' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Olympics in Mexico (1969)

Friday, July 23, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Olympics in Mexico (1969)

At two hours and forty minutes, Alberto Isaac’s official documentary of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, explanatorily titled “The Olympics in Mexico”, is not quite as long as the more elephantine Bud Greenspan entries in the genre, like the nearly five-hour “16 Days of Glory”, yet just as comprehensive. It not only manages to encompass close to every sport, often in unique ways, it briefly invites us into both the athletes’ village and the International Broadcast Center where the Games are beamed back to various homes around the globe while also briefly digressing on the complementary Artistic and Cultural Olympic Program, a way of promoting Mexico to the world as much as the Estadio Olímpico Universitario. Greenspan, though, prefers making moving history books with dry, omnipresent narration, an approach that Isaac eschews by keeping the narration to a minimum and elucidating through images. Bob Beamon’s world record long jump is first seen in real time, then run back and shown in a slow motion, lingering over what the naked eye can hardly comprehend, before witnessing his famous reaction, falling to his knees and sobbing. The way Isaac recounts the latter, in handheld close-up, so that one moment Beamon is just smiling and dancing and the next he drops right out of the frame, brings to life the sensation of the long jumper feeling the weight of what he’s just gone and done. You don’t need the narrator to tell you the mathematical particulars to grasp the incredibility of his achievement.

“The Olympics in Mexico” begins, as so many of these movies do, with the opening ceremonies, concluding on the multitudinous white doves released as a symbol of peace represented in those five interconnected rings. And boy does Isaac linger over those doves, not just showing them in wide shots but in close-ups, aggressive close-ups, putting the doves right in our face, almost as if trying to make up for never mentioning, never mind not showing, the Tlatelolco massacre in which hundreds of people protesting the Olympics being held in the country were murdered by Mexican Armed Forces just 10 days before those same opening ceremonies. Such oversights trickle down to competition too. True, there are details “The Olympics in Mexico” could not have known at the time, but there is something deeply ironic in the movie noting the plethora of world records that fell by showing us the historic shot put victory of Margitta Gummel, who time later revealed as one of the first East German athletes administered steroids. Oops! To Isaac’s credit, though, he does not shirk the prevalent Black Power protests of American track athletes, even if the narrator never says anything about them directly, where an image of the three African-Americans who finish 1-2-3 in the 400 meters for the U.S.A. in black berets makes them look like Black Panthers. And though see the famous image of 200 meter Gold and Bronze Medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos bravely saluting Black Power on the medal stand, what resonates even more is the slowed down sight of Smith crossing the finish line with his purposeful black socks pulled so high, Black Power as poetry in motion. 

A lot of time is spent at the track, though Isaac mines impressive clips from small moments while also dressing up unlikely events in sweeping drama. The shot of American high jumper Dick Fosbury giving a “Why Not?” shrug to the official he asks to raise the bar to a world record height to take a crack at breaking it captures an athlete in the midst of intense competition still finding whimsy while after the narrator addresses the inherent visual weirdness of the 20km walk event, in which competitors must always keep one foot on the ground, making them look like strange birds, he honors the great drama of the final lap, cutting between wide shots to delineate the pace of the race and close-ups to capture the competitors’ pained expressions, freeze-framing the conclusion for a splendid split-second to let us drink in the runner-up’s stricken face, dipped down just below his vanquisher, laying bare the agony of defeat.

If the walking sequence suggests how Isaac manages to find lyrical flourishes in sports you would not expect, he unfortunately cannot elevate everything. The poetry of basketball and swimming elude him. But by finding another angle of diving, rather than the shots from the side that dominate television production of the sport, placing his camera low and directly behind the platform, he emphasizes just how small and lonely each diver looks set against the enormity of the board. Better yet is water polo, which the wide angles of TV never truly honors, Isaac switching between above-water and below-water close-ups to really bring home the physicality and violence of the game while the whistles this physicality and violence constantly render is edited into a virtual symphony. I wish Isaac would produce all water polo Olympic telecasts! And though “The Olympics in Mexico” briefly evokes the pampered pageantry of equestrian with an aerial shot of the island paradise of a venue, he finds something more as the competition proceeds, where horses sometimes refuse to jump and fight back when they fall. And when heavy rain turns the course into a flooded river, it improbably resembles “True Grit.” 

“The Olympics in Mexico” ends with the men’s marathon, not just reveling in the winner but the loser too, the ultimate loser, meant in the most exemplary way, John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania. Shown cramping up midway through the race, he limps to the finish line in a mostly empty Olympic Stadium nonetheless as those remaining cheer him on. As he limps around the track, Isaac cuts wide, framing Akhwari below a digital scoreboard bearing the words MEXICO 1968, a fitting period on a fine film of a fantastic Games. 

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