16 Days of Glory

As of my writing this, we’re about knee-deep in the 2012 London Summer Olympics.  In fact, as I glance over to my television, the NBC Sports Network is showing a U.S.-North Korea women’s soccer match (it was either that or tennis).  I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympic Games, both summer and winter, especially at how it has me watching and enjoying sports I would never watch otherwise (I went to lunch with some work friends the other day and we watched a water polo match that was on at the restaurant).

This love of the Olympics has its roots in my love of sports, of course, because if I didn’t like sports I wouldn’t care about the Olympics; however, I feel like sometimes I am the only guy who watches the games for the sheer pageantry of it all.  Which is why, by the way, I kept tweeting out snarky bon mots throughout last Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies, pissing and moaning about how badly NBC was mangling their tape-delayed coverage.  In fact, NBC’s fail on this part has been so epic this year it’s like a running joke among tweeters and bloggers, especially those who look forward to the games every four years.

But I’m not going to spend this entry complaining about NBC (that’s what Twitter is for).  No, I thought it might be cool to sit down for a few moments and think about why I am so enthralled by the Olympic Games and why I will spend so much time watching them, even staying up until ungodly hours to watch women’s gymnastics prelims in the summer or a curling match in the winter.  And thankfully it’s not a hard thing to figure out because the very first games I watched were I think the games that people my age think of the most when they think “Olympics.”

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t be speaking for my entire generation but I think that the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics really did come to define “Olympics” for quite a number of Children of the 1980s.

I turned seven in 1984, which meant that this was the first Olympic Games that I actually remember.  I’m sure that people who are even slightly older than me will tell me they have memories of the 1980 Winter Olympics, especially the “Miracle on Ice,” and to that I say that they’re seriously lucky.  Being born in June 1977, I was all of 2-1/2 years old when the underdog U.S. hockey team beat the U.S.S.R. and then Finland to win the gold medal, so if I saw the game against the Russians (which I highly doubt), I don’t remember it at all.  Had there not been a boycott of the Moscow games that same year, I may have seen the 1980 Summer Games, but that wasn’t to be.

The 1984 Summer Olympics soundtrack cassette. This is not available on CD or digitally, so I kind of regret not getting it back in the 1980s when I really wanted it.

So, the summer when I was seven years old and was allowed to stay up slightly later than usual, I saw some of the competition, but most importantly I caught quite a bit of the opening ceremonies.  I don’t know if it was because my parents thought it was important for me to see it or if ABC aired it live instead of on tape delay (which may have been the case — a 3-hour time difference meant it might have aired live; then again, ABC tape delayed the U.S.-Soviet hockey game in 1980 so I wouldn’t put it past them), but I saw quite a bit, including parts of the Parade of Nations (or as my wife put it, “The Model U.N.”).

In my mind, I thought it was the most epic thing I had ever seen (which is saying a lot because I had been watching Star Wars every morning for the past two years).  The audience all had cards on their seats and after a guy came flying in on a jet pack–yes, a JET PACK, which is awesome on so many levels–the PA announcer told them to hold up the cards and the entire stadium was then decorated in the flags of the participating countries.  Plus, you had a theme composed by John Williams that to this day stands as one of my top five John Williams pieces (and next to his NBC News theme, one of his most underrated).  In fact, I loved it so much that when I saw a copy of the soundtrack on cassette at TSS a few years later, I wanted it.  In fact, I coveted that soundtrack so much that I actually took it out of the place where it had been placed and put it behind another cassette on another shelf where nobody but me would find it, not realizing that I probably wouldn’t ever get the money to buy it or that I didn’t have to hide it because it was 1988 and nobody but me was coveting the soundtrack (for the record, I never did get the tape).

Now, memories, by the way, can be kind of tricky and what I remember versus what actually happened, well … this minute-and-a-half video makes it seem as epic as it looked through my seven-year-old eyes.  A few years ago, I saw a 56-minute video (that’s since been removed from YouTube) that cut together several other videos that are available on YouTube that come from several different media outlets.  I heard some BBC, I heard some French commentators, and I heard the voices of Peter Jennings and Jim McKay, whom are both no longer with us but I can tell you I missed sorely while having to suffer through Matt Lauer, Meredith Viera, and Bob Costas last Friday.  The highlights of the ceremony are the aforementioned jet pack guy, the audience cards, John Williams, and a really beautiful performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

But compared to what we’ve seen in the last couple of decades, especially the Danny Boyle-produced spectacle of the London Opening Ceremonies, the Los Angeles festivities are almost quaint.  For instance, while Williams’ theme plays, there’s a color guard presentation on the field.  And I have nothing against color guard, but Williams scored Spielberg and Lucas several times over before 1984, you’d think that we’d see more than what a local high school shows us at halftime on a Friday night.

So yeah.  A letdown in that my memories are far greater than the reality.  Although I have to wonder: how much did I actually see and how much was shaped by highlight reels and documentaries?

When I wrote about the 1986 Mets last year, I mentioned that much of what I have seen of the 1986 World Series comes through the 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember highlight video because I wasn’t allowed to stay up late and watch the World Series when I was 9 years old.  Similarly, much of my experience with the 1984 Summer Olympics comes through what I still consider one of the best sports documentaries I’ve ever watched: 16 Days of Glory.

[A quick note:  These clips are available, but the IOC has prevented them from being embedded within blog posts.  If you click play, you’ll be able to follow a link to watch them on YouTube]

I don’t know if it’s the classic documentary/educational film narration or if it was how well it was edited, but the introduction of this film gives the raw footage that I posted above the epic-ness that it needed (despite a very 1980s color palette).  And the film then moves on to a rundown the stories of several athletes, some who win and some who lose.  Carl Lewis is rightfully followed, as is American gymnast Mary Lou Retton:

They really build up the competition and provide a good background without over-telling the story, which is something I guess you have to credit Bud Greenspan for, even though I’m sure that this is where NBC’s insipid constant human interest stories have their roots.  There’s also a fair amount of drama provided, especially considering how tight the competition was between Retton and Ecaterina Szabó, the Romanian gymnast and silver medalist.

Despite the ’80s synth music score, it’s shot really well and doesn’t have that cheesy “we slapped this together in hopes that people would buy it because the Olympics were popular” feel that it could have had, especially considering this was an era when VHS tapes weren’t always readily available to the public, even if it seemed like companies would put out just about anything to see what worked.  Anyway, this documentary works very well at building to the climax with that perfect 10 vault; I even sat through all of Béla Károlyi’s mustachioed instructions because I wanted to see what happened.   And damn if they don’t get a perfect “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” moment out of that.

Not all of the stories are about gold medal triumph, however.  One that has always stuck with me is that of David Moorcroft, who ran the 5000m:

This is one of those great “Olympic spirit” stories where an elite athlete who is a fierce competitor (and is in a fiercely competitive field) falls victim to an injury but ultimately guts things out despite the pain (even though he might get LAPPED).  He doesn’t win, of course, but that doesn’t wind up being the point of the story–watching it, you want him to finish; in fact, I was rooting for him to finish.  There’s something really inspiring about that.

The film ends with the closing ceremonies and a great musical montage:

I rented 16 Days of Glory at least a few times from Video Empire when I was a kid, and I am sure they would have sold it to me if I had asked (I was probably the only person to rent it more than once).  Alas, it is not available on Netflix, but it seems that that most of the film is available on YouTube via this playlist:

In our current era, stories like the ones in 16 Days of Glory are de rigueur, to the point where they are so ubiquitous that they practically ruin the games for actual sports fans.  But I have to give credit to Los Angeles in 1984 for making me really love the Olympics.


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