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Bodies in Motion: The Olympics on Film: An Historical Perspective

By Ray Privett

Tokyo Olympiad director Kon Ichikawa at the 1964 Summer Games

Turn on a television and you inevitably find images of athletics. The sport changes, depending on the season and the continent. But the fascination for bodies in motion, exercising and competing against each other, endures. It has endured since the prehistory of cinema. One of the key predecessors of motion picture cameras was designed explicitly to study an athletic event—albeit one featuring horses rather than humans. As early as 1878, Eadweard Muybridge developed prototypical film technology in order to discover whether at any point running horses lift all four hooves off the ground at the same time. Among those interested in Muybridge's work were les frères Lumières, who developed a cinématographe, and began sending wandering cameramen/projectionists across the globe to shoot and show scenes. Some of these, such as A Sack Race Between Employees of Lumière & Sons' Factory, German Dragoons Leaping the Hurdles and Melbourne Races, depicted athletics.

As the Lumières were developing their technology, across Paris another group of men was formulating an idea for a festival of sporting activities whose history would intertwine with the emergence of cinema. In December 1895 the cinématographe was revealed to a paying audience in the basement of a café in Paris. Five months later, the Paris-founded International Olympic Committee staged the first modern Olympiad in Athens. Apparently no films were shot of the first games, but that trend would soon change. The Olympics have been the subject of innumerable documentaries over their and the moving image's first century. Surely the most controversial and well-known of these was a film of the 1936 summer games in Berlin, a film that has influenced many subsequent Olympic documentaries.

Adolf Hitler was a mastermind for recognizing the power of the media, including motion pictures. As he consolidated his power over Germany during the 1930s, in addition to hiring Joseph Goebbels to spearhead his publicity and propaganda campaigns, Hitler commissioned several films glorifying events taking place within his Germany. One of these was the boldly structured and controversially received Olympia, shot and edited under the direction of Leni Riefenstahl at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin.

The structure of the two-part Olympia flows from the structure of the games themselves. Like many Olympic documentaries, we begin with a historically loaded opening sequence. Columns and statues in ancient Greece give way to living athletes and torch. A montage of maps and significant cultural monuments interlaced with images of runners passing the torch indicates movement from Greece to Germany, and the transformation of the apparel and surroundings of the runners suggests a movement from ancient times to modern days. Then, in modern Germany, we see the opening ceremonies of the games, with all the teams moving past Hitler and other Nazi and Olympic ministers. Finally the torch enters the stadium, the flame is lit, and the Olympics are underway. The torch, and its symbolic correspondent the sun, hang over the myriad games until the final fade to black when the games are finished in the first section.

The film is intricately thought-out sequence-by-sequence, with the sequences in the first and second sections working in different ways. The events in this first section are primarily track and field, and almost exclusively events in which victory is something that is both objective and immediately obvious. Overlaid upon images of these is a voiceover commentary which, though obviously post-synched, resembles the play-by-play commentary a live radio announcer might provide. The track and field setting and the narrative drive forward of these events parallel the track and field setting and the drive toward the closing ceremony at the end of the first section. The events of the second section, while also incorporating a few objective track and field sports, tend toward aquatic events and judge scored events. Many of the scenes in this section have no voiceover, with the soundtrack instead embellished by music that invites contemplation. Throughout, most of the athletes come from a small group of countries including Germany, the UK and the US.

These latter abstract sequences, especially the majestic diving sequence in which images of divers are cut together to suggest birds soaring freely through the air, have been widely acclaimed as major innovations in the depiction of athletics. Bud Greenspan, himself a director of Olympic documentaries, claimed in the Winter 1996 issue of Film Culture that "We all learned from her...she was 60 years ahead of her time." Other sequences, notably those depicting the triumphs and fraternization of African American athletes including quadruple-gold medal-winner Jesse Owens, upset certain Nazi officials, yet were left in the film, either because the Nazis wanted to present a benevolent face to the world, or out of Riefenstahl's own insistence and fierce independence.

Among the films that demand comparison to Olympia is Tokyo Olympiad, shot at the 1964 Summer Games under the direction of Kon Ichikawa. It, too, is a mammoth, two-part documentary that begins with a historically loaded montage sequence before tracing the Olympic Torch's voyage across a continent. In both films this voyage culminates in the lighting of the Olympic torch following a multinational procession past a once-or future Axis leader—Hitler, in Olympia, and Hirohito in Tokyo Olympiad. In both films the end of the games comes at the end of one of the sections, though in Olympia it is the end of the first section and in Tokyo Olympiad the end of the second.

But in this opening procession the difference of Tokyo Olympiad from the Berlin documentary is quite distinctly pronounced, quite probably because Ichikawa and his team were conscious of the controversial heritage of Olympia. The World War II powers are represented, with Japan prominent among them (the image of a rising sun appears as a sort of punctuation recurrently both here and through the entire film), but often in such a way that national identity is drawn into question across the spectrum. Cold War internationalism surfaces in the German team's inclusion of competitors from both the East and the West, and the red flag-waving USSR delegation following immediately upon the US delegation. A pan Asian motif that carries through from the opening sequence surfaces in the rhapsodic praise for fellow Asian teams, culminating in the emergence of the Japanese team and the runner who lights the flame. But unlike in Olympia, or in many other prominent Olympic films, teams from what was then starting to be called the Third World are spotlighted as well. One such team, whose members wear very stylish cowboy hats, comes from the United Arab Republics, lands where, then as now, people were dealing with very profound questions as to what constitutes a nationality.

During the games themselves, as in much of Olympia and numerous other sports documentaries, the beginnings and ends of events are distinct. But in Tokyo Olympiad the body is different. In most sports films, including live television broadcasts, the focus is on the competition, which is then illustrated by the backgrounds of the leading competitors. When a round of weight lifting is shown, for example, the lifter will be introduced. As he is preparing his lift, his background will be discussed. The centerpiece is the lift itself, show in a long shot where we can see the entire body of the lifter as he crouches down near the barbell, gets his grip, then attempts to hoist it up to his chest and then over his head. Either the lift is successful or it is not, and we see his reaction, then cut away to the reactions of others. The announcers might speculate about the significance of the lift for his immediate future, and then we see the next lifter go through the same process.

Instead, in the body of the weight lifting sequence of Tokyo Olympiad, in fairly rapid succession we see tight shots of the faces and upper chests of individual lifters. Sometimes the lifter's uniform reveals where he is from, but often not. Sometimes the lift is successful, and sometimes it is not, and sometimes this is left unclear. Here the focus is generally on what binds the athletes together, their shared efforts and the experience of the sport, rather than on who wins and who loses. In this, much of the film resembles the abstract sequences of Olympia. Some sports are followed through upon, and a few athletes are individuated. But unlike in Olympia or many other Olympic films, there is a fair mix of winners and losers, and the representatives come from a much broader swath across the globe, rather than almost exclusively winners from the country of the host and filmmakers and its most closely related peers.

Without undertaking a rigorous analysis of them all, one should be wary of generalizing about the massive canon of seven Olympic documentaries directed by Bud Greenspan. Some resemble Olympia and Tokyo Olympiad in that they are overviews of distinct winter and summer Olympiads. But some focus in on individual events and athletes over the years—Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, for example, incorporates numerous sequences from Olympia in chronicling the sprinter's complicated return to and memories of the newly walled city.

But even in a handful of the overview films, some distinct differences from both Olympia and Tokyo Olympiad do stand out. Consider the overview of the 1984 games: Sixteen Days of Glory: Los Angeles 1984. like the films directed by Riefenstahl and Ichikawa, Sixteen Days begins with the passing of the torch and the opening ceremony, and achieves a formal closure with a marathon and the closing ceremony. But here the stories of the individual athletes competing at various games drive all the segments forward—sports like swimming and gymnastics—and the characters are much more individuated than in Olympia or Tokyo. Abstract ideas and compositional patterns are kept to a minimum. Occasional stylistic flourishes do appear, as when, during the decathlon, three shots of an athlete clearing the pole vault are cut together, or in between events when there are montages of other events. But these still emphasize key moments within the overall narratives; the pole vaults, for example, secure the overall victory for the decathlete who makes them, while the multi-sport montages situate the individuated sports within the entire Olympiad. More than abstract films, the precedent is the sort of in-depth, precisely organized sports writing with which one might be familiar from Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News.

One crucial structuring principle of the 1984 Los Angeles games was the Soviet-led boycott, echoing the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow summer games. And one wonders if the emphasis on the competition between women gymnasts from the US and those from Romania, whose team defied the Soviets, was a deliberate act of provocation. But whether or not it was an act of Cold War one-upsmanship, the segment remains wonderful. The drama between the US gymnasts—led by the cluster of compact vivacity known as Mary Lou Retton—and the Romanian gymnasts—led by Ekaterina Szabo—unfolds like a well-plotted choral novel, with competing high scores, a supporting cast of talented fellow gymnasts and a subplot around an enthusiastic coach with a complicated backstory. All these plots and subplots culminate with the gold medal for a short 16-year old who just can't stop smiling.

As has been documented in these pages, at least one Olympic documentary has been attracting attention as we approach the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia: One Day in September. This film from producer Arthur Cohn and director Kevin MacDonald concerns the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by eight Palestinians, five of whom were killed themselves in a shoot out, during the 1972 Munich games. The winner of the 1999 Academy Award for best documentary feature, One Day in September not only performs an act of film criticism upon Olympia, but also boldly mixes techniques in its depiction of the massacre and its aftermath in a way that reveals the influence of the Errol Morris-directed The Thin Blue Line.

"The Germans saw the games as an opportunity to erase the negative memories many still had of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which had been misused by the Nazis for propaganda purposes," the narrator informs us early on. As he says this, images and sounds from Olympia surface, suggesting that it is as propaganda that the film should be remembered. Yet such hopes fell apart, for the catastrophic events scrutinized within the body of the film have become the enduring legacy of the second German summer Olympiad. They are inevitably referenced every four years as what host officials want to avoid, and Sydney has been no exception, as any brief perusal of newspaper articles about preparations for the games make clear.

One Day in September is a palimpsest of documentary techniques. Images are spliced in from numerous films, including Olympia as well as a wide range of material shot during the 1972 games. Detailed interviews appear with friends, wives and children of the slain athletes, with Germans and Israelis who were involved in negotiations with the Palestinians, and even with the lone assassin currently living clandestinely somewhere in Africa. Often these are illustrated by montage sequences, such as the one which splices together images of the ongoing games with images of police actions around the building where the athletes are being held. Overlaid upon this is a soundtrack that includes both pounding '70s rock anthems, such as Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and recent, mesmerizingly repetitive themes from the likes of Moby and Philip Glass. The latter music, along with the carefully arranged compositions within the interviews, an enigmatic narrative style that sets up questions to which you gradually assemble the answers, and a gradually accreting accusatory stance toward some of the interviewees, reveal the influence of The Thin Blue Line.

Olympia, Tokyo Olympiad, Sixteen Days of Glory: Los Angeles 1984, and One Day in September are only a handful of the hundreds of Olympic documentaries made during the first century of cinema and the modern Olympics. This summer's Sydney Games will certainly be the occasion for several more, both official and unofficial and on film, television and home video. Entering the second century of cinema, bodies in motion, exercising and competing against each other, at the Olympics and elsewhere. continue to attract the attention of filmmakers who are influenced by, and comment upon, their heritage.


Ray Privett is a freelance writer with recent publications in Cinema Scope and Visual Anthropology Review