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They tell it like it wasn't
William Taaffe
July 16, 1984
These Olympic docudramas won't win gold medals for historical accuracy
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July 16, 1984

They Tell It Like It Wasn't

These Olympic docudramas won't win gold medals for historical accuracy

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Now is the time for all good networks and TV stations to cash in on the Olympic $pirit. In a headlong rush to get a piece of the glow, independent stations and networks other than ABC, which will carry the Games themselves, have been showing either Olympic movies or documentaries of late. With one notable exception, more attention has been paid to ratings than to content. The result has been a series of small hoaxes, not to mention some reputation smearing, foisted on the viewing public. Truth has taken a holiday.

This is certainly the case with The First Olympics—Athens 1896, a treacly, laughably romanticized bore aired by NBC over two nights in May; Nadia, a sly if not unfair treatment of the 1976 gymnastic sprite from Romania, now being shown on independent stations; and The Jesse Owens Story, an otherwise superior and inspiring four-hour miniseries having its premiere on independent TV this week that is marred by distortions in its view of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The essential problem is that TV promotes these movies as true stories, when they in fact are box-office-conscious "docudramas," Hollywood's euphemism for productions that are often full of half-truths. Oh, sure, these movies may contain a crawl line such as SOME OF THE MINOR CHARACTERS AND INCIDENTS ARE FICTITIOUS, but who defines "minor"?

Take 1896, the literally unbelievable account of how the first U.S. Olympic team was formed and how it fared in Greece. In its press buildup NBC billed the movie as a "fact-based miniseries" (another winsome expression). But viewers had no way of telling what was fact from what was phony. The film had gold medals being hung around Americans' necks every other station break; in fact, silver medals were awarded to the winners at Athens. What's more, the central character, Robert Garrett, briefly appeared naked with his chums in a beefcake scene, smooching in the woodland with the gal of his dreams, and finally running in the Olympic marathon. Swell, huh? None of it was true. "It was all pure fantasy, because they could sell it that way," says Garrett's son, Harrison, a retired Baltimore investment banker. "What disgusts me is that they knew the facts were wrong. It's an intellectual dishonesty, in my opinion."

Nadia may be a worse offender. In one artfully written sequence, producer James Thompson very strongly implies that Comaneci, now a gymnastics coach in Budapest, attempted suicide a few years after her triumphs in Montreal. Thompson isn't sure, mind you, but this is the movies. So much for Nadia's reputation. In her autobiography, written with British author Graham Buxton Smither, which Thompson says he used for source material, she flatly denies consciously attempting suicide. "There are all different reports that 'Yes, she did attempt suicide,' and 'No, she didn't attempt suicide,' " says Thompson, who certainly didn't tell viewers there was a question about the matter.

The most baffling piece of Olympiana is Jesse Owens. How Paramount Pictures could go to such painstaking and laudable lengths to demythologize one of America's sports heroes only to lay the foundation for entirely new myths is beyond reckoning. The movie, for example, debunks the theory that Adolf Hitler specifically snubbed Owens by refusing to shake his hand; in fact, Hitler didn't shake anyone's hand after opening day. But the film then carries a bogus scene in which an actor portraying Marty Glickman, one of two Jewish athletes dropped from the U.S. 4 X 100 relay team, accuses one of his track coaches of being pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic. "They've fabricated situations that never existed in order to make it more dramatic," Glickman says. In another sequence, Berlin Stadium erupts in chants of "Jes-se O-wens!" as Luz Long, the German long jumper, holds Owens's arm aloft in triumph. That didn't happen either, says Glickman.

As Jesse Owens shows, docudrama can make for marvelous entertainment. But unless these sort-of-true stories are labeled and promoted as such, what are we to tell viewers who are made to think Hitler was publicly humiliated? Better to point them toward America at the Olympics, a straightforward, two-hour documentary by Bud Greenspan that was aired last week by CBS. Greenspan chose 10 American athletes from Olympics past and set them neatly and accurately in their time and place. The show was simple, occasionally moving and, best of all, true blue.

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