighted, but just within specific sports); after a thirty-two year break, its participants won their first gold medals in Olympic history, sixteen to be exact. Of course this posed no challenge to the U.S.'s decisive medal lead: eighty-three golds, more than the next five nations combined. Significantly, this was the only time Americans would take that lead in twenty years. From '72 to '92, the Soviets completed dominated the top spot - even after ceasing to exist as an actual nation!

Greenspan's work does not ignore this context but unlike Ichikawa's film, which I understand casts a somewhat jaundiced eye upon upon the idealistic facade of the games, or Riefenstahl's masterpiece, which is retrospectively marred by the world-historic catastrophe ignited by the nation it glorifies, 16 Days of Glory is neither interested in not forced to reveal the mechanics behind Olympic politicization. Instead, as always, the director is absorbed in the personal experiences of the participants. He has no lack of material to work with here (leading us to wonder what fascinating life stories have been left out of less in-depth documentaries). Subjects include, among many, many other examples in this miniseries-length opus: the infamous, already-discussed collision between runners Mary Decker, the American favorite, and Zola Budd, the teenage South African/British prodigy (explored in unbelievable depth and complexity in this Budd-sympathetic Runner's World piece in 2018); Japanese judo legend Yasuhrio Yamashita who refuses professional contracts and endures painful injury (which opponents are allowed to attack) in his quest for Olympic gold; Henry Marsh, an all-American Mormon lawyer who survives multiple injuries and misfortunes to endure the rigorous steeplechase footrace despite a comical intruder leaping from the stands to disrupt the event; Nawal El Moutawakel, a history-making Moroccan hurdler honoring her recently-deceased father; a meticulous back and forth between decathletes Daley Thompson, a happy-go-lucky Brit, and Jurgen Hinson, a dour West German, which lovingly details the ups and downs of each sprint or shot put; Mitchell Gaylord, an American gymnast who gave his name to an extraordinarily difficult technique he wants to deploy in team competition, despite its risk to the close scoring; the morose, "aging," but determined American swimmer Rowdy Gaines (despite his weary look and laments about losing his step, he's just two years older than the boyish-looking Gaylord) whose extremely quick start must be verified by slow-motion replay; lonely distance runner David Moorcroft whose goals become simply to finish the 5000m race in excruciating pain (and not get lapped by the winner) just a few years after setting a world record; and "America's sweetheart" Mary Lou Retton whose informal mentor Bela Karolyi is so boisterous in his enthusiasm that he has to be cursed out by the actual team coach ("Sit down, you idiot, you'll cause a deduction!").

Amidst the ensemble, the standout star is probably Carl Lewis. We've now traveled all the way back from his thirtysomething veteran status in Atlanta '96 to his cocky whiz-kid origins in L.A. '84. This was the year he won gold in four events, duplicating Jesse Owens' achievement under the nose of the Nazi regime forty-six years earlier. In somewhat startling fashion, Greenspan jumps into black-and-white images of Owens' races before each of Lewis'. This intrusion of thirties footage is notable in a documentary very much absorbed in the present period (there are few cutaways to past events, and most are from early eighties championships rather than historic Olympics). The other major exception is from the same era: the 1932 games being the last time that the Los Angeles coliseum hosted an Olympiad (or that any U.S. city hosted a summer event). The gray, flinty Great Depression provides the perfect counterpoint to the jubilant mood of '84 but the contrast goes both ways: in celebrating the brash bravado of eighties America, the event also emphasizes something lost. An earthy, humble but no less determined fighting spirit grounded the mythmaking of the past and by comparison the more comfortable conservatism of this new era seems rather unmoored. This also brings us back to the troubling implications of an event devoted to internationalism with a record number of attendees but lacking one of the world's biggest superpower and its allies. We are also constantly reminded how much the previous boycott cost many of the athletes present in '84 - the window of youth is short, the Olympics only take place every four years, and Carter's boycott of '80 meant for many opportunities that would never be recouped. By implication, the same is true for the more Eastern European athletes benched by diplomatic tensions this time. No amount of opening ceremony rocketeers (however cool) can obscure this somber undercurrent.

With all of that in mind, the forthcoming 1988 ceremony with its "Hand in Hand" post-boycott theme will provide an opportunity to emphasize the "kinder, gentler" turn-of-the-decade zeitgeist that Vice President Bush attempted to usher in (causing Nancy Regan, still First Lady, to snipe, "kinder and gentler than who?"). I already noted the quintessentially eighties vibe of the Seoul documentaries, but if there's a subtle distinction to be made between mid- to late eighties then 16 Days of Glory perfectly captures the gung-ho halfway point of the decade as the drab, gritty seventies aesthetic gave way to a gleefully shiny pop materialism, the economy roared, and Reagan soared toward re-election. It's all there between the colorful decorations, fluffy hairdos, and patriotic bombast. The president himself making the requisite cameo appearance to open the games (all that said, the designers were careful to warn against ostentatious red, white, and blue lest it strike a too-harsh nationalistic tone). This Olympics was considered such a zeitgeist-capturing success that Time Magazine touted its organizer Peter Ueberroth as Man of the Year, praising him as an avatar of free enterprise, using his selection to head a package of entrepreneurial profiles, and crowed that he managed to run a surplus rather than lose money and "for the first time, the Games received almost no government funds." Lance Morrow's essay for this cover story observes a national mood characterized by potentially "self-indulgent" shouts of "Go for it!" and he embodies this in his prose, writing "By a collusion of timing and chemistry and artful television technique and happy economics, the nation fell into a spirit of coalescence and optimistic self-assertion not seen for a generation." Even more explicitly, he offers:
"They saw an American carrying a torch, running across America. But also, it may be, they saw an American running out of a long Spenglerian gloom: heading west for California, toward the light. Running away from recession, Americans might almost subconsciously have imagined, away from Jimmy Carter's 'malaise,' away from gas shortages and hostage crises and a sense of American impotence and failure and limitation and passivity, away from dishonored Presidents and a lost war. Away from what had become an American inferiority complex. Away from descendant history. Running away from the past, into the future."
We of course are running in the opposite direction...


13 Days in France, dir. Claude Lelouch & Francois Reichenbach
Snows of Grenoble, dir. Jacques Ertaud & Jean-Jacques Languepin
Winter 1968 - Grenoble, France

"There's such melancholy in the damp February mornings of Grenoble," sighs the Frenchwoman narrating the aptly-named Snows of Grenoble. "Even if the music tries to transport us to summer in the Far West, we can't shake it off." Indeed, we're a long way from the mid-eighties Golden State in everything from climate to spirit. Even more than at Innsbruck, a literal gloom looms over the Gallic locale - fog, mist, slush, gray skies - even in those moments delirious with youthful joy. 13 Days of France is the first of these two "Les Films 13" productions (organized and, in the case of 13 Days, co-directed by Claude Lelouch, hot from the chic international sensation of A Man and a Woman). Although both films are far more saturated in an off-the-cuff cinema verite approach than the earlier documentaries, 13 Days is the more overtly experimental offering. It eschews any narration aside from the admittedly overt lyrics of Pierre Barouh, which accompany songs penned by Love Story composer Francis Lai. Several are devoted to the games' big superstar, triple-gold winning downhill skier Jean-Cluade Killy, whose celebrity status is sealed by footage of him signing endless autographs. Perhaps the most memorable (and least subtle) verses are sung over a montage of the winsome American figure skater Peggy Fleming: "She comes from a country / Who counts its friends / Like some currencies / Putting everyone it loves / In an IBM machine / To see who divides them. / When we were told about its art / Despite ourselves we thought: dollar. / I'm ashamed today / I'm ashamed, Peggy / For a gesture..."

IBM machines are indeed emphasized as the clicking of Stone Age, then considered Space Age, computers scores (in both meanings of the word) the figure skaters' pirouettes. Headlines about Killy's feats and other athletic achievements are featured side by side with updates on the latest in Vietnam War talks in the midst of the Tet Offensive. Meanwhile, "France" himself, the stern, imperious President Charles De Gaulle, is seen opening the games a few months before May '68 nearly unseated him. Those mass street protests, the closest France has come to revolution since 1871, also derailed 13 Days' intended premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. This was a year of such disruptions, as the summer documentary will eventually remind us. If the major events of '68 remain on the horizon, the contents of this film show the late sixties already in full swing. In one vignette, a cycling prankster endlessly circles a good-humored gendarme - it's all in fun, but with an undercurrent of mocking hostility toward authority which would find more violent expression in Paris that summer. And four years after XI Olympic Games treated us to visions of crew-cut sportsmen shimmying to the Twist, we are now presented with a full-on hard rock concert, whose shaggy-haired audience screams as fevered lead singer Johnny Hallyday drips sweat all over the stage. If Olympics documentaries are often inadvertently as much a portrait of the broader times as of the particular sporting events, in this case this sweep is quite conscious.

Snows of Grenoble is a bit more conventional, leaning heavily into explanatory details about the intricacies of competition (such as the slight gestures determining a few hundredths of a second advantage, making the difference between medalists and also-rans). It features some of the most spectacular, terrifying ski spills I've ever seen on film, and devotes a particular section to the unfairly overlooked luge event with its immense thrills and risks. Often initiated in the middle of the night, due to a poorly chosen location that melts the track in midday sun, the course sometimes sends the sleigh riders hurtling in front of their detached sleighs, desperately trying to avoid being hit by the hurtling forty-five pound vehicles-turned-weapons. The people capturing all of this on film nearly become victims/subjects themselves, when a helicopter cameraman crashes and has to be extracted from their wreckage ("they were fine," the narrator informs us of the pilot and technician, wryly adding, "thanks for asking"). Both films include innovative in-the-mix photography and cutting miles beyond the more distanced approach of early Olympic films. Now we not only zoom down the mountains from the perspective of a participant, we do so while keeping the actual participants either view, with either the camera facing their bobbing heads inside the bobsled or, in one unforgettable sequence of 13 Days, chasing after downhill skiers who send snow flying up into the lens. This is kinetic cinema perfectly suited to the subject. We're now in the thick of an era when athletes can be admired not just as Apollonian figures soaring high above us through the air, but as Dionysian frenzies consuming themselves and the surrounding landscapes.


O Sport, You Are Peace!, dir. Yuri Ozerov
Summer 1980 - Moscow, USSR

Fast forward a dozen years, and the international tensions swirling around the Olympics have now penetrated and contaminated the games themselves. There had recently been a South Africa-related boycott in '76 and, as already discussed at length, most Communist nations would protest in '84 (with a handful of the smaller such nations repeating the gesture in '88). But nothing could compare to the whopping sixty-five nations who completely avoided Moscow in the summer of 1980, most but not all as part of an official boycott led by the Americans after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. U.S. officials even deployed former Olympic champion Muhammad Ali to encourage African solidarity in the boycott (a plan that almost immediately backfired on several fronts). Seventeen additional countries signaled disapproval through various gestures like avoiding the opening ceremony or allowing athletes to compete only under the Olympic flag. It's hard to imagine a greater insult to the national pride of the perpetually insecure state, so eager for this unprecedented opportunity on the global stage. Bittersweet early passages of the over-optimistically titled O Sport, You Are Peace! interview tourists, officials, and participants disappointed to see politics taint the sporting spirit (rather ironic in retrospect, given how Moscow took its vengeance in '84). As performers in bear costumes pour into the stadium, the narrator remarks that "the Olympic mascot Misha the Bear Cub came into sight. It seems as though this charming and kind creature had emerged from an old Russian fairy tale. He very much wanted the athletes and tourists to like him." In the closing ceremony, as a smiling balloon bear ascends into the night sky, spectators hold colored cards aloft to create a mosaic of the eager-to-please bear shedding two tears - of joy, or hurt? (The film cuts to a woman in the audience weeping profusely as the bear floats way.)

I was quite looking forward to the juxtaposition of 16 Days of Glory vs. O Sport, You are Peace! and indeed there are so many contrasts to take in with these two back-to-back entries in the Olympic canon: hot Los Angeles vs. cool Moscow; Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" vs. Brezhnev's 1980 "Era of Stagnation"; the individualistic ethos of Bud Greenspan's anthologized storytelling vs. the collective spirit of Yuri Ozerov's leapfrogging montage; hell, even the flamboyant chirpiness of the Disney artist-designed Sam the Olympic Eagle (no relation to the blue Muppet) vs. the folkloric simplicity of mild-mannered Misha, whose popular appeal even in boycotting nations, has long fascinated Olympic historians. Unsure what to expect from the documentary (although I knew either direction would stand out from the slick L.A. production), I wondered if O Sport would adopt the heavy ponderousness often associated with official Soviet propaganda, or the surprisingly nimble inventiveness that also characterizes the cinema of the USSR. The film very much falls into the latter camp, albeit not without its fair share of amusing kitsch - like a bizarre opening routine involving dancing children and walking dolls - and flowery, charmingly earnest proclamations. We're even introduced to Olympic history through a spry, wry animated introduction set in ancient Greece, returned to later on for sketches explaining why runners ran without clothes and women were violently discouraged from attending the games until one mother trained her son for victory. (As a corrective, the film devotes several minutes to breathlessly extolling the virtues of female competitors.) And I almost forgot to mention the bizarre, faintly terrifying sequence in which smiling infants swim underwater in a big tank; that one isn't animated, it's real.

And what of sports? With so many nations absent either this time or next, there isn't as much overlap with '84 as we might expect, but we do get peeks at several familiar competitors during an earlier stage of their career. Amidst a riveting montage of various jumpers and pole vaulters who fulfill the "Higher" component of the "Faster Higher Stronger" Olympic ethos, Italian high-jumper Sara Simeoni gracefully wins gold, without having to contend with the West German rival who'd push her (and vice versa) all the way to the limit in L.A. Ozerov does capture a different, riveting high jump shootout, between Polish favorite Jacek Wszola and the forty-eighth-ranked East German Gerd Wessig who comes from seemingly nowhere to beat Wszola and break a world record. Other highlights include Cuban heavyweight champ Teofilo Stevenson, barely scratched after bloodying several other boxers, and Ethopian runner Miruts Yifter ("Yifter the Shifter") who calmly races from the back of the pack in the 5000 and 10,000m. The film also has fun imagining an inner dialogue for an Irish runner competing against his brother in the marathon, although neither places very highly. O Sport is often criticized for dipping too briefly into various disciplines and it's definitely more interested in conveying the sweep of events than honing in on the details. Perhaps the most notable exception is in gymnastics, where the petite Russian Yelena Davydova upsets Romanian legend Nadia Comaneci on the balance beam. Ozerov illustrates their trajectories over the beam through a rainbow array of silhouetted positions - one of the film's most striking images. Flourishes like this, plus the still loose and shaggy hairstyles and tight/short fashions, mark this production with the seventies aesthetic especially given the very disco-inflected soundtrack. If the games' hosts hoped that this would portend the dawn of a new era, in retrospect it's more of an ending.


We'll be exploring that very era with unusual focus next week, as we continue to move backward in the Summer Olympics and forward in the Winter Olympics. That's because for once the two paths are meeting at their halfway points. I'll be reviewing both '76 events back to back, and from then on the warm season documentaries (Montreal 1976, Munich 1972, and Mexico City 1968) will unfold at earlier dates than the cold season documentaries (after passing Sapporo 1972 to get to Innsbruck 1976 and Lake Placid 1980).


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