California Glory

16 Days of Glory // LOS ANGELES 1984

16 Days of Glory

1986
284 minutes, color
Directed by
Bud Greenspan

16 Days of Glory, the story of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, is a logical place to kick off this collaboration, full of familiar faces and stories. It is also the first in a string of 11 Bud Greenspan/Cappy Productions films, setting a high bar and a template for future Games storytelling. Shot in spectacular, vibrant color in a 3:2 format, this film resonates even today, despite its colossal 284-minute runtime.

DW: This film is the bedrock of my lifelong interest in the Olympic Games. I watched it countless times as a child on VHS. When Criterion suddenly announced this box set, I was thrilled. This is the film I wanted to see first, and the restoration doesn’t disappoint.

LW: Meanwhile, I didn’t recall a single thing from the 1984 LA Games, though I surely must have watched them? This might have been the summer I spent wearing a red and blue star-covered bathing suit and doing gymnastics in the living room.

DW: I’m not sure I remember anything first-hand, either, but I definitely remember it through this film.

In the first 19 minutes, Greenspan touches on virtually everything a new fan needs to know about the Olympic Games. The entrance of the historic Antwerp flag, the parade of athletes, the raising of the stadium flag with the stirring Olympic hymn, the doves of peace, the torch relay. Greenspan touches on history, mentioning the hiatus for world wars and delivering a wonderful crossfade of the American team parading on the same track in 1984 and 1932. He rightly spotlights the final torchbearers, Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Jesse Owens (who we hear more about during the excellent Carl Lewis segments), and 1960 decathlon champ Rafer Johnson (foreshadowing the outstanding segment on the 1984 decathlon).

LW: Someone forgot to mention JETPACK MAN. That was definitely the best part of the opening, because jet pack. (Gina Hemphill’s entrance was a close second, and the entrance of the Tall Flags surrounding the Antwerp Flag stole my breath for a moment.)

DW: Jetpack Man is awesome! There’s so much packed into these 284 minutes that it becomes really hard to pick out favorite moments. 

LW: Interrupting for a moment before Don gets philosophical, but it was easy to pick out favorite moments for me. Gymnastics will always be first, especially when Mary Lou Retton is involved. Men’s long jump and pole vault (despite nearly having a heart attack during that one), women’s cycling, and women’s high jump. I could watch Sara Simeoni jump for hours and hours. The long jump and pole vault also led to a very interesting conversation about distance/height. Carl Lewis’ winning jump was the length of our living room, which was just shocking.

Now Don’s going to wax poetic. 🙂

DW: Yes I am! Our hero Greenspan tries to focus mainly on the athletes and the sports, with welcome background context. His approach, the full apex of the “up-close and personal” broadcast angle pioneered by Michael Samuelson at Munich 1972 and popularized by ABC’s Jim McKay throughout the decade, uses a mix of in-person interviews done before and after the event to help narrate and illuminate the action on the field of play. It works extremely well in many cases, less so in others. It really shines when an event is lengthy, the outcome is in doubt or contains dramatic tension, and there is plenty of good interview audio, especially from multiple sources. David Perry’s measured narration adds gravitas.

For me, the best example in this film is the 27-minute presentation of the men’s decathlon, focusing on Daley Thompson (GBR) and Jürgen Hingsen (FRG). Consisting of 10 events spanning two days, it’s a natural for dramatic presentation. Thompson and Hingsen competed tightly throughout, and Greenspan captures their efforts with a wide range of angles and film speeds, music and sound effects. The key moment in the pole vault is portrayed wonderfully: Hingsen, struggling to make a height, is shown in agonizing slow-motion. Then a cut to an exuberant Thompson at full speed on the runway, and the result of the competition becomes evident.

There are beautiful transitions throughout the 4-plus hours, including a lovely moment of misty rowing between track and gymnastics events. Greenspan even includes a nod to the then-recent Academy Award-winning film Chariots of Fire at the beginning of the women’s marathon segment.

Speaking of the marathon, Greenspan does a fantastic job noting the breakthrough of women’s sport at Los Angeles. Time and again the film seizes the opportunity to remind us that this is the first time women have been permitted to compete in a particular event or distance at an Olympic Games. Earlier films sometimes treated women’s sport as a novelty, perhaps even a danger to the athletes. Here that notion is—appropriately—never raised.

Joan Benoit, relaxed and ready to crush the field before the marathon start

LW: This was a good thing for my sanity, as I have THOUGHTS on the treatment of women in all aspects of society. I’m not going to pull out my soap box now, though, so let’s talk about socialist states!

DW: Don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of opportunity for that soon! As for socialist states, we’re in luck: the notorious Soviet-led boycott is not ignored here, nor is the US-led boycott that triggered the retaliation. This is very much a film aware of major national absences.

With the Soviets at home, China’s participation in LA was quite the coming-out party. A powerful segment focuses on these successes with an eye to the future. With a startling gunshot, the short, narrated introduction suddenly jumps to athletic coverage with pistol athlete Haifeng Xu, China’s first gold medal winner.

Haifeng Xu receives his gold medal from IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch

Viewed today, the dramatic, tense soundtrack, and fast-paced visuals feel a little ominous. But the point is that China has arrived and is now looking to win, not simply compete as in the past.

LW: The section on China was one of the most interesting parts for me. It’s easy to forget they were not always so dominant in sports. The background footage showing training facilities was almost hard to comprehend, both in comparison to some of the US facilities shown during the film and to the current facilities our athletes use now. We have come very far in 35 years.

DW: I agree: China’s transformation in that time is bewildering, and it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of its inception here.

Overall, after seeing this important film again with fresh eyes, I can still heartily recommend it. It really does hold up as a great piece of storytelling and documentation. Despite its length, if watched over a couple of sittings there’s plenty of good storytelling to get the viewer invested.

It will be interesting for this blog to watch and review Greenspan’s subsequent 10 films to see how well the famous formula holds up over the years. 16 Days of Glory is surely a high point, and it remains a favorite, 35 years after the Games it covered.

16 Days of Glory is one of Criterion’s selections available separately at the iTunes Store. The preview includes the introduction to the excellent Edwin Moses segment.

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Unless otherwise noted, all film screenshots are from Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympic Films Blu-ray box set.

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