BUD GREENSPAN’S Athens Olympics documentary film will be on Showtime on Monday night. Bud and his partner Nancy are two more excellent people who do excellent work. Definitely worth watching his 2004 wrapup. kk
By Ray Richmond
Bottom line: A typically grand, vivid and moving series of Olympic-themed vignettes from the master of the up-close-and-personal sports docu.
Monday, Nov. 7
It goes utterly without saying that no one makes Olympic documentaries like immortal filmmaker Bud Greenspan. The truth is, there isn’t even a second place (or, in this context, a silver medal).
Actually, it only seems as if Greenspan has been doing these things since the birth of the ancient Olympics in 776 B.C. He has stood as the official Olympic chronicler with movies of the past 10 games – winter and summer – but he has been a cinematic icon of the movement dating back to the 1960s. His signature brand of powerful storytelling remains in peak form despite Greenspan’s now being 79, as evidenced by the superb “Bud Greenspan’s Athens 2004: Stories of Olympic Glory.” Yes, the man now has been around long enough to have the title reflect that it’s his Olympics. And if you watch this insightful, inspirational Showtime excursion, it’s hard to dispute.
What makes Greenspan’s style so captivating is partially its blindness when it comes to the race, gender and nationality of the athletes being profiled. There is nary a moment of flag-waving jingoism in the mix. The guy finds the best stories and tells them, whether they center on winners or losers, Poles or Aussies, weightlifters or cyclists. You never knew you could care so much about a U.S. fencer or a Moroccan middle distance runner until you watch Greenspan (who’s credited here as writer, producer and director) spin yarns about their unfailingly heart-tugging tales of persistence and sacrifice.
Greenspan also is smart not to try to cram too much down our throats during the 95-minute film. It doesn’t jump all over the place like a highlight reel but instead revolves around six stories of overcoming the odds – and working through defeat and self-doubt – to ultimately triumph.
We learn in “Athens 2004” about 19-year-old Mariel Zagunis, the U.S. fencer who became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in fencing in 100 years and who originally hadn’t even made the team; about Pyrros Dimas, a three-time weightlifting gold medalist from the host country of Greece who ultimately fails in his attempt at a fourth gold (settling for the bronze) but who is given an emotional 10-minute tribute from the crowd while standing on the victory stand; and about Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, the world’s finest 1,500-meter runner for some eight years but who had twice failed to win at the Olympics due mostly to anxiety and intimidation – and who finally wins in Athens.
And just try to hold back the tears when hearing the story of Otylia Jedrzejczak, a 20-year-old Pole who won a gold medal in swimming and then put her award up for auction. Why? So she could donate the money ($80,000 in this case) to a children’s cancer center in Poland after she had been moved by the story of a boy’s letters to God as he lay dying from leukemia.
Greenspan manages to uncover the humanity behind the spectacle that too often seems to elude us during the hundreds of hours of Olympic Games coverage. The film also profiles veteran U.S. softball pitcher Lisa Fernandez and the Australian cycling sisters Anna and Kerrie Meares. In less skilled and compassionate hands, these half-dozen stories could play as cloyingly maudlin. But in those of Greenspan, they’re consistently stirring portraits of the human spirit.
Bud Greenspan’s Athens 2004: Stories of Olympic Glory
Executive producer: Nancy Beffa
Producer-director-writer: Bud Greenspan
Senior producer: Sydney Thayer
Associate producers: Buena H. Guzman, Valerie Archos, Victoria Hope Martin
Editors: Andrew Squicciarini, Michael Schanzer
Associate editor: Pauline Bruns
Music: Lee Holdridge
Narrator: Will Lyman