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George Plimpton
August 27, 1973
In a radical departure from traditional practice, the Olympic Games of 1972 were recorded on film not by one person but in separate segments by eight of the world's most accomplished film directors
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August 27, 1973

Olympic Visions Of Eight

In a radical departure from traditional practice, the Olympic Games of 1972 were recorded on film not by one person but in separate segments by eight of the world's most accomplished film directors

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The topic of "women" that Mai Zetterling discarded is capably taken over by Germany's Michael Pfleghar (The Death of Beverly Hills ), who has a considerable reputation as a ladies' man. In his vision a gentler and more joyous spirit exists, with little of the grim demeanor that typifies the world of the male athlete. The women athletes talk to each other; they wear love beads, bandannas; the losers sob briefly, smile, and congratulate the winners. Their beauty stuns; the last moments of Pfleghar's segment show Ludmilla Turishcheva on the uneven bars—her movements in slow motion, precise, yet graceful, a hand turning on the bar as she revolves in midair, while behind her the great banks of spectators rising to the top of the arena begin to applaud in slow motion. She floats down to her dismount, her back arches, the arms are flung up, and her solemn urchin's face fills the screen.

Claude Lelouch, another expert on the female, who made the serene and lovely A Man and a Woman, picked "the losers" for his segment. His film runs the range of reaction—from the lengthy tantrums of a Spanish bantamweight who refuses to accept his loss and derisively applauds his opponent with boxing gloves that seem as huge at the end of his pipestem arms as mittens on a small child, to the quieter acceptance of swimmers hanging exhausted onto the end of the pool, barely enough strength left to slap petulantly at the water. Then they shove slowly off backwards, almost submerged, as if the element itself could soothe them.

Lelouch often equates losing with catastrophe—wrestlers grotesquely crippled by muscle pulls, a Japanese cyclist careening off the track, a series of spectacular steeplechase tumbles, including one photographed from ground level in which a horse fails to negotiate a ditch and in slow motion seems to be swallowed up by the earth until just his tail shows, floating slowly down behind him.

Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese film maker, relies completely on such techniques of slow motion, in his case to study the "fastest humans" of the 100-meter dash. In a tour de force he takes 34 cameras, most of them set up to catch the runners coming head on, and he uses 20,000 feet of film to slow the 10 seconds of the sprint down to six minutes of film time. The segment opens with a long roll of thunder that one realizes is the stretched-out sound of the starter's gun being fired.

Almost all the film makers were intrigued by the same sort of visual shots Ichikawa achieves in his segment: few of them, whatever subject they selected, could resist a head-on view, taken with a telescopic lens, of a runner moving through the shimmer of heat waves toward the camera, his speed slowed so far down that one sees on the screen what strain does to the human body, especially the face, where the cheeks and lips go slack and seem to flutter and flop loosely away from the bones and teeth. The eyes stare. What a shame that Ichikawa could not have filmed the U.S. sprinter Charlie Greene at Mexico City, who said he aimed himself down the lane and ran the 100-meter dash with his eyes squeezed shut.

It is a revealing, and somehow demeaning, sight to see human features in involuntary collapse due to the strain and effort of competition. The film makers noticed it in their cutting rooms, and these tortured faces appear and reappear throughout the segments of Visions of Eight like a macabre Leitmotiv in music.

Ichikawa is something of a pundit. Having filmed an Olympics before (the Tokyo Games), he unburdened himself of a somewhat formal observation about the athletes in Munich. "Regardless of whether it is considered to be a festival of peace for the human race, it is hardly an auspicious assembly of the gods. They can scarcely be of godly hearts or gifted minds. Even in the sacrosanct temple of the Olympics, through his skin, bones and flesh, man's ego rears its ugly head; more than that, it is displayed in unabashed nakedness."

The greatest and most horrifying example of human excess at the XXth Olympics was, of course, the Israeli massacre in the Olympic Village. It was left to John Schlesinger, the British director (Midnight Cowboy), to incorporate the tragedy in the concluding segment of Visions of Eight.

Schlesinger is a small, plumpish man with no interest in sports either as a spectator or a participant. But he was interested in Wolper's project and wanted to film what he felt was the most dramatically personal of the Olympic events, the marathon. He called up the British Amateur Athletic Association to find out that Ron Hill, a scientist working in the north of England on dye research, was the top marathon runner in the country. Schlesinger took his cameras up to Lancashire to film Hill through his lengthy training schedule. "I was interested in this," Schlesinger said, "because I consider myself fairly disciplined in my work and terribly undisciplined in my life, and I was fascinated that anybody could be so completely disciplined as to run to work every day, run in the lunch hour, run home after work, and every Sunday of his adult life run 20 miles over the hills of Lancashire. Of course, he was a totally humorless man, which might be expected of someone submitting himself to such rigid discipline. I'm bored by people like that, though I have grudging admiration for them.

"The nature of the film about Hill changed personally for me after the Israeli killings. I was sitting glued to the TV set in London. I was supposed to fly over the next day to get ready for the marathon. My feeling was that everything should be canceled. After thinking about it overnight, I felt the Games should go on, but not as if nothing had happened. The flags went back up from half-mast, except for the Israeli flag, with unseemly haste, bar-rong! All of this had a tremendous effect on me, much more than on the people sitting in the Olympic Village where the tragedy was happening. The athletes there amused themselves by playing chess, moving giant chess pieces on enormous squares. The power of communication is much stronger on those who are away from the event. I began to feel that I wanted to do my film about that, about the killings and the effect of it all, but on the phone David Wolper said absolutely not. So I told him that I didn't think I could come to Munich unless I could bring that situation in, though at the time I had no idea how to do it. Obviously, I would have preferred to go to Munich rather than to put a polite announcement in the London Times saying that I had withdrawn from the project for personal reasons. Then an associate of mine, James Clark, told me about Ron Hill's attitude during all this—that he was completely involved in his marathon coming up and thinking of nothing else. Well, I thought, that's the answer, that's the tack we'll take, the irony of this athlete against a background of helicopter sounds and sirens completely dismissing this terrible event.

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