As the long-awaited Tokyo Summer Olympics get underway, let's take a moment to look back to some favorite moments from games past. Nothing inspires or brings people together quite like the trials and triumphs of the world’s greatest athletes, which luckily have been recorded on film since the start of the 20th century.
So, whoever plays and wherever the competitions take place, we’ll be ready to watch and cheer. But, first, let’s take a look at the very beginnings of the beloved event:
The Olympic Games of Ancient Greece
In this brief 1924 documentary, an eight-minute series of moving images features athletes in ancient sporting apparel reenacting the ritual games and events performed in Ancient Greece. Originally a one-day event, in 684 BC the Ancient Olympic Games were extended to three days and then again to five days two centuries later.
Practiced sports included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, equestrian events, and pankration, an early martial art that combined wrestling and boxing. Be sure to check out “The Olympic Games as They Were Practiced in Ancient Greece” to imagine what the event might have looked like all those hundreds of years ago.
20th Century Olympic Games around the world
The Olympics in Japan
The last time the Olympics came to Tokyo was back in 1964. And, thankfully, today’s audiences have an impressionistic portrait of the event in “Tokyo Olympiad” — hailed by The Criterion Collection as “one of the greatest films ever made about sports.” Directed by Japanese filmmaker Kon Ichikawa, the Summer Games are shot in “glorious widescreen images, using cutting-edge telephoto lenses and exquisite slow motion to create lyrical, idiosyncratic poetry from the athletic drama surging all around.”
To document the “Sapporo Winter Olympics” of 1972, former long-distance runner Masahiro Shinoda was chosen as the director. And according to the International Olympics Committee, he “treats his material with a dignified grace that renders his documentary one of the most aesthetically pleasing of all Olympic films.”
Oscar-nominated Olympics documentaries
Held in Rome, the 1960 Games made “The Grand Olympics” the first documentary of its kind to be nominated for an Academy Award. Directed by Italian filmmaker Romolo Marcellini, the film celebrates the Eternal City’s unique energy and historic architecture “while utilizing telephoto lenses to bring the action closer to the audience than ever before.”
Eight years later, former Olympic swimmer Alberto Isaac was chosen to direct “The Olympics in Mexico.” Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and preserved by the Academy Film Archive three decades later, the effort has been called a “thoughtful and comprehensive film [that] bristles with offbeat moments, such as underwater shots of the violence and cheating…and iconic images, like Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, on the winners' podium for the 200 meters, their heads bowed, raising clenched, black-gloved fists to the sky in a dramatic gesture of black power…and frustration.”
Early recordings of the Olympic games
For hardcore sport and history fans, 1912’s “The Games of the V Olympiad” in Stockholm offers the first comprehensive moving-image record of the modern sporting event. Freshly restored and reassembled by the International Olympic Committee, the film “presents not just individual events but also the ceremonial ones before, during, and after the Games, which offer a vivid impression of Swedish society prior to World War I.”
Then came “The Olympic Games in Paris 1924” and “The IX Olympiad in Amsterdam 1928,” the first of these documentary efforts to go into detail regarding the techniques and methods used in certain events and competitions.
However, it wasn’t until 1928’s “The White Stadium,” — which recorded the Winter Games in St. Mortiz, Switzerland — that a truly intentional feature effort came about. Directed by Arnold Fanck, "a geologist turned filmmaker known for his sumptuous outdoor cinematography and his aesthete's eye for filming natural landscapes,” The Criterion Collection reports that the work “exemplifies the [era’s] rapid progress in Olympic films where cameras and montage are concerned.”
For the first Olympic documentary to come out in color, fast forward to 1948’s London “XIVth Olympiad: The Glory of Sport,” which combined summer and winter events into one film. Also available to stream are “The VI Olympic Winter Games, Oslo 1952,” “IX Olympic Winter Games, Innsbruck 1964” and Montreal’s “Games of the XXI Olympiad” in 1976.
Bud Greenspan’s stories of Olympic glory
Finally, to revisit past Olympic Games is to appreciate the work of filmmaker, writer, and producer Bud Greenspan, a legend in the world of sports documentaries. For his “exceptional gift for personal storytelling, matchless eye for camera angle and location, and above all, complete and total commitment to truth,” he was awarded a Personal Peabody Award in 1996, along with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Director’s Guild of America as well as the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Shining a light on those who’ve won as well as those who’ve lost, Greenspan’s singular vision provides a curated selection of Olympic history’s most memorable feats. As the foremost director of Olympic films, he captured the most thrilling moments in sports and chronicled the dreams and aspirations of the world’s greatest athletes during the course of his decades-long career.
“One feels that his ideals match those of the Olympic Games,” The Criterion Collection asserts, and his “passion for sports... makes all his documentaries compelling.” Stream 10 of them this summer and relive all the excitement of 1984’s "16 Days of Glory" in Los Angeles, the "Stories of Olympic Glory" at Vancouver in 2010, and the following host cities in between: