August 2, 2021

“The Odyssey of the Olympic Games”, on France 3: between sport and politics, an eventful history


And suddenly, the enchantment. On filmed archives dating from 1976 appears a fairy, more Tinker Bell than Carabosse. Nadia Comaneci, a 14-year-old girl and an exceptional gymnast, seems to fly in the air by performing complex figures.

If perfection is not of this world, the little Romanian comes very close as recalled by these images of the Olympic Games in Montreal. They are part of the astonishing archives gathered in a documentary devoted to the long and turbulent history of the modern Olympic Games, created by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 to celebrate the XXe century ahead.

This documentary with a classic chronological construction but with a welcome historical contextualization is of an impressive richness.

Its authors, Jean-Christophe Rosé and Benoît Heimermann, know the subject perfectly. Of Sport and television, dangerous connections (2004) to Champions d’Hitler (2016) through Maradona, a kid in gold (2006) and The legend of the Tour de France (2013), the tandem knows how to magnify the epic but also tell the political, social and economic issues of a world of high competition.

If certain troubled areas of modern Olympism – doping, race for money and sponsors, corruption… – are not very developed, this documentary with a classic chronological construction but with a welcome historical contextualization is of an impressive richness.

It is obviously not only the fairy Comaneci to seduce or amaze the viewer. From Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt, from Emil Zatopek to Mark Spitz, from Micheline Ostermeyer to Marie-José Perec, from Abebe Bikila to Carl Lewis, from Cathy Freeman to Michael Phelps, the exploits are linked, the anecdotes also, told by the voice of Philippe Torreton.

Colorized archives

Beyond sports performances, the documentary contextualizes the Olympic Games in the political landscape of the time. We discover the (colorized) archives of the first truly “modern” Games, in Amsterdam in 1928, where a large stadium was built for the occasion. Since 1896, they were organized from odds and ends, often on the sidelines of fairs or exhibitions.

We learn that in 1931, the International Olympic Committee decided to choose Berlin to organize the 1936 Games in order to help the young German Republic in the midst of economic slump. We know the rest … But we never tire of reviewing the images of Jesse Owens’ victorious races, this “African auxiliary of the American team”, as it was called Nazi terminology, in power since 1933.

Unusual events line the road to the Olympic Games

In the middle of the Cold War, the images of the Helsinki Games (1952) make us discover a martial report to the glory of the athlete soldiers of the American delegation. For their part, Soviet athletes are confined to the distance from other delegations, in their own Olympic village.

Unusual events punctuate the road to the Olympics: bloody hostage-taking of Israeli athletes in Munich (1972), partial boycott of those in Moscow (1980) then Los Angeles (1984), raised fists of black athletes Americans on the podium in Mexico City (1968) …

And Tokyo? In 1940, the Japanese capital was to organize the Games, which were finally canceled due to world war. It will host the Olympics in 1964, but it is the Dutch judoka Anton Geesink (1 meter 98, 115 kilos) who made history by beating the Japanese idols at home. This year will be unlike anything known. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, delayed by one year, the Tokyo 2021 Games will be held behind closed doors.

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The Odyssey of the Olympic Games, documentary by Jean-Christophe Rosé and Benoît Heimermann (Fr., 2020, 110 min). Available in France 3.