Another of Bud Greenspan’s three-and-a-half-hour made-for-TV films, Atlanta’s Olympic Glory focuses on 12 stories and 15 athletes.
The highlight of the film is the superb 23-minute portrayal of the friendly rivalry in the weightlifting featherweight division between Naim Süleymanoğlu of Turkey, who had defected from Bulgaria in 1986, and Valerios Leonidis, who had left Russia for Greece in 1991. Süleymanoğlu is attempting to become the first weightlifter to win three gold medals. Leonidis had been gradually catching up with Süleymanoğlu. At the 1995 world championships, he had finally matched Süleymanoğlu’s lift total, but lost anyway because he weighed more than his rival (by 200 grams). In Atlanta, however, it was Leonidis who had the lower bodyweight, so if there was another tie, it would be Leonidas who would win. Greenspan shows us this epic battle from several perspectives, while narrator Will Lyman explains the strategy behind each lift. Both lifters are shown not just performing, but also waiting to perform. We see the excitement and emotions of their respective trainers, not to mention the enthusiastic supporters of both men, who are on opposite sides of the stands. The two competitors set three world records in less than ten minutes, and, in the end, Süleymanoğlu wins. Before the Medal Ceremony, Leonidis tells Süleymanoğlu, “Naim, you are the best.” Süleymanoğlu replies, “ No, Valerios, we are both the best.”
Another noteworthy segment is the sprint swimming rivalry between Alexandre Popov of Russia and Gary Hall Jr. of the United States, which Popov describes as a “cold war.” Hall, for his part, refers to Popov as “arrogant” and “a necessary evil.” Popov defeats Hall in both individual events, while Hall takes home two gold medals in the relays. They both vow to return for the 2000 Olympics. In fact, they both did, and then took part again in the 2004 Games.
Similarly, British rower Steven Redgrave, after earning a gold medal in his fourth consecutive Olympics, returned in 2000 despite having told reporters after his 1996 victory, “If you ever see me anywhere near a boat, shoot me.” He won again at the Sydney Olympics.
Other featured athletes include Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Justin Huish, Jeannie Longo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Ghada Shouaa and Josia Thugmane. As usual, Greenspan introduces us to the families of some of the athletes. Two of these family stories stand out.
Chinese gymnast Donghua Li was injured while training for the 1988 Olympics and was unable to compete. That year, he met a Swiss woman, Esperanza Friedli, married her, moved to Switzerland and applied for Swiss citizenship. This took five years, so he also missed the 1992 Olympics. At 29, the oldest gymnast at the Atlanta Games, Li wins the gold medal on the pommel horse while Esperanza watches. Li says of his wife, “Half of my Olympic gold medal belongs to her.” In a familiar story, eight years after his victory and the release of the film, the couple divorced.
U.S. sprinter Inger Miller’s story is memorable simply because her support team seem like nice people. She is trained by her father, Lennox Miller, who earned medals at 100 meters in both 1968 and 1972, and by her godfather, Donald Quarrie, who competed at four Olympics, was Olympic champion at 200 meters in 1976 and added more medals in 1980 and 1984. When Inger places fourth in the 200 meters in Atlanta, her parents and Quarrie are there to praise her. We then see her earn a gold medal in the 4×100-meter relay.
The most unsettling of Greenspan’s profiles is that of Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, who won three gold medals and one bronze medal. Greenspan does not hesitate to call attention to the controversies involving Smith, most notably the suspicions of doping as a result of the huge improvement in her times late in her career, after she married and came under the tutelage of Dutch discus thrower and shot putter Erik de Bruin, who had been banned from competition after failing a doping test. Greenspan does not pass judgment and shows her receiving a hero’s welcome back in Ireland. One month after the film’s release, drug testers showed up at the home of Michelle and Erik de Bruin. After much haggling, Smith produced a urine sample that contained a level of alcohol that would be fatal if consumed by a human, much less left over in her urine. She was banned for four years for tampering with her urine sample and never competed again.
Outside of the athletic competitions, the Atlanta Games are best known for the fatal bombing carried out by an anti-abortion, anti-homosexual Christian terrorist. The incident is alluded to in the coverage of Steven Redgrave and his partner, Matthew Pinsent, because their event, the coxless pairs, was the first final to be held after the bombing.