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Olympic documentary icon gone, not forgotten

Bud Greenspan used to call the Olympics "two weeks of love." This is the first Olympics in 60 years that he will miss.

Greenspan, who died 19 months ago at 84, pretty much invented the Olympic film genre, Leni Riefenstahl ("Olympia," 1938) notwithstanding. His body of film work, which included 10 "official" assignments as Olympic documentarian and countless unofficial, independent stints, stretch from the 1952 Summer Games to the 2010 Winter Games. His accomplishments are nothing short of, well, Olympian.

The Los Angeles Times, in its obituary of Greenspan, wrote that he "viewed the Games not necessarily as they were, more as he thought they should be. ... Whatever else might be going on — officiating scandals, cheating, doping, nationalistic and egotistic displays — Greenspan ... prided himself on skipping over what was being presented on network TV coverage in favor of tales of "courage, valor and resilience."

Among Greenspan's several curious editorial decisions were his ignoring gold-medal winning cheater Ben Johnson in the 1988 Summer Games and the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding feud in the 1996 Winter Games.

"I'm the sole survivor of idealism," Greenspan told the New York Times in 1998. "I might be from another century."

Richard Sandomir, writing Greenspan's obituary for the New York Times, called Greenspan's filmmaking style "cinematic comfort food for those who believe in the Olympics as an inspiring, almost spiritual athletic gathering."

Greenspan seemed unfazed by such criticism. In an interview with ESPN in 2002, he said: "I spend my time on the 99 percent of what's good about the Olympics" while others "spend 100 percent of their time on the one percent that's negative. I've been criticized for seeing things through rose-colored glasses. I say if that's true, what's so bad? I'm not good at hurting people."

Although Greenspan became famous with his career-defining magnum opus, "The Olympiad" in 1976, a 22-hour history of the modern Games that was shown in 80 countries, including on PBS (and later ESPN) in the United States, and he solidified his reputation with the Emmy Award-winning "16 Days of Glory," about the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, his trademark of focusing on the humanity of relative unknowns can be seen as early as 1952 in a 15-minute film, "The Strongest Man in the World." It chronicled American weightlifter John Davis, whom Greenspan met when both were working as non-singing extras with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Despite criticism to the contrary, Greenspan did make Olympic-themed films of social relevance, including "Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin" in 1964, "Mark Spitz Returns to Munich" in 1992 and "The 1972 Munich Olympic Games: Bud Greenspan Remembers" in 2002. He also made a theatrical film for television, "The Story of Wilma Rudolph," starring Cicely Tyson, in 1977.

But Greenspan's favorite stories, which he exuberantly talked about in interviews through the years, were about marathon runner John Steven Akhwari of Tanzania and British distance runner Dave Moorcroft.


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