Thursday, October 6, 2011

The slightly seamy side of sports

Ah, for the "good old days" when the Olympics were played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. If you miss those days, you can have fun reliving them by watching the movie The Games this afternoon at 3:30 PM on the Fox Movie Channel.

The movie, released in 1970 tells the story of four men who are in training to compete in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics. (This means that we should know who wins, but as far as I know none of the characters are named after real people who actually ran.) Representing the US is Ryan O'Neal, playing Scott Reynolds, an upper-class college graduate who a generation earlier would have fit in perfectly with the Brits who competed in 1924 and were presented in Chariots of Fire. In fact, though, Reynolds is closer to the stereotype of today's high-profile college athlete of a drinker who sleeps with as many groupies as he can. Reynolds doesn't need to run through the tidal flats.

Two of the four profiled men would be more likely to train in such a manner. One is in fact British; that's Harry Hayes (played by Michael Crawford, who would go on to fame in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway). He's a dairyman and clearly a working-class person. He shows a flair for running and can beat all the public school boys, but he seems to run for his own reasons, which constantly puts him at odds with his coach (Bill Oliver), who is clearly living vicariously through his prodigy. Not too dissimilar is the Australian runner Sunny (Athol Compton), an Aboriginal who is discovered at a beach race by two White Australians who figure they can make a bundle of money wagering on Sunny, and take that all the way to the Olympics, which were still theoretically an amateur event at the time.

Last but not least is the Czechoslovak runner Pavel (Charles Aznavour). He's clearly based on Emil Zátopek, the Czechoslovak winner of the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, who has been prodded by his superiors to run the marathon for the glory of Communism. (In fact, Zátopek ran the marathon in Helsinki signing up at the last minute.)

The first two-thirds or so of the movie present the four men's preparation for the Games, and in the final third we get the actual race, which is a bit of a laugh riot. The race is presented with commentary by Rafer Johnson, the real-life winner of the decathlon in Rome who here is playing a TV sportscaster in a role that's probably technically inaccurate. The TV presentation implies that it's live to tape with Johnson in the back of a car, but with no satellite broadcasting technology and relatively little interest in sports broadcasting back in 1960, I'd think the marathon would have been heavily edited for broadcast. But that's not exactly what I'd complain about. First off, Harry takes off at an impossibly fast pace, completing the half-marathon in just under an hour. Considering that 50 years on, the record for the full marathon is about 2:06, running a half-marathon in under an hour would have been impossible back then. You can't help but think he's going to hit the wall. In fact, two of the profiled athletes hit the wall, presented in very different ways, each hilarious in its own right.

The Games is a movie with a fairly interesting premise that doesn't quite live up to that premise; it's nowhere near as good as Chariots of Fire. Still, there are parts that are well worth watching. It doesn't seem to be on DVD, however, and the last time the Fox Movie Channel showed it, it was a pan-and-scan print.

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