Without swallowing these documentaries' implied (and misguided) premise that the Olympics were once a sanctuary of all things pure and righteous, one can nevertheless appreciate the films' celebration of a time when going for the gold did not mean lining up a Visa endorsement.
We might cringe at an effort that focuses purely on U.S. Olympians, as the two-hour TBS documentary does, were it not the work of our celluloid Homer of the Games, Bud Greenspan. His films have made heroes out of hundreds of otherwise forgotten athletes from dozens of countries, and his three-hour 100 Years of Olympic Glory (which is still in TBS's rotation) is an international celebration. As usual, Greenspan has come up with a winner. Along with his segments on Bob Beamon's jaw-dropping 29'2�" long jump in Mexico City in 1968 and hat-wearing Dave Wottle's last-to-first surge to win the 800 meters in Munich in 72, Greenspan presents the tale of canoeist Frank Havens. Frank's father, Bill, an Olympic rowing favorite in '24, skipped that year's Paris Games to witness the birth of Frank, who 28 years later won a gold in Helsinki and sent a telegram to Bill that ended, "I'm coming home with the gold medal you should've won."
HBO's Spirit, produced with the assistance of Black Canyon Productions, hops haphazardly among eras, but that scarcely diminishes it. The strength of the one-hour film is in the herky-jerky, technicolor majesty of the home movies that form its essence. There is Bob Mathias (photo) long-jumping at a high school meet a few months before he won the decathlon in London in 1948. There are Olympic sweethearts Harold Connolly of the U.S. and Olga Fikotova of Czechoslovakia emerging from their virtual royal wedding in Prague in '57. And there is the immortal Paavo Nurmi, by then 55, trotting into the stadium in Helsinki in '52 bearing the Olympic torch. Spirit is a Greenspanesque addition to the genre, and that is Olympian praise indeed.