TCM’s screening of this documentary coincides with the opening of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo, delayed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as doctors and scientists warn that unless spectators are barred or limited, the event might help spread the virus internationally.
It might be safer and more comfortable to allow Games of the XXI Olympiad to take us back to a less hazardous and complicated time for the event, which until 2020 has been held every four years since 1896, except for cancellations in 1916, 1940 and 1944 for two world wars.
This documentary by four Canadian-based filmmakers eschews most of the grand sweep and pageantry of the Olympics in favor of focusing on individual athletes before, during and after their events, whether they won or lost. Those profiled include a Soviet weightlifter, a Brazilian track competitor, an East German swimmer and a Cuban runner. The most famous names and faces on screen belong to Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, American track star Caitlyn Jenner (then known as Bruce Jenner) and American swimmer Greg Louganis, who was only 16 when he competed here. Comaneci was even younger – 14 – when she became the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score in the global event, scoring a total of seven perfect 10s and winning three gold medals in this 1976 competition.
The filmmakers chose potential subjects up to seven months before the Games, following them every step to the opening in Montreal on July 17, 1976, presided over by Queen Elizabeth I, whose daughter, Princess Anne, was an equestrian competitor that year but not one of the profiled athletes. They shot many hours of film (about 60 miles worth, according to some sources), spending months editing it down to a nearly two-hour running time. Their eye for detail also gives some prominence to coaches and other Olympics personnel.
Viewers will also recognize another famous face, honored guest Leni Riefenstahl, the controversial Nazi-era German director who documented the 1936 Games in Olympia (1938), the first and most famous film record of the Olympics.
The film sidesteps the controversy we have come to expect in the modern-day Olympics, notably an order by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that effectively prevented Taiwan from competition that year, reportedly under pressure from the People’s Republic of China. Twenty-nine other countries boycotted the Games after the International Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand, whose national rugby team had toured South Africa earlier in 1976. The objecting nations felt that the tour had shown tacit support for the apartheid regime then in power.