I spent the last several weeks of the summer in a small town in upstate New York called Lake Placid. Those of you who are familiar with the place know that it is hard to be there without being keenly aware of the specter of Olympic competition; the village hosted the winter games in both 1932 and 1980 (hockey fans will remember the "Miracle on Ice" from the 1980 games, where the underdog American team beat the Soviet Union in a surprising upset.) I have seen the silver cauldron where the Olympic torch burned; jogged on the clay colored track at its feet; walked long stretches of the old bobsledding run; and blanched at the top of the ski jumps that sit five minutes outside of town, and which are still used as a training facility for some of the world's best athletes today. I've done all of this not because I am a naturally athletic person, or even because I am a passionate follower of sport—in fact, the opposite is true—but rather because it is hard not to be excited by the relics of some of the greatest games on Earth.
This year, though, I was not only thinking about the ghosts of those former, frigid Olympics; I was also, as I'm sure almost everyone was, tuning in to the summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The night of the opening ceremonies, I sat on the couch for nearly four hours (my computer struggling to connect to the slow, log-jammed wifi) as athletes from 206 countries--including two of our very own Blue Jays, Pilar Shimizu representing Guam and Ana Bogdanovski representing Macedonia--filed through the Maracaña Stadium to wild applause. During the course of the games, I was able to watch bits and pieces of my favorite events; swimming, diving, gymnastics, and volleyball, among others.
It's hard to imagine a scenario more perfectly suited for the screen than the Olympic games. They have it all: high-budget camera equipment, beautiful scenery, unfathomably fit athletes, an audience of millions, and the weight of God and country to back it all up. The stakes at the games are undeniably high; taking home a medal is a matter of national pride, and losing can mean the frustration of a lifetime's worth of training. It surprised me, then, that there wasn't a glut of movies about the games. I did pick a few, though they do not by any means constitute a complete list, or even a well-rounded one (if anyone knows of a good place to watch non-Anglo Olympic films, let me know!) I started with Chariots of Fire (1981) dir. Hugh Hudson, moved on to the less critically acclaimed Stick It (2006) dir. Jessica Bendinger, followed by the charming Eddie the Eagle (2016) dir. Dexter Fletcher, and ended with the recently released Race (2016) dir. Stephen Hopkins.
In watching these films I was interested in a few key elements: how does the gaze of the camera approach the body of the athlete, considering the games as the ultimate expression of physical perfection? How do these films handle the role of the press in Olympic competition, considering the experience of competing in the games as the experience of being watched by an audience of judges, peers, and fans? How much does the interior life of the athlete inform their sport, and how much does their national background, considering the games as being played on behalf of both the individual and their country? How have the games changed since the first modern Olympics in 1896, considering the current games as the seat of the latest in sports technology? Really, what I am asking is: how can these movies explain why we care so much about the Olympic games? Because this is somehow the greatest mystery of all, to me; what is it about this quadrennial competition that make sporting seem so noble, so much more than, well, games?
A lot of these questions have to do with how the movies are shot. The three biopics, Chariots of Fire, Eddie the Eagle, and Race, featured male athletes (Harry Abrahams and Eric Liddell, Eddie Edwards, and Jesse Owens respectively); that is, they featured the type of body that is less often exploited onscreen than that of the female athlete (as Stick It seemed to corroborate.) I noticed, though, particularly in Hopkins' Race, a close attention to the athlete's body: in one scene, Jesse Owens (played by Stephan James) stands shirtless in the locker room, hips wrapped in a low slung white towel, as the camera leers at him from amongst a team of jeering football players; in another, as he stares down the track before his race begins, there is a slow pan up his legs before he bends to the start and fully enters the frame; often, the camera looks up at him as if perched on the ground, so that his proportions are exaggerated and he seems taller, stronger; and throughout, James glimmers with sweat, indelicate and emphatically physical. While it would be a bit of a reach to call this gaze sexual, it still seems a notable exception from most feature length films, which allow the body of their leading men to be quietly beautiful; here, the strength and grace of the male form at its physical prime is on full display.
One wonders if this close gaze is somehow permissible because the man in question is black (i.e. a more acceptable target for objectification and physical scrutiny), though to avoid being too contentious, I won't say much more about that. I will note, however, that compared to Race, the treatment of the body in Chariots of Fire seems almost chaste (though it would be unfair of me not to admit that this does seem to be in keeping with the historical period of the film, which is set in the 1920s.) The British team runs in a plain white (dare I say virginal?) costume of tee shirts and long shorts, sometimes even in suspenders, and rarely without a shirt on. Eric Liddell, the most moral character in the film, wears his brown overcoat over his running clothes until the very moment he has to kneel at the start.
Eddie the Eagle, the only film on my list that is about the winter Olympic games, treats its affable main character as something of a much-loved younger brother. Eddie (played by Taron Egerton) has an unassuming shape, with a slightly softened waist; he wears Fair Isle sweaters and neoprene ski suits, and carries a tin lunchbox. Indeed, the film uses the exposed male figure principally as a vessel for comedy; in one scene, Eddie finds himself in a sauna with the Norwegian ski jumping team, all of whom are nude. Egerton’s eyes shift nervously behind his fogging glasses as he sits swaddled in a white towel, trying to make polite conversation with men whose athletic prowess allows them an arrogance, here demonstrated by their proud nudity. Indeed, Eddie Edwards is so naïve as to be nearly asexual, standing in stark contrast to his troubled coach Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), who compares ski jumping to climaxing during sex (again, Eddie is unsure of how to react—the film seems to celebrate Edwards in spite of his body, not because of it.)
Stick It, a young adult comedy about a juvenile-delinquent-turned-elite-gymnast, is much less hesitant to flaunt the bodies of its athletic stars; the film is a bouquet of bright, sugary color, with a heaping serving of tan, toned muscle to boot. Most of the scenes take place in the gym, where a cast of young (mostly blonde) women flip around in skin-tight leotards or sports bras. The main character, Haley, enters in a baggy tee shirt and shorts to signal an attitude of non-conformity and defiance, but as the film progresses begins tying her shirts in knots to expose her stomach, and in the end, wears a bright orange leotard with a flame streaking up the side, exiting the gym in a close-fitting white tracksuit. The exposure of these women's bodies cannot be said to be merely the appreciation of peerless athletic physique; pieces of dialogue draw attention to the gymnast's body in a sexual light, as when Haley's sidekick says of another gymnast, "You don't think she's hot? I think she's hot... she has an apple butt"; or when Haley remarks, looking at a girl kissing her boyfriend, that the only thing that girl has that the gymnasts don't is "boobs."
Setting aside concerns of the sexualization of female athletes, I will say that the film rejoices in the highly visual, artistic nature of gymnastics, with a series of kaleidoscopic overlays of the athletes performing their routines, all in different colored leotards. The movie takes an evident delight in the sport, spending minute-long stretches on the women’s routines in almost every scene; here, the body becomes as important as the plot, making the movie a whirlwind of kinetic energy.
Stick It gives its audience something else that the two more critically acclaimed films (Chariots and Race) don’t; we are invited to watch a woman in the process of becoming an athlete good enough to qualify for the Olympics. That is, we see her fall, and fall hard. We see wipe outs, bruises, and ice baths, while in the other two films, training is covered in a brief montage, with an upbeat soundtrack playing in the background. Stick It does what even the real Olympics can't quite manage; it depicts the painful, difficult process, not just the fantastic, medal-worthy results.
With so much attention being paid to Haley’s journey towards the games, it might not be surprising that Stick It places a greater emphasis on the individual than on their home country, which cannot be so easily said of Chariots of Fire and Race. Although the place of the individual is paramount to all three stories, for the men, concerns of country seem equally urgent. Their games are used, respectively, to symbolize European values being upheld in the face modernization and professionalization of sport, and to protest the racial hatred propagated by Hitler’s regime; the male athletes in these films feel a pressure to prove something about their particular in-groups, be they national, ethnic, racial, or religious. To win a race is to justify the existence of whole populations, who are either persecuted (as in the case of Owens, and the Jewish racer Abrahams) or perceive themselves as dying out (as in the case of the conservative Liddell, and the deans of Cambridge University.)
In Chariots of Fire, a priest says to the runner Eric Liddell, trying to convince him to train for the Paris Olympics, “What we need now is a muscular Christian to make people sit up and take notice”; the head of the British Olympic Committee remarks that the games gather delegates “from every civilized nation on the face of the Earth.” The implication is clear: the ability to send athletes to the Olympics signifies a certain amount of class, wealth, and prestige; the ability to best those other countries in sport signifies the supremacy of one’s cultural and national values. This can be seen in Race, too, when an American builder petitions the United States Olympic Committee to allow athletes to participate in the Berlin games on the basis that, “the American people need champions to remind them what they’re capable of.”
Sport becomes a vessel for cultural dominance as well as cultural exchange. This becomes all the more clear as technology begins to play an important role in the games; the teams with the equipment, the professional coaches, the time and resources to devote to training full-time, have the advantage on the field, as well as a stage to promote themselves to millions of viewers. While watching the Rio games I was struck, particularly during the synchronized diving, by how many times and at how many angles one saw the dive; once in real-time, then again from the side, from a bird’s eye view, in slow motion, and once from a camera placed at the bottom of the pool. This seemed especially striking in comparison to the sports technology depicted in several of these films; Eric Liddell and Jesse Owens run on dirt tracks, where they use small silver trowels to dig out footholds for themselves. Jesse Owens’ family listens to his race on the radio; Liddell and his teammate Abrahams research other athletes by studying grainy, black and white photographs of them clipped out of newspapers; even in the 1988 games depicted in Eddie the Eagle, the crowds are smaller and the race footage blurrier, and Eddie’s jumps are recorded in a ledger with a ball point pen.
Race had the difficult task of depicting the first Olympics to be televised; the ’36 games, held in Berlin, were filmed by German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who pioneered many techniques in sports cinematography. On screen, Riefenstahl (played by Carice van Houten) remarks to a controlling Goebbels that “[These may be your games] but this is my film. Without it, your games will be forgotten in a year.” This line, perhaps more than any other, feels as if it is cutting to the heart of why we care so much about the Olympics; here, there is a film being made, carefully crafted and rehearsed (Riefenstahl has Owens return to the track to recreate his record-breaking long jump so she can catch it from several angles; she zooms in on his competitor, Luz, shaking Jesse’s hand in an act of political defiance), but with the reassuring guarantee of reality behind it, the human narrative that we find so compelling.
Although what we see of the Olympics is just as crafted as any film—and just as full of product placement—there is also the undeniable body in front of us, the real person who is accomplishing something that is, for most of us, unattainable. The experience is something close to uncanny; it seems both as if anything could happen, and as if the results could never have turned out differently once they are revealed. There is real risk, with all the editing, polish, and beauty of the television and films that we see day to day, and it’s all happening in real time.
With the 2016 summer games long over, and another two years to go until we can watch the winter Olympics in PyeongChang, I will have to content myself with the occasional inspirational sports film or biopic to get me through; still, I plan on going back to Lake Placid soon to get my fix. Even when the torch goes out and the cameras leave, something miraculous lingers on those old Olympic sites. I can’t quite help but get sucked in, every time.