One Hundred Years of the Olympics in Film

A comprehensive new box set from the Criterion Collection takes in a century of cinema from the Games, from the nakedly fascistic to the stirringly humane.

A still from one of the films in Criterion Collection's '100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012'

The first filmed footage of the Olympics comes from the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm—the fifth edition of a global sporting competition that was still in its infancy. The newsreels predate both world wars and the invention of the television. They come from a time when the Olympics still held art competitions (in five mediums, no less, including painting and sculpture) and didn’t allow women to participate in the athletics events. The footage that remains from this time has been restored by the International Olympic Committee, and transferred to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection as the first of a comprehensive 32-disc set featuring 100 years of documentaries about the Games.

The Olympics have always been fertile ground for filmmaking. Tension is inherent in competition, and each event features at least one athlete with a personal narrative a director can latch onto. The pageantry of the opening ceremonies—sometimes bumptious, and other times achingly sincere—are pieces of craftsmanship in their own right. The movies made around them can be propagandistic or more purely sensory, or they can dig into the smaller, intriguing stories on the margins of the Games. I spent a week working my way through all 53 films included in Criterion’s collection, which serves as a compelling summation of how international relations have changed over the years, but also how cinema has transformed since the medium’s inception.

That first movie from 1912 is mostly just a series of raw newsreel material: primarily stationary cameras, pointed at events including races, a tug-of-war, and (most fascinatingly) diving. It’s absorbing as a chronicle of the distant past, when ticket-holders would attend the Olympics in top hats and coats, and referees wore tweed coats and straw hats, meandering around taking notes on various events. There’s a glimpse of George S. Patton—yes, that George S. Patton—participating in the pentathlon (he came in fifth overall) at the age of 26. Winners are often photographed after their triumph, standing still in front of the camera and regarding it with none of the familiarity we might expect from a gold medal–winning athlete today.

An image from the Stockholm games of 1912 (Criterion)

For many years, these films feel like hushed peeks through a time tunnel at a world that’s only slimly recognizable. There’s the occasional shock of seeing major figures, like the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I roaming among the crowd at the 1924 Games in Paris. But even as history marches on (the 1916 Olympics weren’t even staged because of World War I) the films feel distant in the way that old silent documentaries often can. The early movies aren’t as preoccupied with the personalities of the competitors—there’s no interest in the concept of individual triumph. Instead the filmmakers are trying to take in the overall spectacle by documenting the Games in the most routine of ways.

That approach begins to change with The White Stadium, Arnold Fanck’s chronicle of the 1928 Winter Olympics at St. Moritz in Switzerland. Fanck, a geologist turned cameraman, was a pioneer of the “mountain film” genre, and his documentary (while still silent) is entranced by the strange environment athletes were entering; the director creates a sense of real atmosphere with lots of gorgeous footage of the town and the snowy, misty peaks around it. He layers in match cuts of athletes changing—dress shoes dissolve into ice shoes, dress pants become a hockey uniform, high heels turn into skates—and in doing so feels like the first artist included in the set who’s actually interested in the participants at these events. Eight years later, one of Fanck’s most famous protégés would take that more artful approach in a much more extreme direction.

That would be Leni Riefenstahl, the director of Olympia, the two-part, nearly four-hour work about the 1936 Berlin Games hosted by Nazi Germany. Riefenstahl had starred in some of Fanck’s mountain films and learned many directing techniques from him. But Olympia is a whole other brand of cinema, one that is striking (especially considering the straightforward work that came before it) and remains probably the most famous, and certainly the most notorious, Olympic movie ever made. It barely counts as a documentary—Riefenstahl had many of her subjects re-create their medal-winning events after the fact so that she could shoot them perfectly—but its influence on sports films is undeniable.

Riefenstahl’s work—which came a year after her opus, the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will— is obsessed with bodies in their most impersonal forms. She transitions from footage of Greek statues to scenes of nude, similarly sculptured men and women, and she feels at a remove even when she cuts to the real athletes in the stadium. The footage of mass Nazi salutes from the crowd and Adolf Hitler looking on cheerfully is utterly chilling, but so is Riefenstahl’s dispassion. Olympia is a celebration of strength, of perfection, of peak physical prowess, but it’s disinterested in personality, in storylines, in communities—so much of what viewers connect to in the Olympics today.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (Criterion)

Riefenstahl’s attention to detail, and her desire to be comprehensive, is clear: Olympia spends a good amount of time on Jesse Owens, the African American track-and-field athlete who won four gold medals in front of a man who barked about Aryan supremacy. She builds tension in new, innovative ways (dropping the sound out at times, using slow-motion), and uses footage of the crowd as an audience surrogate, in ways that prior films hadn’t thought to but that are now routine for any sports movie. It’s a mesmerizing document, but a frightening one, a nakedly fascist hymn to the Nazi regime and the magisterial spectacle of Hitler’s Games, wrapped up in an appreciation of the athletes’ strength and power. The two themes seem inextricable, even when Riefenstahl’s camera is only focused on a sprinter or a javelin thrower.

The specter of World War II hangs over the next few films (the 1948 Games in London were literally known as the “austerity Olympics” because the nation was so resource-strapped), but by the mid-’50s, a new sense of personality starts to emerge. Two Italian films, focusing on the 1956 Winter Games (in Cortina d'Ampezzo) and the 1960 Summer Games (in Rome) are lively, made in glorious Technicolor and exhibiting modernity and style; both seek to put the viewer in the host cities and include footage of the athletes out and about.

Further building on that dynamic cinematic approach is Tokyo Olympiad, a record of the city’s 1964 Games by the Japanese master Kon Ichikawa, who made stirring, humanistic fiction movies about the horrors of war like The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain. Tokyo Olympiad is the masterpiece of the Criterion set, a film that treats its athletes like people rather than demigods, that sees the Games as a spiritual rebirth for the country after World War II. When Ichikawa cuts to spectators, it’s to focus on a person in tears, rather than on a block of people saluting en masse. When he slows down footage of a sprinter, it’s to emphasize the emotional energy and sheer force of will that it takes for athletes to try—and to triumph.

Tokyo Olympiad (Criterion)

I could write an entire separate essay on the artistry present in Tokyo Olympiad, but though it’s never quite equaled by other entries in the collection, its influence on what followed seems just as significant. Ichikawa’s imagery is sometimes hypnotic and symbolic, like a shot of the rising sun (evocative of the Japanese flag) turning into the Olympic flame rushing toward the audience. But he also zeroes in on human-interest stories in different events, most effectively with Ahmed Issa, a middle-distance runner from Chad, which was participating in its first Olympics after gaining independence in 1960. Chad fielded only two athletes in 1964, and as Ichikawa shows the viewer Issa’s 800-meter race (the runner made it to the second heat but failed to qualify for the final), he cuts between it and footage of Issa marching in the opening ceremony, waving his country’s flag alongside his compatriot. It’s wordless and moving, the kind of story that is vital to any Olympics today.

The strands of Ichikawa’s filmmaking linger in so many of the documentaries that follow—both his humanism and his attention to a city’s transformation. Most of the movies of the Games in the ’60s and ’70s echo those traits, as do the documentaries about the 1988 Games in Seoul, the 1992 Games in Barcelona, and the 2008 Games in Beijing. The film for the 1972 Munich Games, Visions of Eight, taps eight famous directors (Ichikawa included) to make short works about specific events, though only one touches on the terrorist tragedy that tainted that event.

White Rock (Criterion)

But these films were so rarely allowed to be weird. A notable exception is White Rock, Tony Maylam’s account of the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, which is part psychedelic tone poem, part action movie. Narrated (often directly to the camera) by the actor James Coburn, the film sees Coburn strapping on gear and trying out some of the toughest events, including the ski jump and the bobsled run, explaining just what goes into them, and then enduring them himself for the audience’s viewing pleasure. Scored to impressionistic hisses and rattles by the Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, the film is a punch in the jaw when so many others are gentle and generic; there’s a vitality and an insanity to the athleticism White Rock is celebrating that many other movies lack.

In 1984, a documentarian named Bud Greenspan made a film called 16 Days of Glory about the Los Angeles Games; it’s filled with voice-over narration and clear, simple explanations of the event’s biggest competitors and storylines, a style that became the norm for Olympic movies from then on. Greenspan is the master of a certain kind of safe docudrama—16 Days could be the blueprint for any NBC broadcast, a tidy package that catches you up on the stakes of every competition and then moves onto the next. His approach is also an indication of how homogenized the Olympics have become aesthetically, though their location continues to zip around the world; the narratives so often seem the same, the rivalries so caught up in conflicts of decades past.

In the cases where Criterion has found documentaries made by homegrown directors (as with the Seoul, Barcelona, and Beijing Games), there’s a little more personality evident. Otherwise, the footage becomes a matter of nostalgia, of revisiting well-worn memories of competitors like Michelle Kwan and Tonya Harding, Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt. Still, watching as the Olympics grow more and more pre-packaged each year is part of the fun of the overall experience of watching these films.

The somewhat radical idea of the Games—a global gathering that tries to celebrate internationalism, even as countries battle on and wage war between every edition—has over the course of decades been smoothed out into something more corporate and toothless, if still gripping at its best. The Olympics are an extravaganza that cinema can magnify and refract in countless ways: as something fascist and remote, or something gooey and lamely earnest. But the Criterion set shows that these films are always the most awe-inspiring when they’re at their most honest and personal—taking in both the spectacle around these athletes and the lives, and feelings, of the competitors themselves.