Sunday, January 2, 2011

Olympic Visions Realized: Bud Greenspan 1926-2010

Usually when a critically acclaimed film director dies, the blogosphere is filled with tributes to that individual. But there's been precious little written about the recent passing of Bud Greenspan who passed away on December 25, so I'd like to remedy that, especially as I believe he was a supremely gifted storyteller who left us with several outstanding sports documentaries, the most famous of which were about the Olympics.

There were a few famous Olympic documentaries (most notably Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia in 1936) before Greenspan initially tackled the subject in 1964 with Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin. This moving work was honored as one of the most human stories in sports ever told on film and instantly linked him with the Olympics. Several films about the games followed over the years - he became the official Olympic documentarian - the most famous of which were  The Olympiad (1976), a 22-hour series on the history of the Olympics and 16 Days of Glory about the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. That title became synonymous with Greenspan who would go on to craft several more films with the 16 Days of Glory name, including looks at the 1988 Winter and Summer Games (held in Calgary and Seoul), the 1992 Summer games of Barcelona and the 1994 Winter games in Lillehammer. He continued making Olympic films until the Torino Winter games of 2006.

I've seen excerpts from several of his films and am catching up on more this week as Universal Sports of NBC is broadcasting a number of his works from January 1-9, cleverly titled 9 Nights of Glory. The first thing you notice in these films is the photography, as Greenspan amassed an army of cameramen to cover each event. Given the massive amount of film he could work with in the editing room, there were a myriad of camera angles to go with and as you can imagine, the finished product offered us some pretty remarkable views of the competitions. There were the telephoto shots at the end of the 100-meter dash or 110-meter hurdles that compressed the race into a frenzied mass of bodies (admittedly done before), but there were also lovely shots one didn't often see, such as an isolated shot of relay runners waving their hands in an effort to urge on their teammates or a tight focus on a balance beam just before a gymnast made a move.

But while the visuals were bringing you in, it was Greenspan's feel for the hidden stories of the athletes that made his films so compelling. In the Los Angeles 16 Days film, the director captured the most famous participants and their gold medal pursuits (such as the performances of Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton and Sebastian Coe), but his most deeply felt sections of the film dealt with lesser-known athletes who persisted, yet often failed in their attempt at Olympic glory.

The initial story in the Los Angeles film (after an introductory montage of the opening ceremonies) was classic Greenspan. It dealt with Dave Moorcroft, a British long-distance runner who had set the world record in the 5000 meters just two years earlier. He was expected to be the favorite for the race in 1984, but over the previous two years, he was beset with injuries that affected his performance. The most serious of these was a pelvic disorder that made it severely painful for him to even run.

This condition would come and go and as things turned out, he suffered through it the day of the gold medal race. Greenspan isolates the race of Moorcroft as we watch him drop back farther and farther as the race proceeds; all the while we hear sound clips of the runner and his wife commenting on the fact that they knew he could only make his way around the track instead of competing for gold. Moorcroft was determined to finish the race without being lapped by the leaders near the race's end and this race within a race as filmed by Greenspan is as mesmerizing as the one run by the medal winners.

It's this Olympic spirit of competition and never giving up that Greenspan captured so well in his films. In the Los Angeles film, he also gives us the enthralling story of Japanese judo wrestler Yashuhiro Yamashita, who was expected to win a gold medal quite easily, given his four year undefeated streak coming into the games. But in his second match, the wrestler injured his right leg and he admitted that he might actually lose. Greenspan trains his cameras on Yamashita leaving the ring as he hobbles along for everyone to see; sure enough, his opponents in the next two matches attack his injured leg and it's through sheer persistence - and the dream of a gold medal - that allows him to continue wrestling. It's a touching story and one with a wonderful message.

There was also a brief segment on a rowing competition that is among the most creative sequences I've ever seen in a sports film. Greenspan decided to film this without the benefit of any narration or even identifying shots of what particular race this was; the only sound in this segment is a hauntingly beautiful theme of Lee Holdridge, who composed the stirring score for this work. Who wins the race - indeed even who is competing in the race - is not as important as the race itself, is what Greenspan is saying in this sequence. Indeed, we focus on the little things that makes up this race, from the rowers carrying their boat to the water to the tight images of the athletes moving their oars in perfect harmony. Among the final shots are the reactions of the winners as well as the losers; it is the latter athletes that react in a stronger fashion as having spent every ounce of energy in their efforts to medal, they hang their heads or scowl in disgust over their failure - in this way, they are seen in a lonely, very human light. This is a thing of beauty and after seeing this brief segment, you may never think of the sport of rowing in the same way.

To me what made Greenspan such a wonderful filmmaker was that he realized that sport is as dramatic and as unpredictable an experience as anything in this world. Put these sporting competitions on a stage as big as the Olympics and that drama is increased tenfold. The narratives are there and it was to Greenspan's credit that he found so many little stories - as captivating as the more famous ones as shown by the television coverage at the time - to concentrate on in his work. Few of us, no matter the endeavor, can emerge as the best, so perhaps it was proper that Greenspan focused his cameras on the individuals that fought an uphill battle that while often unsuccessful (at least in terms of winning a medal), displayed the human spirit at its finest.

We should be thankful that Bud Greenspan shared his visions with us over the course of almost 50 years. I, for one, can't wait to watch more of his Olympic documentaries over the next several days.


  1. Thank you Tom for a wonderful tribute to Bud
    I am surprised too that his passing wasn't more high profile. I only googled his name to find out where I could find DVD's of some of his documentaries
    RIP Bud

  2. Yes a wonderful tribute to a wonderful storyteller. Bud's documentaries meant a lot to me growing up in Australia where I watched enthralled by Bud's masterful direction of Olympic triumphs and battles accompanied so magnificently by his brother's (David Perry) mellifluous voice as narrator. It was a great partnership that encapsulated all that is great about sport. Thanks Bud. Thanks David. RIP.