The 1001 Movies list only includes two sports documentaries – and one of them was Leni Riefenstahl’s chronicle of the 1936 Olympics, so that’s a pretty high bar. Happily, Kon Ichikawa’s chronicle of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo does a decent job measuring up.
Ichikawa was actually the second director for the project. The Japanese Olympic Committee was really counting on the 1964 Olympics to be a sort of re-introduction of Japan to the world, showing how well they’d bounced back after the Second World War. So initially they tapped the most famous Japanese director for the project – Akira Kurosawa. However, their contract negotiations got bogged down by some of Kurosawa’s creative demands – for instance, he insisted on directing the opening and closing ceremonies as well. The Japanese Olympic Committee finally threw up their hands and fired Kurosawa, turning instead to Ichikawa, who at that time had a small reputation for successfully taking over other projects abandoned by other directors. Ichikawa was similarly well-respected outside Japan (we’ve seen his work before with The Burmese Harp and An Actor’s Revenge).
Ironically, the Japanese Olympic Committee wasn’t thrilled about Ichikawa’s final product either; but they disliked the very things most people did like about it. The Committee had been hoping for a straightforward, no-frills depiction of the Olympic events; but what fascinated Ichikawa was the emotional life of each of the athletes themselves, and the spectators in some cases. There’s still plenty of “sports” action – several of the swimming events, a handful of weightlifting and track events, and the final marathon, along with brief clips of less-flashy events like target shooting and sailing – but Ichikawa also shows us glimpses of life inside the Olympic Village and some of the other mundane realities behind the Olympic competition. One sequence covers the offerings in the Olympic Village cafeteria, showing all the myriad food options catering to athletes with a staggering variety of tastes and culinary backgrounds; he focuses on one lone athlete from (I think) Columbia, meekly making his food choice and then settling down alone at a table in the corner, too shy to mix with any other team. When showing us a bit of the rifling competition, he explains the rules a bit (the competitors are kept in a booth at one end of the range, and they have a set number of hours in which to fire a set number of bullets at their target), but then also mentions that because of this, the competitors have to bring a packed lunch into the booth with them. We see shots of one rifleman in his booth carefully loading and firing, and then pausing for a break and starting to unpack his bento.
There are also glimpses of some of the other structural “stuff” going on behind the scenes – contractors building the stadium, referees stepping in when a scuffle breaks out during a cricket match, teams changing the shot-up targets at the rifle range, police blocking traffic during the torch relay, officials setting up water stations for the marathon runners, paramedics rescuing injured athletes and loading them onto ambulances. There are also plenty of shots of the public around the many events – a bunch of kids front and center at one event excitedly waving Japanese flags, a group of fascinated older women on a country street pausing to watch the bicycle racers whiz past them. One of my favorite shots was of a small child on the front porch of their house who’d been playing with some toy, and had stopped, fascinated, watching a parade of racers whip past their house.
Ichikawa also manages to capture a unique aspect of the Tokyo Olympiad. The Decolonization of Africa was in full swing during the 1960s, and Ichikawa paid special attention to athletes from African countries during the opening ceremony’s Parade of Nations, celebrating these athletes able to represent their own countries for the first time. By a staggering coincidence, one such nation declared its independence on the very day of the closing ceremony – so Ichikawa made sure to capture the athlete carrying a sign with the new name of Zambia, the only country carrying a sign during the closing ceremonies. (This might not be a clip from the film, fair warning.)
This kind of “giving glimpses of backstory” approach has sometimes been brought in to more recent Olympic broadcasting; unfortunately, the thinking is that “this will appeal to women more”, so they focus more on drawing out sentiment with pre-recorded soft-focus “profiles” about the athletes as opposed to showing us the little human moments. But Ichikawa understands that it’s the candid, on-the-fly stuff that is much more interesting – the intimidated Columbian athlete in the cafeteria, the kids with flags flipping out, the awestruck athletes entering the stadium for the first time, the exhausted Irish marathoner who sits down for a break halfway through the race but still shakes hands with a well-wisher reaching over the barrier. Those are absolutely the kind of moments I watch for whenever I watch Olympics coverage – I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot about the various events or the backstories of any athlete, but I remember moments like a Spanish athlete at the London Olympics Closing Ceremony grooving to “We Will Rock You”, snowboarder Shaun White watching in jaw-dropped fascination as a Ferrari races around the stadium at the Opening Ceremony for Turin, or Gabriela Andersen-Schiess coming in 37th Place in the first-ever women’s marathon, staggering and severely dehydrated but waving off the medical team, insisting on completing the race.
As corny as it sounds, it emphasizes that “athletes are people just like us”, and I get a kick out of that; I can identify with the athletes that way as well, to the point that I actually said “oh no” out loud when Ichikawa showed the last-place marathoner from Nepal having to drop out midway and get whisked off in an ambulance. The part I liked about Leni Riefenstahl’s focus was on the beauty of movement and the friendly spirit of competition amongst the athletes, and for this, what I appreciated are the unexpected and candid moments that come about when you have a host of athletes from around the world all converging on one city for fifteen days.