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For legendary filmmaker Bud Greenspan, it was all in the Games

Bud Greenspan's award-winning films about the Olympics are revered within and outside the Olympic movement. Though he died in 2010, his legacy lives on.

May 28, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Bud Greenspan became legendary for telling stories of Olympians, and not just about the winners but about those who persevered in the face of adversity.
Bud Greenspan became legendary for telling stories of Olympians, and not… (Showtime )

Other than the glasses perched on his shaved head, the turtleneck sweaters, the safari jackets and, in the early days, the corncob pipes, the only thing special about Bud Greenspan was that he was a filmmaking genius.

The London Olympics would have been the ultimate full-circle trip for him, had he not succumbed to complications of Parkinson's disease on Christmas 2010.

In 1948, as a hustling young writer and broadcaster working out of New York, he delivered news of the London Games back to the United States by climbing into a phone booth, dialing long distance and reporting what was written in his notebook.

He was 84 when he died, and if enthusiasm for his work and love for the Olympics could have countered his bad health, he would have lived forever.

The late Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the International Olympic Committee, called Greenspan "an everlasting friend of the Olympic family." The occasion was the presentation to Greenspan of the highest award in the Olympic movement, the Olympic Order.

That was in 1985, the year after Greenspan and his Cappy Productions team had put together the first of their 10 official Olympic films. Greenspan called his award-winning film "16 Days of Glory," and referred to the 24/7 rigors of filming, writing and editing as "two weeks of love."

For Greenspan, there would be many more two-week Olympic love affairs. As Nancy Beffa, his longtime co-producer and companion, says, "We traveled more than people in the State Department."

His films, going back to his Emmy Award-winning "Olympiad" series in the 1970s, and on through his official Olympic work, won a multitude of honors and made him somewhat of a caricature of a Hollywood moviemaker. But part of the Greenspan look was of necessity, not of image building.

"The glasses on top of his head was me," Beffa says. "It was the only way he wouldn't lose them. If I hadn't demanded that, he'd have left his glasses all over the world."

He did exactly that with his corncob pipes, in the years before he quit smoking.

"He left one in China, and a man brought it back to Bud in New York," Beffa says. "A $4 pipe and he carried it all that way."

Greenspan received a diagnosis of Parkinson's shortly after the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, but it slowed him only slightly. At the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, he was still able to "schlep through the snow," Beffa says. But by the last two Olympics, in Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010, he was mostly confined to a wheelchair and running the show from an on-site production office.

"He never stopped being positive," Beffa says. "In the end, he was living all the stories he had told of perseverance and the human spirit."

His most famous story in that regard came from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. While other media focused on the top runners, Greenspan noticed a straggler at the back of the marathon pack. He was John Steven Aquari of Tanzania, who had fallen and injured his leg, had it bandaged up and was barely moving along with a hop and limp.

Aquari finished last, hours behind the leaders, in a stadium with most of the lights turned off. Greenspan directed his film crew to capture it all, then interviewed Aquari and got the quote that remains one of the enduring symbols of Olympic spirit.

"My country didn't send me 5,000 miles to start the race," Aquari said. "They sent my 5,000 miles to finish it."

Beffa says that was only one of the ways Greenspan was ahead of his time. She notes that, until stories such as Aquari's were told, reporters and film crews would pack up and leave when winners were finished and interviewed.

"After Bud," she says, "there started to be a last-man syndrome — hang around and look for better stories in the back of the pack."

She says his technical innovation also got the attention of other media. In the '84 Olympics, Bela Karolyi was gymnast Mary Lou Retton's personal coach but had no official Olympic standing and no access to the main coaching area. Greenspan, knowing Karolyi's bombastic nature and desire for the spotlight, found him in an area barricaded from the competition, put a wireless microphone on him and got the gush of emotion that the networks missed when Retton scored her perfect 10s.

As the Olympics changed, with achievement often overshadowed by drug testing and influence peddling, Greenspan stuck to his own Olympic filmmaking axiom. For every Ben Johnson, he concluded, there were a thousand John Steven Aquaris. He voiced that in his oft-quoted, "I choose to spend 100% of my time on the 90% of the Olympics that is good."

Even to the most cynical, his films were uplifting. He was a spellbinding storyteller. His tales featured rich detail, dramatic background music, the familiar deep voice of his brother, David, and an ending that always made the quest for success more important than the actual result. Always, the story was the thing.

"No schmaltzy music, no fog machines," Beffa says.

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