Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Swifter, Higher, Stronger

This week, the 2009 World Track and Field Championships are being contested in Berlin, Germany, at the stadium used for the infamous 1936 Olympics (above). The stadium has not been the site of a major international track and field championship since.

If you're not familiar with the 1936 games, here's the brief summary: Adolf Hitler was using the games to promote German supremacy. But the lasting memory is of the great Jesse Owens, an African-American who won gold medals in four events -- 100 meter dash, 200-meter dash, 4x100 meter relay and the long jump. If I'm not mistaken, he set world records in all four events. Owens remains one of the great Olympic champions of all times, and his accomplishments invalidated Hitler's claim of the Aryan race (a.k.a. white) being superior.

Why the history lesson? Because director Leni Riefenstahl made a magnificent documentary of those games called "Olympia," released in 1936. The two-part film was meant to be propaganda for Hitler and the Nazis, but what's left is a record of these fascinating Games, coming right before World War II and the last games held until the war was over, when London played host in 1948 (and London is host of the next Olympics in 2012).

It's been a few years since I've seen "Olympia," so I won't go into it in detail. I remember it beginning with images of the sky and clouds, with forms of athletic German men and women -- semi-nude -- in the clouds, again a display of race supremacy. Rather racy and daring. Yet in a time before television, this document was a breathtaking example of how to capture sport on film, and Leni had unlimited access to the athletes and venues.

There is no narrative to speak of. The first two hours show off the track and field competition. The second two hours is of the other events, such as diving and gymnastics (very different from what we know today). There's little commentary, but there's plenty of shots of Hitler watching the action in the stadium. And the athletics themselves provides the drama -- the German women's relay race, the superior performances of Owens. Owens and German long-jumper Luz Long (above) became life-long friends, proving that the athletes can make a difference over politics.

And knowing the history of these Olympics is helping my enjoyment of the current championships, watching the various races and ethnic backgrounds competing on a track that once was being used for white superiority.

"Olympia" is a fascinating film if you're a sport or Olympics enthusiast. I highly recommend it.


  1. Very interesting post. I've never seen a Leni Riefenstahl movie, though I have seen footage of her work, mainly from "Triumph of the Will."

    If anyone is looking for more footage of the 1936 Olympics, you can always check out "Charlie Chan at the Olympics" (1937), which used the Olympics as the backdrop for a mystery movie. Actual footage of the 1936 Olympics is used throughout, so apart from newsreels, this was the only way audiences could see athletes like Jesse Owens in action.

    As an additional bonus, Charlie boards a zeppelin to make the flight across the Atlantic to Berlin. Actual footage of that zeppelin, the Hindenburg, was used for these scenes and interspersed with Hollywood-shot interiors. The movie was released less than a month after the real Hindenburg blew up.

  2. I'll have to look for that one. Thanks for the heads-up! Shockingly, I don't think I've seen a Charlie Chan movie. I need to rectify that.