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Greenspan's Olympic Vision

February 22, 1988|JACK MATHEWS

CALGARY, Canada — The image on the screen is stark and static. You are looking down through a hazy dawn into the empty stadium beneath the 90-meter ski jump at Canada Olympic Park. There isn't a sound.

The camera pans to the gray-white sky and holds for a moment. Suddenly, a goggled, helmeted face bursts into the frame. Just as quickly, it is gone and though the screen is blank again, we can hear skis scraping rapidly over ice.

There is another moment of silence, then an explosion of crowd noise. We are again looking down into the stadium, but it is now filled with people waving and screaming at the news just flashed on the scoreboard.

Finland's Matti Nykoenen has just broken the world 90-meter ski jump record to win his second gold medal of the Calgary Olympics.

This image does not exist yet. Nykoenen hasn't even made that 90-meter jump. The scene was created by the words of film maker Bud Greenspan as he meticulously detailed what he wanted his Canadian crews covering the ski jump event to get on film.

"I know this sounds kind of boring," Greenspan said, explaining to cameraman Gordon Hornbeck why he wanted him to come back to the ski jump at dawn to film an empty stadium, "but when we get it all edited together, you'll see how important those few seconds will be."

It was Day 6 of the Winter Olympics and the 90-meter ski jump was just the first stop on Greenspan's schedule. His 14 film crews, hired to do the official film of the Winter Olympics, had been sent off in all directions early in the morning.

The 60-year-old Greenspan, perhaps international sports' most respected documentarian, was openly nervous.

"I am just now beginning to believe I'm going to pull this off," he said, as he stood on the platform at the top of the 90-meter ski jump before Thursday's scheduled competition there. "It takes a few days for things to unfold, before you begin to see the stories."

Greenspan said he had forgotten how insecure he was during the first week of filming of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He had forgotten that it wasn't until weeks after those Summer Games and he was editing footage for "16 Days of Glory" that he was confident he had good stories to tell.

"There were so many accolades for '16 Days,' I began to think the stories were always there," Greenspan said. "I forgot how much anguish I went through trying to find them."

Finding stories at an event that is being covered like a rash by television is not easy for any journalist. For the maker of a documentary that won't be seen for more than a year (the official Calgary film airs on the Disney Channel in March, 1988), finding untold stories would seem futile if it weren't for two things.

Greenspan has the advantage of being able to edit stories based upon reflection (he does his versions of ABC's "Up Close and Personal" features after the athletes have had time to absorb their experiences), and he has the advantage of being inherently interested in the human side of Olympic competition.

But it wasn't the competition that hooked him, and it isn't his fascination with competition that makes him a great sports historian. It is what the Washington Post's Norman Chad last week called "Greenspan's unmatched Olympic vision," his ability to find a human story and let the story tell itself.

One of the best stories in "16 Days of Glory" told of injured British runner David Moorcroft's last-place finish in the 5,000-meter event.

Greenspan had his camera crews ignore the leaders and focus on Moorcroft, and was rewarded with the indelible images of Moorcroft sprinting through the last lap to avoid being lapped by the eventual winner.

It was the determination of an Olympic class athlete that hooked Greenspan on the sport 40 years ago when he offered to file reports from the Summer Games in England for a New York radio station.

"There was this Hungarian pistol shooter, Karoly Takacs, who was considered the finest shot in the world, but he hadn't been able to compete for a gold medal because of World War II. Just before the end of the war, he had a grenade go off in his hand and woke up to find his arm had been amputated.

"People lost contact with him. They thought he committed suicide. What happened was he went into seclusion for three years and learned to shoot with his left hand. He came to Wembley Stadium in 1948 and won the medal. I was astonished by his determination."

Four years later, Greenspan wrote a Readers Digest article on a black weightlifter who was considered the world's strongest man, but was more interested in being an opera singer. Greenspan eventually made a 15-minute film about the singing strong man and sold various rights (some to the U.S. State Department, others to Paramount Pictures) for $70,000.

"I thought, 'This is a good business,' " Greenspan said, "$70,000 for a film that cost $10,000 to make."

Flash forward 36 years--past Greenspan's heralded "Olympiad" series, past dozens of other sports specials, past "16 Days of Glory"--to Calgary '88.

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