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The Olympics are meant to be a beacon of progress. A century of documentaries tells another story.

Digging into the Olympics’ official narrative on film to see what the movies really say.

A line of men crouch at the starting line of a race.
The Olympics promote a story of peace and friendship across borders — a story that’s retold in every official documentary.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Olympics want to tell a story — and it’s the same story, year after year. In this tale, humanity is on an upward trajectory, on a march of progress toward peace and unity. Each Games is meant to be evidence of this, a celebration of international friendship, everyone moving toward a common goal. At the start, we light a flame carried in a giant relay race across continents, a symbol of spreading enlightenment; at the end, we invite everyone to join us at the next event.

It’s a compelling tale. It’s also a story told by an unreliable narrator, especially when you look at what’s actually happened in the world over the years since 1896, when the Games were revived. Reality could use a little more culling and shaping to fit into the metanarrative. That’s likely why, starting in 1912, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) commissioned official films that commemorated and captured the events, both as an archive and to help in preserving the IOC’s vision of the Games as a way to promote world peace.

Back then, of course, the Games weren’t televised; now you can watch every second of the events on TV and streaming platforms, if you want. But the IOC has carried on commissioning the films, even in the television age. You can stream all of the official films (through the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games) on the official Olympics website; many of them are quite long, upward of four hours, and narrated solemnly by sonorous men who tell you what’s going on and why it matters.

A female gymnast captured in time-lapse photography rising to a handstand on a balance beam.
From Kon Ichikawa’s incredible Tokyo Olympiad.

The IOC’s official films are often stunning or memorable as cinema in their own right, far from the perfunctory documentaries you might expect. Kon Ichikawa’s 1965 Tokyo Olympiad, funded by the Japanese government to document the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is a triumph of filmmaking on any subject, crafted as subtly and gorgeously and intimately as you could hope (and beginning, naturally, with a stunning image of the rising sun).

Visions of Eight, an anthology film about the 1972 Munich Games, includes, among other things, segments by Miloš Forman (just a few years before he directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Arthur Penn (several years after his Bonnie & Clyde rocked Hollywood), and it screened at Cannes. Tony Maylan’s goofy but delightful White Rock features tough-guy acting icon James Coburn wandering around Innsbruck, the site of the 1976 Winter Games, chatting about how hard all these sports are and making fun of the viewer for thinking he was going to do the luge. Ten films from the legendary Bud Greenspan, ranging from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles to the 2010 edition in Vancouver, round out the collection, eschewing just documenting the events — which anyone could have watched on TV — and instead digging deeply into the kind of human interest stories that would come to mark televised athletic coverage since the 1990s.

But for more context — and more than just the official story — the best source is the Criterion Channel’s 100 Years of Olympic Films collection, which includes the IOC’s documentaries through 2012, but also a handful of films made outside the official canon. For instance, a 1927 short film by Jean de Rovera, The Olympic Games as They Were Practiced in Ancient Greece, runs about eight and a half minutes in black and white and features athletes striking poses against dark backgrounds while the camera glides around, showing us some version of the Games’ history.

And while there’s plenty of evidence that host cities for the Olympic Games often experience economic and environmental disruptions (or worse), the impact of the Games on local residents rarely comes up in the IOC’s official films. For that, you’ll have to turn to Asif Kapadia’s short 2012 documentary The Odyssey, about the upheaval caused by the 2012 Games to the lives of disadvantaged Londoners and the British economy at large. (It’s neither an official IOC film nor part of Criterion’s official collection, but it’s streaming on the Criterion Channel.)

There are the more infamous contributions, too, the most notable of which, from a cinematic perspective, are the beautiful, reprehensible Olympia films directed by Leni Riefenstahl, Adolf Hitler’s favorite filmmaker. Subtitled “Festival of Nations” and “Festival of Beauty,” the two propaganda films document the 1936 Games, held in Berlin two years after the Nuremberg rallies. They’re official in the sense that they were commissioned by Hitler himself, but certainly not by the IOC. Riefenstahl had already made Triumph of the Will when she undertook Olympia, and they’re showcases of stunning visual spectacle and equally distressing ideology. Hitler is prominent in the films, sitting in the stands, laughing with advisers, and watching the events avidly, looking for all the world like just a normal guy — which was, of course, the point. Equally prominent is Jesse Owens, the Black American who would win four gold medals and be credited with “single-handedly crushing Adolph Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy,” an assertion that despite Owens’s extraordinary performance at the Games is, at best, hyperbolic.

Two divers gracefully move through space.
Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia films are among the more infamous — and beautiful — of the Olympics documentaries. (They’re also decidedly not commissioned by the IOC.)

The lengthy opening sequence of Olympia features gorgeous, muscular, ostentatiously Aryan-looking athletes performing what looks almost like a dance, symbolizing the enlightened perfection of the ancient Greek Olympics that she and Hitler’s regime wished to connect to the Fatherland’s present-day athletes — superior beings, the epitome of humanity. It’s disturbing to watch; highly praised at the time, Riefenstahl’s techniques in the film are a staggering achievement, but knowing how they cloak heinous genocidal ideology, it’s hard to watch. (After all, the next two Games, in 1940 and 1944, were canceled because of World War II.)

But if Riefenstahl’s artistry was being used in service of an evilly lofty rhetoric, it’s not wholly out of keeping with the ethos of the entire Olympics enterprise. Watching the films — including, and maybe especially, the IOC’s “official” documentaries — a series of themes emerges which begin, after a while, to feel just a tad over the top. Since they were revived in 1896, the goal of each Olympics has been to celebrate the limitless potential of humankind, the feeling that people can accomplish anything they set their minds on. Progress, in the Olympic arena, feels inevitable. Watching the films, you remember that there is no record so staggering set in one that it can’t be broken in the next. (As far as I can tell, the oldest world athletic record still standing was set at the 1983 Track and Field World Championships, by Jarmila Kratochvílová, in the women’s 800-meter event; she set it five months before I was born.) Skaters who looked incredible in St. Moritz in 1948 are matched by ten-year-olds today.

But what rarely makes it into the film is the dark side of things. The history of the Olympics themselves is littered with abuse and scandal, even recently. When I was a 12-year-old, glued to Kerri Strug’s history-making vault in the 1996 Olympic Games — a moment, incidentally, that mystifyingly doesn’t appear in the IOC’s official film from the time — I watched, rapt, as her coach Bela Karolyi carried her to the podium. But it would be years before I knew about the abuse many of those same gymnasts would allege at the training ranch that Karolyi ran, decades before more abuse scandals rocked USA Gymnastics to its core. I didn’t know then that Strug probably didn’t have to vault that second time to clinch the team’s gold. It didn’t really occur to me at the time that a girl’s long-term physical health was probably worth more than a gold medal. Last year, when Simone Biles pulled out of competition citing her own health, it seemed most people hadn’t learned that lesson.

Gymnast Simone Biles upside down in the air over a balance beam.
Simone Biles on the balance beam.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

History tells us that the official Olympics story is more myth than fact. The genius of both the IOC’s full archive and Criterion’s longitudinal collection is that it tells a story that’s not in any of the individual films alone. Some Olympic Games don’t have a film because they didn’t happen, another casualty of a deeply bloody century. (In addition to 1940 and 1944, the 1916 Games didn’t happen, due to World War I.) Others carry giant asterisks next to them because of boycotts — the US sat out the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and four years later the Soviet Union and its allies skipped the Games in Los Angeles.

Having been revived in 1896, just before the start of the bloodiest century (so far) in human history, the Olympic Games have uneasily moved through geopolitical strife and upheavals. At times, they’ve turned a (perhaps necessary) blind eye to genocides, regional wars, official policies of segregation, and even several pandemics; the 1918 influenza pandemic haunted the 1920 Games in Antwerp, while the 2020 Tokyo Games were postponed to 2021.

Watching them unfold over time under the eye of talented filmmakers, you start to trace the pattern that marks the 20th century and, by the looks of it, the 21st, too. We need desperately to believe in progress, even as the evidence suggests it is, at best, not an upward climb, but we’re terrible at enacting it. You can’t watch Hitler in the stands or be reminded of the genocide in Sarajevo by a moment of silence at the start of a massive celebration without feeling the unease, too. There’s a history of obfuscations, abuses, and atrocities trailing in the Games’ wake. The athlete’s well-deserved triumph is theirs to celebrate. But if the goal of the Olympics is to foster world peace, the track record of success isn’t all that great.

Truth be told, “world peace” is probably too much to ask of an athletics competition, an unreasonable burden to saddle the skiers and swimmers and gymnasts with. They’re chasing another goal, and that’s ultimately what makes the Games so engrossing. Improbably enough, another Olympic Games is about to start, with the same themes of glory and progress and friendship and peace; it’s worth a look backward to be reminded that the future has never really been in the Games’ hands.

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