Collector's Item: The Criterion Collection Launches '100 Years of Olympic Films'

Courtesy The Criterion Collection

Available in DVD or Blu-ray formats, 53 newly restored films document 41 editions of the Olympic Games.

The champion of high-end home video distributors, The Criterion Collection blazes past previous personal bests with this new record-breaking boxed set. Gold medals are in order for 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012.

Just as the modern pentathlon combines what may seem to be divergent skills (fencing, horse jumping, swimming, shooting, and running), this collection is a big win for disparate viewers—sports nuts, cinephiles, history buffs, fashion enthusiasts, and design aficionados. Available in DVD or Blu-ray formats, 53 newly restored films document 41 editions of the Olympic Games. The handsome crate includes a 216-page lavishly illustrated hardcover book with hundreds of photographs and a short history of the project along with the individually sleeved discs.

If one were to binge-watch 100 Years of Olympic Films, it would take four days, eight hours, and 13 minutes. There's much material from King Gustav V welcoming visiting athletes from his royal box in Stockholm to Usain Bolt declaring himself a legend in London. But what is key is that little presented could be misconstrued as mere instant replay. Apart from the very earliest works, these 53 works are effectively watchable as “films.” Indeed, many notable directors worked alongside the Olympic Committee with the intent of doing more than simple recordkeeping.

To that end, the highlights include pristine versions of Kon Ichikawa's 1964 Tokyo Olympiad, a modernist classic bursting with color long out of print. Claude Lelouch led a collective of spirited filmmakers capturing images from the competition and “backstage” in 13 Days in France from the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics. It's remarkable to see the difference just a few years, lighter cameras, and advanced lenses can bring.

For Visions of Eight, producer David Wolper combined the talents of several filmmakers including John Schlesinger, Arthur Penn, Mai Zetterling, and Milos Forman to produce a short film highlighting individual aspects of the Munich 1972 games. Spanish director Carlos Saura adds a degree of surrealism to his presentation of Barcelona 1992 in Marathon. With this much room on the canvas, one can track developments not just in athletics, but in sports technology, architecture, and the mass preparation of protein-rich meals.


Courtesy The Criterion Collection

The collection does not shy away from moments of unfortunate Olympic history. It includes both parts of Leni Riefenstahl’s innovative Olympia from the 1936 Berlin games. While it is technically dazzling and artistically triumphant, film historian Peter Cowie notes in the accompanying book that it is “contaminated by the unmitigated celebration of Nazism.” Riefenstahl’s fascistic imagery is apparent in Olympia, and in Carl Junghan's film Youth of the World, the happy, winter wonderland of Garmisch-Partenkirchen mixed with Third Reich iconography is terrifying.

With the aid of a “timeline” feature on the discs, fans can hop around to find notable athletes like Jim Thorpe, Harold Abrahams, Muhammad Ali, Caitlin Jenner, Nadia Comanici, or the 1992 “Dream Team.” Alas, the Jamaican Bobsleigh team appears not to have made the cut.

Watching the opening ceremonies grow in opulence is another treat, as is comparing athletic wear. The enormous shorts on early runners evolve into the aerodynamic (and quietly branded) spandex of today. Viewers may also gaze in wonderment at the hirsute weightlifters and shot putters from the Slavic nations in the 1980s.

The musical score added to the silent Amsterdam games of 1928 is a compelling, melancholy surprise, and it's fascinating to watch representatives from countries that no longer exist or teams that formed in the midst of political tumult. (Stand proudly, noble champions of the Saar Protectorate!)

Olympic heroes are frequently made in tenths of a second. At over 104 hours, this collection offers much for later review.

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