As official filmmaker of the Olympic games, Bud Greenspan has produced International Olympic Committee (IOC)-sanctioned records of several meets—the 1984 games in Los Angeles, the 1988 games in Calgary, the 1992 Barcelona games, the 1996 games in Atlanta, the 1998 games in Nagano, the 2000 Sydney games, and the 2002 Salt Lake City games. At the same time, he has created many other independent documentaries on the games and their athletes, leading Frederick Klein in a 1988 Wall Street Journal article to say that Greenspan "has become to the Olympics a combination of what Degas was to ballet dancers and 'The Cosby Show' is to American family life."
From Radio to Film
A native of New York City, Greenspan began his career in 1940s radio. By the age of twenty-one, he was sports director at WMGM, then the nation's largest sports station, producing pregame and postgame shows, interview shows, and live play-by-play. Turning his attention to writing, Greenspan wrote hundreds of articles sold to major U.S. publications, including Parade. Greenspan was also drawn to the emerging medium of television, beginning as a producer in 1959. He worked his way up to the post of creative television supervisor in 1968, after which Greenspan founded his own production company.
Greenspan attended the 1952 Olympic summer games in Helsinki, Finland, as a sportswriter; impulsively, he hired a Finnish film crew to shoot some footage. "He brought it home, edited it down to 15 minutes, and sold it as a short," according to Klein. He has been to virtually every Olympics since then, and has filmed most of them.
By the 1960s Greenspan was marketing feature-length sports films. One early effort, Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, chronicled the famed African-American track-and-field star who showed up German chancellor Adolf Hitler's "master race" theory by sweeping the 1936 summer games in Munich. Though filmed in 1964,
Jesse Owens was not screened on American television until 1972—typical of Greenspan productions, which are often considered too slowly paced for mass audiences. Another documentary of that era, The Glory of Their Times, was likewise rejected by networks as "too lowkey." Rather than submit to the networks' request to edit the film, Greenspan repurchased the rights to his production and waited another eight years until the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ran the film uncut in 1977.
Documenting Terror and Triumph
In 1972, Greenspan was working the summer games in Munich as a radio reporter for the National Broadcasting Corp. (NBC). He was thus a witness to one of the most shocking terrorist attacks of the twentieth century—the kidnapping and murder of the entire nine-member Israeli Olympic team (and their two coaches) by a faction of the Palestinian Liberation Organization known as Black September. A memorial service was held the day after the event, which was dubbed the "Munich Massacre." After that, the games went on as scheduled. The decision to continue was controversial, but it was intended to demonstrate that terrorism had no place in the peaceful realm of athletic competition. Years later, Greenspan produced a ninety-minute documentary, The 1972 Munich Olympic Games: Bud Greenspan Remembers, which included archival footage and the producer's on-the-spot radio reports. While focusing on the tragedy of Munich, however, the film also highlighted some of the remarkable performances of those games, including Mark Spitz 's domination of the swimming events, and the debut of gymnastics gamine Olga Korbut . The film was broadcast on the Showtime network on September 5, 2002, thirty years to the day after the Munich Massacre. "I talked to a lot of the relatives and friends of the athletes and that made it seem even more like yesterday," Greenspan said in a CBS television interview.
Many of Greenspan's early films were produced by both him and his wife, the late Constance Anne ("Cappy") Petrash; the filmmaker's Cappy Productions is named in her honor. The couple notably created a documentary following the Ethiopian runners who swept the Olympic marathon in 1960, 1964, and 1968. The resulting film was expanded into The Olympiad, a 1980 series that aired in more than eighty countries.
In 1984, the year after Cappy's death, Greenspan was named to his first official post as documentarian of the Olympic summer games in Los Angeles. The distinction between his work and that of independent producers, he explained in a Sports Travel article, is that he submitted to "a bidding process within the host country for the rights to document the Games." The host country "makes the decision" who and what gets filmed. The IOC, he added, asked that Greenspan portray the games in a positive sense. "If something happens contrary to that it won't be ignored, but it won't be exploited," he elaborated.
An Olympian Effort
The official films, which are sometimes marketed under the title 16 Days of Glory, can run up to three-and-a-half hours. With his wide access to the Olympic venues, the competitors, and their associates, Greenspan seeks to go the broadcast networks one better in the "up close and personal" stakes. The producer initially chooses twelve to fifteen possible story subjects, narrowing the field to seven or eight for the final film. "We have basic ideas," he told Sports Travel, "but if an idea doesn't pan out, we change gears." Greenspan used as an example a speed skater whose mother had also competed twenty years earlier. The mother was filmed in the stands as the daughter raced—and finished out of the medals. Still, the mother was thrilled; telling her daughter, "You're the sixth best in the world." "We're more interested in the humanity of the sport as opposed to chronicling the winners," said Greenspan. David Hilt-brand, reviewing Lillehammer '94: 16 Days of Glory for People, declared that Greenspan is "magisterial at presenting sports as modern mythology." A Greenspan production is characterized by sharp visuals, seldom-seen angles, and stories that are told, according to New York Times contributor Richard Sandomir, "straightforwardly but emotionally, with a tersely written, stentorian narration. There are no production tricks, special effects or gauzy, amber-lighted backgrounds. Just 16-millimeter footage of stirring action and emotional recollections."
For his 16 Days film on Los Angeles, Greenspan faced the challenge of offering new images and insights in a city already swarming with filmmakers, television producers, and other creative types. The producer "had to trust that his knowledge of people and of sports, filtered through a perspective of hindsight, leavened with some good old-fashioned cinematic beauty—18 crews shooting almost a million feet of film—could make even the most familiar, oft-told tales fresh," noted Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford.
Widening his circle of interest, he also produced several films on non-Olympic subjects, including Ageless Heroes, Kings of the Ring, and Discover Utah! Greenspan also took the director's helm in 1977 for a made-for-television docudrama on the life of track phenom Wilma Rudolph .
Though virtually every other Bud Greenspan film is a documentary, the director branched out into drama with his 1977 two-hour made-for-television movie, Wilma. This film told the life story of the great American track athlete Rudolph, portrayed by Shirley Jo Finney, focusing on her relationship with her mother (played by Cicely Tyson) and her boyfriend. Though the movie earned mixed notices, Wilma became notable years later as the television debut of the young actor playing Wilma's boyfriend—future Academy Award winner Denzel Washington.
While widely acclaimed, with honors including the prestigious Peabody Award, the filmmaker did face some controversy when he agreed to produce a promotional video on behalf of Beijing, China's, bid to host the 2008 summer games. Greenspan focused on the city and its people, but the issue of human rights violation in China "wasn't touched at all and we didn't think it was necessary," as he explained to a CNN.com interviewer.
|1927||Born September 18, in New York, NY|
|1947||Graduated New York University|
|1948||Began broadcasting career in radio|
|1952||Produced first Olympic-themed film|
|1965||Married Constance Anne Petrash|
|1968||Founded Cappy Productions|
|1973||Published first of at least seven books|
|1983||Named official filmmaker of the Olympic Games|
|2002||Produced promotional film for Beijing, China|
|2002||Named contributing editor, Parade|
|2002||Marked fiftieth year of Olympic coverage|
In 1996 Greenspan produced 100 Years of Olympic Glory, a three-hour film celebrating the centennial of the modern games. As with his other films, this documentary focused on the human stories behind the medals. There is, for instance, the story of two Japanese pole vaulters who competed in 1936. They "cleared the same height and should have tied for second place," as Star-Ledger writer Jerry Krupnick related. "When the silver was awarded to just one of them, the other vaulter getting the bronze, they cut the medals in half and had them fused together to create 'the Medal of Eternal Friendship.'"
Hype and scandal have seemed to plague many contemporary Olympics, but Greenspan set his gaze on the positive aspects of both win and loss. "They're two weeks of love," he told an ESPN.com reporter. "It's a privilege to be associated with the best in the world." Indeed, Greenspan's "approach to the Olympics would not be appropriate for the mainstream media," said Randy Harvey of the Los Angeles Times. "But although he is no journalist, and proud of it, he is one of the best reporters I know."
Awards and Accomplishments
|1976||First of seven Emmy awards, 1976-1997|
|1985||Olympic Order, International Olympic Committee|
|1992||Graham McNamee Award, American Sportscasters Association|
|1994||Ronald Reagan Media Award, U.S. Sports Academy|
|1994||Billie Jean King Award, Women's Sports Foundation|
|1995||Lifetime Achievement Award, Directors Guild of America|
|1996||George Foster Peabody Award|
|1996||Foundation Award, International Radio and Television Society|
|1998||New York Festivals award for best TV documentary|
|2000||Silver Circle inductee, National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences|
|2002||Lifetime Achievement Award, USA Track & Field|
|2002||Bernard Nath Award, Anti-Defamation League|
Asked by ESPN.com to recall his most memorable Olympic moment, Greenspan pointed to the 1968 summer games in Mexico City. A Tanzanian marathon runner, John Stephen Ahkwari, injured himself in the race. He struggled in last, bloodied and bandaged. "I asked him, 'Why did you keep going?'" Greenspan recounted. "He said, 'You don't understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.' That sent chills down my spine and I've always remembered it."
Austin, Al. "Bud Greenspan." Sports Travel. (June, 1998).
Deford, Frank. "Sixteen Days of Glory." Sports Illustrated. (December 16, 1985).
Deitsch, Richard. "TV Talk." Sports Illustrated. (February 25, 2002).
Harvey, Randy. "He Uses Rose-Colored Filter to Catch Olympics on Film." Los Angeles Times. (December 17, 1999).
Hiltbrand, David. "Barcelona '92: Sixteen Days of Glory." People. (August 16, 1993).
Hiltbrand, David. "Lillehammer '94: Sixteen Days of Glory." People. (November 28, 1994).
Klein, Frederick. "On Sports: The Olympics' Cheerleader." Wall Street Journal. (July 29, 1988).
Krupnick, Jerry. "A Gold for Human Drama." Star-Ledger. (April 15, 1996).
Sandomir, Richard. "The Official Keeper of the Olympic Flame." New York Times. (August 4, 1996).
Taafe, William. "The Candle Still Burns." Sports Illustrated. (December 12, 1983).
"Bud Greenspan on China's History, Future in Olympic Movement." CNN.com. http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/east/07/14/bud.greenspan.cnna/ (July 14, 2001).
"Ten Burning Questions for Bud Greenspan." ESPN.com.http://espn.go.com/page2/s/questions/budgreenspan.html./ (December 16, 20002).
"Witnessing the 1972 Olympic Games." CBSNews.com. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/09/04/earlyshow/leisure/celebspot/printable52084/ (September 5, 2002).
Sketch by Susan Salter