Shockingly, there are better, non-Nazi movies about the Olympics you can watch.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games might be postponed, but efforts to capitalize off its own propaganda continue.
Back in January, the Criterion Collection prepared and released an expansive restoration of Kon Ichikawa’s sports documentary masterpiece, Tokyo Olympiad (1965). The new Blu-Ray, which Criterion has called “a transformative influence on the art of documentary filmmaking,” is replete with over 80 minutes of deleted footage, interviews with film scholars and former crew members, and an in-sleeve essay by historian James Quandt.
But recently, Criterion decided to further highlight the international Games by digitally releasing their prized One Hundred Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012 on The Criterion Channel. This extensive fifty-three film collection includes Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), a propaganda piece intended to glorify Germany in the lead up to the Third Reich’s most horrific acts.
Even stranger is Criterion’s choice to highlight Youth of the World (1936), which, due to its overwhelming amount of Nazi glorification, barely even registers as a sports documentary. Youth of the World & Olympia have been normalized over decades as works of genius in spite of the nefarious context in which they were born, and they are hardly outliers. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has continuously sought to document the games in glorious cinematic fashion as a tool for propaganda — so why is Criterion choosing to celebrate these films now?
The Olympics in 2020
Cities across America have seen broad swaths of the population take to the streets in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, in a civil uprising spurred on by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Following the movement’s rising tide, other organizations with overlapping struggles have come to the fore.
One of those is NOlympics, the movement to stop the Olympics from taking place in Los Angeles in 2028. The reasons why these movements so clearly intersect has been outlined, among others, by Spike Friedman, who highlights that the coming Olympics could cost as much as $17.7 billion dollars (with at least $3.5 billion of that falling squarely on LA taxpayers).
The LAPD themselves suggested that they would need to expand by 30% (for context, this means adding somewhere between 2,700 and 3,600 new police officers, depending on whether you include the 3,000 “civilian employees” the LAPD currently has). Los Angeles’s history with the Olympics is not pretty, despite what Mayor Garcetti has promoted, and the Games themselves have a bloody history of displacement, over-policing, and overspending.
It is one thing to mourn the Olympics this summer in their absence; it is another thing entirely to glorify them. Criterion has attempted to have it both ways. At the start of June, they began highlighting the work of Black filmmakers for free, but last week began their promotion of the digital availability of the Olympic films. Attempting to showcase the voices of Black filmmakers and Olympic propaganda demonstrates a severe lack of understanding on Criterion’s end of the ways in which the Games have been historically problematic, especially for people of color.
Choosing to feature Nazi-era propaganda that argues for white supremacy, as examples of “culturally relevant” early sports documentaries, is a grossly outdated mindset. It’s the same backward thinking that still propels most American film schools to screen D.W. Griffith’s outlandishly racist The Birth of a Nation (1916) as a pioneering force for movie-making. Criterion Channel’s homepage has their 100 Years of Olympic Films collection just above their Black Voices collection.
It might be helpful to re-examine the aforementioned Tokyo Olympiad, a film that has been repeatedly referred to as one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time and the crowning achievement of Ichikawa’s career (it is also the only film in the Criterion’s Olympic collection to get the full Blu-Ray treatment).
It is, undoubtedly, a magnificent piece of cinema.
Throughout its sprawling, nearly three hour run time, Ichikawa repeatedly favors moments of quotidian nonsense over the typical imagery of athletic prowess (although there is plenty of that, too). What makes Tokyo Olympiad special as a film is the same thing that makes it nearly useless as a piece of typical Olympic propaganda: the subversion of glory and victory by honest portrayals of destruction of the body, the city, and in some instances, of the human spirit.
The opening image of this movie is not, as so many are, of the Greek temples and landscapes that bore the Games: it is instead the massive destruction of old, war-torn buildings, accompanied by a droning voiceover coldly listing the sites and dates of previous Olympics. Other notable moments of the film include a shot putter fiddling with his number bib, an IOC chairperson trying to kick a pigeon into flight, and the fluttering lips of a nervous long-distance runner.
Is it any coincidence that the Japanese Olympic Association disapproved of this film, in which the highlights are shots of ticket takers, ashen-faced construction workers, distraught athletes, and other “non-essential” employees? In fact, the JOC so disapproved of the film for not glorifying enough the victorious image of the Japanese that it recut Ichikawa’s footage to make its own film, Sensation of the Century, that was blatantly more propagandistic (and therefore entirely less interesting).
Despite its realism, Tokyo Olympiad is not a progressive image of the games. It still fails to mention any of the more substantial destruction the Olympics causes to lay people in the streets, and includes the repeated image of the rising sun, a classically nationalistic image for the Japanese state.
And even though Ichikawa’s work does take playful jabs at the IOC, you should instead watch these four films, all of which are available on Kanopy for free with your library card!
State of Exception (2017)
Like Tokyo Olympiad, Jason O’Hara’s searing portrait of indigenous favelas in Brazil also begins with the relentless imagery of the destruction of buildings and communities. However, unlike Ichikawa’s film which attempts to glorify the “rebuilding” of the city, State of Exception’s constant motif is entirely more nihilistic. With a sympathetic eye, O’Hara captures the years-long struggle by a series of native villages in Rio de Janeiro during the lead up to the 2014 Summer Olympics and the 2016 World Cup, where some 70,000 people were threatened with eviction, frequently without any legal authority at all. In one particularly horrifying scene, a native museum is bulldozed to make way for a parking lot. Spoiler Alert: the parking lot never gets built.
The title State of Exception refers to the “temporary suspension of rights and freedoms guaranteed under a country’s constitution and laws, legitimized on the basis of exceptional necessity.” That exceptional necessity is, of course, neither exceptional nor a necessity, but the documentary shows scene after scene of local and national Brazilian officials insisting that the promised economic development of the games will be good “for everyone” and that being evicted is, in fact, a “good thing.” The most powerful moment of the film comes when footage and commentary of the Federations Cup final (a sort of dress rehearsal for the World Cup) gets intercut with footage of protesters being shot and attacked by militarized police that have been encouraged, in part, by FIFA. O’Hara also takes great care to show us the moment when former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff takes part in the glossy reveal of the literal storage bins people are being relocated to, proving that this fight is not just a political one, but a class war as well.
State of Exception is available to watch for free on Kanopy, as well as Amazon Prime with a subscription.
Not Just A Game (2010)
One of the more nefarious lines of false dogma in the sports world is the repeated refrain that “politics and sports don’t mix.” In Jeremy Earp’s brisk, insightful documentary, author Dave Zirin (who wrote the essential A People’s History of Sports in the United States) tells us simply that this belief system is the opposite of the truth:
“Sports is never some thing that we just sit back and watch. Sports have always had an important social function. And the history of American sports is no different. As in the far distant past, modern American sports culture shapes cultural attitudes, norms, and power arrangements. And it also serves as a key place to look if you want to understand how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, resisted, struggled with, and against.”
Sports and politics not only mix, they are inextricably linked. Today, every Major League Baseball Game has a “Military Hero of the Game.” As Zirin shows us, one year “NFL FOX Sunday” the network’s show, broadcast from an Iraq base dressed in full military fatigues. But when the voice speaking up is anything but full-throated support of U.S. imperialism, the hammer comes down hard. Bilie Jean King’s tennis career was derailed when she came out as gay, and just last year LeBron James was told to “shut up and dribble” after he spoke up about police brutality.
From the militarization of the NFL to the co-opting of the anti-war rhetoric of Pat Tillman, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, the right has consistently held a monopoly over what is considered “acceptable” as political thought in the arena of sports.
In Whose Honor? (1997)
Just this week, Newsweek reported that the NFL team in Washington is finally considering dropping their extremely racist nickname after 87 years, but the issue of racial discrimination in team names is nothing new, as Jay Rosenstein’s digestible film demonstrates with effective alacrity. At the center of Rosenstein’s film is Charlene Teters, a Spokane Indian who goes from being a student to a leading activist against the commercialization of Indigenous symbols.
One particularly inciting sequence has NCAA officials interviewed about the use of stereotypical Native American imagery in logos and merchandise; their only defense is that the images aren’t racist because they say they aren’t.
Team officials, like Washington’s Dan Snyder, have frequently put themselves in positions of defending their team name, ironically, as a matter of “tradition.” What Snyder and so many others in his position seem incapable of understanding is that their “tradition” is far less important (and far younger) than the traditions of the tribes from whom they steal.
In Whose Honor? resonates as an example of the ways in which white people in power continually belittle the concerns of the oppressed, particularly when those concerns threaten the sanctity of a sports team.
Back in 2004, at the Athens Olympics, Michael Phelps won his fourth career gold medal, Usain Bolt made his debut, and the cost of the Games ballooned to $15 billion over budget.
In response to that disaster, Greek New Wave director Sofia Exarchou made Park, a drama about the vast wasteland of nothingness that inevitably becomes the lasting mark of any Olympic Games. Exarchou’s startling feature debut bombards us with images of desolation: a wild dog laying by an abandoned Olympic pool; kids bullying each other into a fight on a running track; teens banging exercise mats left scattered around an empty Olympic village.
Each image underscores how futile the gesture of development really is. It’s a film about a new generation falling in and out of love, and trying to enjoy what would otherwise be an idyllic summer in Greece were it not for the socio-economic disadvantages they face, demonstrated with poetic simplicity against the backdrop of empty Olympic fields.
Do Better, Criterion Collection
Criterion says that their mission, since 1984, “has been dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world.” Given that Criterion has essentially dubbed themselves the gatekeepers of cultural and cinematic relevance, and given that they are also apparently intent on amplifying diverse voices, perhaps they should shift away from broadcasting a century’s worth of propaganda.
This is the same company that once released Michael Bay’s utterly preposterous Armageddon (1998), so perhaps we should admit that their taste is not perfectly pristine. If the Collection truly wants to diversify what it features as globally relevant, perhaps they can start by learning that the Olympics only is “equal for all” as a destructive and oppressive force.
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