G is for Greenspan

Bud Greenspan is my personal Olympic hero. I would not be writing posts (or a book) about the Games if Greenspan had not looked at sport in a way never done before. 16 Days of Glory: Los Angeles changed how the Olympics were viewed because more than any other filmmaker, Greenspan translated de Coubertin’s visions of the competition–not the triumph but the struggle–on to the screen.

Olympic documentarian Bud Greenspan. Photo in LA Times.

Body Parts in Shadow

Sports stories have tended to take two forms. The first is a focus on a single story–usually the rise of the underdog or a famous incident. For example, Undefeated, about the challenges of an impoverished high school football team in Memphis and When We Were Kings, about the Ali-Foreman wrangle in Africa, both won Academy Awards. (I recommend both, by the way). Even for many Olympic stories, the focus is on a single person–Jesse Owens–or a single incident–the terrorists in Munich.

Many documentaries on the Games, though, take a purely artistic approach, emphasizing the beauty of sport over the competition. The cinematographic standard for this was set by the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in Olympia, one of her two propaganda films supporting the Nazi regime. It’s nearly impossible to watch scenes of trumpets blaring while shining faces march in front of swastikas, but you can catch snippets of her take just on single competitions, like rowing and diving. There are camera angles never seen–even today–following divers all the way from the bounce of the board, through the curve of their bodies, to the top of the water. In a rowing segment, the point of view switches at one point between the cox and the first rowing seat, with the cox’s megaphone pounding right at the camera. By the end of the Diving sequence (Youtube has it), the divers turn to mere shadow against a darkening sky, abstract bodies moving in a dance through the air. No information is given about their names, the dive, the score, the rankings.

From Riefenstahl’s Olympia. Photo still from Youtube.

Riefenstahl’s expressionist vision was picked up by other filmmakers. For example, in the 1972 Olympics’ film, Visions of Eight, eight famous directors put artistic “stamps” on their piece, with versions showing only the beginnings of competitions, the losers, or the lights at night. There’s barely an acknowledgement of the Munich terrorist attack, no description of what’s happening or of winners or losers. Filmmaker Kon Ichikawa similarly immortalized the 1964 Games in the highly-praised Tokyo Olympiad, whose poster hyperbolizes it as: the second greatest motion picture of our time!.

Movie poster for Tokyo Olympiad. Photo at wikipedia.

But in the film, the narration is as dry as a 1964 slide show about urban renewal. A random set of competitions are shown without description, story, winners or losers. It’s considered one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time, and yet without any sense of who the athletes are or what they’re doing. Like Riefenstahl’s film, just abstract bodies in motion. For me as sports enthusiast rather than art critic, it’s begging for some sort of story.

Koji Gushiken competes for gymnastic gold in 16 Days of Glory. Photo still from Youtube.

The Human Side of the Olympics

To create a documentary for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Greenspan was given almost unrestricted access. He had already established himself by making a series of films about the Games for public TV and docudramas about Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph. For 16 Days of Glory, he reportedly shot millions of hours for what would be a theatrical release and a longer six hour series. But it’s his choices for what to emphasize that make the difference.

Greenspan’s very first story, about Dave Moorcroft’s run in the 5000 meters, set the tone for how 16 Days would turn the Olympic documentary world on its head. Remember that Greenspan is an American filmmaker filming American Games for an American audience. What U.S. audiences would have remembered from 1984 Los Angeles was a lot of winning, a near orgy level of USA #1 chants as a kind of purgative during the Cold War. Even the box cover for the video emphasizes what the film does not: Team USA triumphing in every picture frame.

Box cover for the Greenspan film, USA, USA, USA, ja? Photo from IMDB.

But Moorcroft was not American and not even a winner. Dave Moorcroft was British, holder of the world record in the 5000 and is still the last non-African runner to hold a distance record . His 1980 Olympic dreams were trashed with stomach problems; hopes were high that 1984 after setting the world record two years earlier. If you’re now a bit interested in what happens, it’s not because you visualize the beauty of him running or because he’s American–you want to know how it turns out. As it happens, Moorcroft had developed a pelvic injury that flares up as soon as the race starts, which clearly turns to agony. Greenspan sees him start to hobble and slow down and tells his cameraman to stay on the guy. “He’s going to be last,” is the response. Greenspan says, “I know, that’s the story.” As Moorcroft limps through the thirteen minute race and the future world record holder moves towards the gold, the British runner is suddenly afraid he will be lapped. A new story unfolds, can he manage to “beat” the winner just so he won’t be lapped? He does; he finishes.

That angle on a story, to focus on the struggle as the story, had never been done so effectively. This became Greenspan’s hallmark and it’s what makes his films riveting. When he focuses on gymnastics, it isn’t just Mary Lou Retton, but also Japan’s Koji Gushiken, a virtual unknown on the men’s side, who quietly rises to contest for the Men’s Gold All Around. Greenspan includes an interview with American Peter Vidmar, the silver medalist, who describes an early morning conversation between the Vidmar and Gushiken at practice that emphasizes the similarity in the challenges across these athletes from different worlds.

The 16 Days approach ultimately was to combine a series of these vignettes–ten to twelve for each Games–and describe each competition end to end. Sometimes the focus is on a “gladiator” battle between two duking it out for top spot (Daley Thompson in the decathlon); sometimes there’s a focus on a family member who “suffers” while watching their loved one compete (Edwin Moses, 400 m hurdles).

What Greenspan did for the Los Angeles Games and in seven more documentaries about Olympics from Sydney to Beijing was to bring the human element back in. However, it wasn’t solely to talk about the “glory” of winning, as the TV stories often do. His films illustrate that every single competitor has their own story worth telling. Some are more compelling than others, and we will probably be more interested in how the winner achieved than how the loser dropped out. But for me, it crystallized what I have called the Anatomy of the Olympic Moment:

There is always a winner and a loser; and the loser wanted it just as much as the winner. The loser’s story will be just as interesting….There will be three winners in each sport. There will be athletes thrilled to represent their country, and athletes happy just to be there. There will be absurd examples of cheating and gut-wrenching examples of good sportsmanship. There will be exhilaration, heartbreak, teamwork, risks that pay off, sacrifices that are all worth it, eye-popping performances, disappointment, camaraderie, and patriotic tears….Moment after moment of triumph and struggle will remind us of how far and how fast we have come, how high we can achieve, and how strong we can be. Citius-Altius-Fortius.

From my post: Musing on Why the Olympics Matter, August 2016.

Today’s post is one of a series on the Olympics as part of the April A to Z challenge:

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