The first Olympic film I ever saw was the most notorious one of all, in a college history class.
The professor was more than just a film buff with a Ph.D.; he was a dead ringer for Douglas Fairbanks (and Junior), all the way down to his stylish brim and pencil-thin mustache.
He also possessed a healthy desire to shake students out of their polite and unconflicted youthful stupor, and relished the contentious conversation that ensued after screenings of “Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will.”
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Also in This Issue: The Tragedy of Fly Williams; Maradona in Middle Age; The Legacy of Chandra; Latin Baseball’s Top Scholar; The Endurance of Merry Lepper; Remembering Roy Halladay
It was after we saw another famous Leni Riefenstahl film that I truly appreciated the sweeping, raw emotional power of the cinema.
“Olympia,” Riefenstahl’s meticulous, breathtaking documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was harder to dismiss than her previous work, which glorified the 1934 Nuremberg Rally.
Although Adolf Hitler commissioned what he thought would be another triumphant ode to German National Socialism (and a good bit of “Olympia” did have that effect), the film as seen through my 20-year-old eyes nearly four decades ago wasn’t as purely ideological as I would have thought.
Riefenstahl was hardly defiant, although it’s said that she battled Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, to claim as much artistic license for herself as she could. She delivered an aesthetic portrait of the Olympics that celebrated the human form above all, even when it embarrassed the Nazi hosts.
“Olympia” objectively showed Jesse Owens’ gold medal performance in track and field (earning Goebbels’ true ire), and featured a pure expression of bodies in all sports, male and female, from multiple nations, that somewhat tempered the intended pro-Aryan message.
As Nicholas Barber wrote for BBC Culture in 2016:
“As much as ‘Olympia’ glorifies Germany, it can just as easily be read as a celebration of multi-racial America. Again and again, Riefenstahl focuses on a US victory. And on two separate occasions, she superimposes a fluttering Stars and Stripes on a shot of a handsome, smiling, American medal-winner. She may have wanted to impress Hitler, but she also had her eye on a career in Hollywood.”
Much of the international critical admiration Riefenstahl earned for “Olympia” quickly evaporated in November 1938, not long after the film was released. She was in the United States on a promotional tour when the Kristallnacht took place, and was ordered to leave the country.
For decades, until American documentarian Bud Greenspan came on the scene in the 1980s, Olympic films didn’t always receive such widespread attention.
But on Dec. 5, a treasure trove of Olympic films is set to be released that will offer serious students of the genre a chance to take in a wider, more robust historical lens on the Games.
The Criterion Collection’s “100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012,” available on Blu-Ray and DVD, probably won’t be scarfed up by many casual fans, since it’s priced at more than $300.
It’s the largest box set ever for the film distributor, featuring the full versions of 52 films, many of them restored versions of pre-Berlin Olympics dating back to Stockholm in 1912.
The remasterings have been done by the International Olympic Committee, which has wisely included post-”Olympia” arthouse-style films in the collection.
They include some overlooked works like Kon Ichikawa’s “Tokyo Olympiad” and the critically acclaimed “Visions of Eight,” vignettes from eight filmmakers in Munich in 1972, including Ichikawa and Milos Forman.
The collection also includes a 216-page hardcover book that serves as something of a catalog for what figures to be the most comprehensive cinematic treatment of Olympic films ever put together.
While I’ve always admired Greenspan’s enthusiastic, expansive and ultimately optimistic impressions of the Olympics as he depicted them, “100 Years of Olympic Films” offers a wider lens from some of the most perceptive sets of eyes that ever peered through a film camera.
In the foreword to my old college film history book, the French director François Truffaut wrote that “cinematographic art can exist only by the highly organized betrayal of reality.”
Critics of the Olympics may reasonably argue that such gauzy filmmaking has had that effect. But any mildly serious devotee of Olympic films understands that the imaginations of these documentarians reveal deeper truths, those of the human quest for physical perfection and competitive excellence.
A Few Good Reads
- University of Illinois professor Adrian Burgos Jr., author of two books about Latin-American baseball and editor of La Vida Baseball, grew up in the Bronx. When he had to write his undergraduate thesis, a lightbulb clicked for what would become his abiding passion: teaching history through the multiple lenses of sports, immigration and culture: “History is not boring to me. It’s a passion play;”
- He was once the toast of college basketball, and at a small school with a funny name. Fly Williams made it out of New York City to Clarksville, Tenn., home of Austin Peay and lit up the nation. He was a flop in the pros, and these days lives behind bars at the Rikers Island prison, most recently for a conviction running a heroin ring. Says Bob Costas, who called Spirit of St. Louis games when Williams played there in his ABA days: “Fly is a legend, but he’s a legend to a relatively small audience;”
- Diego Maradona recently turned 57, and given all that’s happened to him, perhaps “The Hand of God” should be a divine reference to what’s kept him alive up to now;
- Would Wilt Chamberlain have been able to become “The Stilt” and score an NBA record 100 points in a game if today’s sports science approach was in force? Or would his “load management” rating have cut deeply into his playing time?
- Bevo, Ralphie and other real-life animals serve as official mascots for their college programs, and it takes some care and effort to feed, care and prepare them for sideline duties;
- Catching up with “Chandra,” Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, the legendary Indian leg spinner, now 72, and who helped India win Test series in England and Australia;
- Why the National Park Service wants to shut down recreational sports activities around the Washington Monument, which on a typical weekend with good weather is loaded with pick-up games of all kinds;
- Americans spend 95 percent of their time indoors. Is it too late to become more of an outdoors nation?
- Women’s rugby is on the upswing following the first Olympic 7s in Rio, and rugby-mad New Zealand, where the “Black Ferns” are becoming more high-profile, is no exception;
- A history of the inauspicious debut of the Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France, which had only six sports, 16 medal events and 16 participating nations;
- University of Oregon athletes who dabble in the creative arts will have some of their work on display on campus through February in “The Art of the Athlete,” now in its sixth year;
- If the marathon is the ultimate test of perseverance in running, then Merry Lepper is the embodiment of that in so many ways, including becoming the first American to win an organized marathon race in 1963, after jumping out from behind an oleander hedge to defy a ban against female runners: “I finished the race in 3:37:03, uterus and all.” Later a professor at the University of Wisconsin, she’s like many female athletes of her generation, deprived of opportunities but encouraged by the landscape for women today:
“The world is a better place when we’re empowering each other to do more. Even if you feel like you’re alone in your fight for what’s right, believe me, you’re not.
“So jump out of those bushes. Hit the road and start running. And just keep going.”
- Longer than a marathon, the 34-mile Canyon Chelly Ultra trail in Navajo New Mexico takes runners up 1,000 feet in altitude, and if they can make it to the top, an incredible vista “finished in beauty.”
Roy Halladay, 40, wasn’t considered rock-solid Baseball Hall of Fame material when he retired. But for most of a 16-year career in which he pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies, he was as good as anyone in the game.
Even before his death in a plane crash off the coast of Florida this week there have been some renewed calls for Cooperstown consideration.
Mostly, amid the mourning on both sides of the border, and aside from Halladay’s daredevil ways as a pilot, were remembrances of a player who was accomplished on the mound, but who meant even more to his former teammates than his persona in uniform.
A public memorial is scheduled for Tuesday in Clearwater, Fla.
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 103, published Nov. 12, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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