100 Years of Olympic Films
Spanning fifty-three movies and forty-one editions of the Olympic Summer and Winter Games, this one-of-a-kind collection assembles, for the first time, a century’s worth of Olympic films—the culmination of a monumental, award-winning archival project encompassing dozens of new restorations by the International Olympic Committee. These documentaries cast a cinematic eye on some of the most iconic moments in the history of modern sports, spotlighting athletes who embody the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”: Jesse Owens shattering sprinting world records on the track in 1936 Berlin, Jean Claude-Killy dominating the slopes of Grenoble in 1968, Joan Benoit breaking away to win the first-ever women’s marathon on the streets of Los Angeles in 1984. In addition to the work of Bud Greenspan, the man behind an impressive ten Olympic features, this stirring collective chronicle of triumph and defeat includes such landmarks of the documentary form as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, along with lesser-known but captivating contributions by major directors like Claude Lelouch, Carlos Saura, and Miloš Forman. It also serves as a fascinating window onto the formal development of cinema itself, as well as the technological progress that has enabled the viewer, over the years, to get ever closer to the action. Traversing continents and decades, and reflecting as well the social, cultural, and political changes that have shaped our recent history, this remarkable marathon of films offers nothing less than a panorama of a hundred years of human endeavor.
This article was updated on March 7th, 2019
The Criterion Collection in cooperation with the International Olympic Committee presents their most ambitious box set to date, 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912 – 2012. This massive 32-disc Blu-ray box set presents 54 films (53 if you count both parts of Olympia as one film) covering the Olympic games over the last century. All of the films from 1992 and prior have been restored by the IOC through the years in various resolutions, from high-definition to 4K. The IMAX film covering the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Olympic Glory, was restored in 8K. The remaining films either come directly from a tape source or a digital source. All but one of the discs in the set are dual-layer.
After Criterion’s announcement of the set I debated how I would cover it considering how massive the set was. Since I knew I wasn’t going to be able to review everything in very timely manner I decided to go through the set disc-by-disc and write up reviews for each disc, linking to them from this one. For various reasons it took me far longer than I would have expected (well over a year), but I was finally able to get through every single film in the set.
I will admit I was not initially thrilled by the prospect of going through over 104-hours’ worth of Olympic films; I honestly could not think of anything more uninteresting. I’m actually glad I did. I found progressing through the films, from the early 1900s all the way through to the 2012 Games, ended up showing an evolution in documentary filmmaking and seeing these documents of the games ended up being thoroughly enjoyable, even if the filmmaking left something to be desired in a handful of cases. The footage also ended up being (mostly) spectacular.
One can go through each individual disc I have linked below, but overall I was astounded by the amount of work that has gone into the restorations and this set as a whole. Adrian Wood was tasked by the IOC to restore most of the films and a majority of them look spectacular here. Some of the early films do look a bit rough, and most of this comes down to source materials. Most of the footage really looks remarkable, with a lot of damage removed. In terms of print condition The Olympic Games as They Were Practiced in Ancient Greece and Youth of the World probably look the worst, with scratches and jumps and other issues still present. But both are encoded remarkably well so they still have that filmic texture. In most cases it looks like Wood and team were able to get their hands on original negatives or at least early generation prints, so the level of detail is remarkable in a lot of these films. People, Hopes, Medals, covering the 1960 Winter Games, is the odd one out here, as it looks like far later generation print was used: it’s the dupiest looking presentation in the whole set, and really lacks detail.
While I suspected that only the big films in the set (Olympia, Tokyo Olympiad, Visions of Eight, Marathon, et al.) would receive the most thorough restorations, this is surprisingly not the case, and a lot of the films in the set did receive 4K restorations. Those more highly regarded films end up looking wonderful but just about all of the other films have received the same level of love, and I was really blown away by most of what was on here: even the television film, One Light, One World, which was finished and stored on tape, received a new 2K scan of the 16mm elements, with video footage filling in missing pieces. And even if the restorations didn’t get everything in regard to damage (because it couldn’t be fixed) I was still shocked at how filmic most everything looked. Most of the films retain film grain and have a wonderful texture to them, and most of them are encoded exceptionally well.
Not counting the later video/digital sourced films, only a handful of films don’t live up to that. The three Korean films on here were all restored in high-definition. Outside of still being littered with damage (scratches and grit mostly) the digital presentation falls a little short, not handling grain all that well, but the details are still there and the images are sharp. The Olympics in Mexico ends up being the most disappointing early restoration, and probably the worst looking film-sourced presentation: though it at least retains grain and has decent colours, it really looks like a video presentation, something that would have looked mediocre even on DVD.
After 1992 only Olympic Glory (the lone IMAX film here) received an all new restoration (in 8K no less) but everything else comes from a video or digital source. A number of Bud Greenspan’s films after ’92 and before 2000 were shot on 16mm film and then finished on video, with those videos being used as the sources for this set. After 2000 digital was used, standard-definition for most of the films and these ones just come off as above-average standard-definition presentations. The Beijing Film, The Everlasting Flame, and on were all filmed in high-definition, but even here the quality can vary depending on the equipment used. The last film in the set, for the 2012 London Games, offers the best digital-sourced presentation.
All of the final presentations vary in the end, but the amount of work that has gone into these films is nothing short of extraordinary. Most of the films look exceptional, and it was so nice to be constantly and consistently surprised as I went through each film. This is no small feat and everyone involved should be proud.
Please use navigation above to see individual reviews for each disc in the set
A majority of the films are accompanied by lossless PCM monaural or stereo surround tracks. A handful have 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround tracks. All films prior to the 1936 Berlin Games are silent and are accompanied by new scores presented in PCM 2.0 stereo.
Audio, overall, is admittedly a bit of a wash since most of the tracks are essentially mono or stereo. The scores for the silent films sound fine: they’re clean and distinct, with surprising range, but in the end they’re still fairly gentle and aren’t there to show off. They’re just there to accompany the film.
The mono presentations can vary. Most of them are flat and lack fidelity, but a few (like Tokyo Olympiad) stand out and manage to come off a bit more dynamic. Most of the stereo surround tracks are front heavy, with some movement to the rears, and this isn’t surprising for the later films, which were primarily made for television. White Rock probably has one of the more immersive stereo surround tracks.
The worst track would have to go to the Korean film, Seoul 88, which is heavily distorted and damaged. Most of the tracks have been cleaned up and are free of distortion and damage, but Seoul 88 seems to be the exception for whatever reason, and it could just come down to elements. The 5.1 track for Olympic Glory is the most impressive one, with an incredibly dynamic and immersive surround presentation. First also provides a noteworthy one.
Overall the audio is middling simply because of the source films themselves, most being mono or stereo, but there are a few stand-outs here.
Please use navigation above to see individual reviews for each disc in the set
The only disappointing aspect to this set is that there are no on-disc special features to speak of. The set does come with an incredibly thorough 216-page hardbound book. Peter Cowie writes up a nice introduction (and closing) about the relationship between film and the Olympic Games and then provides essays for all of the films in the set. Adrian Wood also writes an incredibly extensive essay on the restoration work, noting some of the bigger challenges. There’s also a short note by the President of the IOC, by Thomas Bach.
There is an annoyance that Criterion hasn’t added any other features, especially since they had released one of the films, Tokyo Olympiad, on DVD previously with an audio commentary and an interview with Kon Ichiwawa. Since that disc is out of print it would have been wonderful if they could have been carried over.
Still, the book is very dense and beautifully put together, filled with great information on the games and the respective films covering them. It’s probably the best book Criterion has put together.
This is easily one of Criterion’s most impressive releases. Not only are the restorations and final presentations for a majority of the films stunning and gorgeous, the set offers a wonderful historical document, complete with a comprehensive book on the films and the games. The set also has the bonus of looking great on the shelf. It’s hefty, with an even heftier price, but those fascinated by the Games or documentary filmmaking should look into picking it up.