Directors have been filming the modern Olympics almost since their start in Athens in 1896. Grainy newsreel footage exists of early 20th-century games, increasing in length and coverage with each following edition. Surviving reels of the 1912 Stockholm Games are the first to capture the Olympics from start to finish.
In 2017, the Criterion Collection, a U.S.-based film-licensing company, released “100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012,” a box set of 53 movies selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for preservation and restoration, beginning with the Stockholm footage and concluding with Caroline Rowland’s “First,” the official film of the 2012 London Olympics. This ambitious project can now be viewed on the Criterion Channel in the United States and Canada, though some of the films are available elsewhere, online and off.
Sampling them recently, I was struck by both how the games have radically changed over the course of a century and how they have remained, at their core, much the same. National teams were proudly parading with their flags and athletes were putting on displays of record-breaking prowess in 1912, just as they have been at every edition since.
Restored to a surprisingly pristine condition, the Stockholm film is a charming and revealing time capsule of social and sports history. Female divers clad in dark neck-to-thigh suits execute graceful swan dives off a 3-meter platform and, in a group, pose with shy but determined smiles. Other women in similar swimwear race in a pool with no marked lanes, only men in suits and straw hats standing at one end to determine the winner and, after the race, help the competitors climb out of the water.
We also see future World War II general George S. Patton shaking hands with an opponent after a fencing match, Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku grinning broadly for the camera after winning the 100-meter freestyle swim, and Shiso Kanakuri, the first Japanese to compete in an Olympic marathon, leaving the stadium at the start of the race (though, unfortunately, he didn’t finish it until 54 years later).
Films of the Paris Games in 1924 and the Amsterdam Games in 1928 offer similar moments, though their pace can be plodding. They are records of people and events, not works of art.
Seen after these silent films by anonymous journeymen, Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia,” a monumental two-part documentary of the 1936 Berlin Games, comes as a shock and revelation. Filmed with techniques then considered revolutionary — such as underwater shots of divers and traveling shots of spectators — the film gets close to both the performances of the athletes and their unguarded feelings. And while celebrating the youthful Aryan body in ways that were pleasing to Riefenstahl’s Nazi employers, it makes African American track-and-field sensation Jesse Owens, who thoroughly trounced his white rivals, its real star. Controversial then and now for its politics, “Olympia” is nonetheless a masterpiece whose influence touched every Olympic film made after.
Kon Ichikawa, however, was already a veteran director when he took on the assignment of filming the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. True to his reputation for unsparing insight, delivered with visual flair, his film “Tokyo Olympiad” is a penetrating look at not only the games and athletes, but also the city and people that welcomed them.
Ichikawa’s cameras show a crowded, bustling metropolis in which dirty air hangs over a shoddily built cityscape like a pall. The people, however, are bursting with energy and drive, as well as excitement and curiosity about the planeloads of visitors now in their midst. Less than two decades after the end of WWII, Japan was still emerging from postwar poverty, and few Japanese had traveled abroad. So the Tokyo Olympics was both an occasion for national pride and a mass awakening to the world outside Japan’s borders.
Meanwhile, Japanese athletes were striving to both shine as teams and individuals (“We’ve come a long, hard way to prepare for this,” says one) and meet the occasionally crushing expectations placed on them by the media and public. The film lingers on the hard-fought triumph of the Japanese women’s volleyball team, nicknamed by non-Japanese media as the “Witches of the Orient,” over the taller Russian squad for the gold, a victory that sends a packed crowd, including then-Crown Princess Michiko, into ecstasy.
It also focuses on Akio Kaminaga’s defeat to Anton Geesink in the final open-class judo bout, giving the giant Dutch judoka the only gold not won by the Japanese side. This failure to sweep was viewed by many as a shameful loss of face, though Kaminaga later went on to coach Japan’s Olympic judo team.
The film, however, is more than a nationalist celebration of Japanese wins and lamentation of Japanese losses. Similar to “Olympia,” it uses slow-motion close-ups, soaring overhead shots and other techniques to highlight moments of beauty and emotion, not simply record competitions and results. But unlike Riefenstahl’s film, it takes the viewer behind the scenes, to where the athletes lived and played, if not always out of view of their Japanese hosts.
In the film’s one personal profile, we see Ahmed Issa, an 800-meter specialist from the two-man team of Chad, an African country competing in its first Olympics. A second-place finisher in the first round and a sixth-place runner in the second, who thus failed to qualify for the finals, Issa is Ichikawa’s Olympic everyman: In the chaos of a Tokyo street he looks bewildered and lost, and in the crowded athletes’ cafeteria he sits silent and alone. Disappointingly, he is never given a chance to speak, though Ichikawa deserves credit for looking beyond the more famous non-Japanese athletes, such as swimming stars Dawn Fraser and Don Schollander, who were lavished with media attention for their multiple gold medal wins.
For the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games, Naomi Kawase is the IOC’s pick to direct the official film. A regular at the Cannes Film Festival since her first feature “Suzaku” won the Camera d’Or prize in 1997, Kawase is also the founder and executive director of the Nara International Film Festival. Sports may not figure in her much-honored filmography, but Kawase, with her extensive documentary background, is used to shooting on the fly and in conditions less than ideal. She and her crew will be tested to the utmost by a games held in the middle of a pandemic, but Kawase, in her statement on accepting the job, is undaunted: “I hope to capture ‘time’ and take full advantage of the appeal of documentary films and their ability to freeze those moments into ‘eternity,’” she says.
In another 100 years, we’ll see if she’s succeeded.
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