Calgary ’88: 16 Days of Glory is the second official film to be produced and directed (and written) by Bud Greenspan and narrated by his brother, David Perry. Taking a page from Alfred Hitchcock, there is a brief shot of Greenspan passing in front of the camera during coverage of the men’s figure skating final.
Greenspan chooses to focus on nine stories. Despite the film being 3 hours and 22 minutes long, there is no coverage of ice hockey, luge or biathlon, other than a few unnarrated action shots.
The first highlighted athlete is Canadian speed skater Gaétan Boucher. Boucher had earned a silver medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Games and two gold medals and one bronze medal at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. As with Keiichi Suzuki in the 1972 Sapporo film, we see a successful speed skater at the end of his career. With Boucher, much of the coverage is seen from the point-of-view of his parents.
Swedish cross-country skier Gunde Swan won four medals, two gold, one silver and one bronze, at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. He tells the camera that “If I don’t win, it feels lousy.” So, it’s disappointing for him when he begins his Calgary competitions by placing only 13th in the 30-kilometer race and 10th at 15 kilometers. There is a lovely juxtaposition of photographs of 13-year-old Svan posing with Bill Koch, the American skier, and then years later, towering over Koch in another photo. Koch explains that at this point in the Calgary Games, the Swedes are losing to Soviet skiers because the Soviets trained at home at the same altitude they would face at the 1988 Winter Olympics, while the Swedes followed the World Cup circuit. But the Swedes recover and defeat the Soviet team in the 4×10-kilometer relay, and Svan also wins the 50-kilometer race.
Greenspan includes a segment about Finnish star Matti Nykänen, the only ski jumper to earn five Olympic medals. He talks about Nykänen’s personal problems, but concludes with a happy ending, as Nykänen becomes a father and is given a hero’s welcome back in Finland. In the real world, Nykänen’s problems with alcohol and violence only got worse, and he eventually went to prison.
The film also shows 1980 downhill champion Leonhard Stock as he completes his run and sits in third place only to have the last medal contender, Franck Piccard, better Stock’s time and bump him off the medal podium. Greenspan calls attention to an unusual coincidence in this event. In the 1968 men’s downhill, Guy Périllat of France skied first and watched as his time held up until the fourteenth skier, his compatriot Jean-Claude Killy, beat his time. Twenty years later, Peter Müller of Switzerland skis first and watches his time hold up until his compatriot, Pirmin Zurbriggen, skiing fourteenth, betters his time.
Greenspan captures three particularly interesting statements. After U.S. figure skater Debi Thomas makes mistakes in her free skate and drops from first to third, a reporter asks her about her future. Thomas replies, “There is no future. But I’ll survive.” She did become the first black athlete to earn a medal at the Winter Olympics.
The long section about women’s speed skating zeroes in on East German Karin Kania [Enke], the first speed skater to earn eight career Olympic medals, and Yvonne van Gennip of the Netherlands, who would win three gold medals and set two world records. Kania is deeply disappointed to come away without a gold medal, losing to teammate Christa Rothenburger in the 1,000 meters by just five one-hundredths of a second and the 1,500 meters to van Gennip by fourteen one-hundredths of a second. But she says of van Gennip, “she is a peaceful person, quiet and modest.”
For the bobsleigh events, Greenspan focuses on East German Dietmar Schauerhammer. At the last Winter Olympics in 1984, Schauerhammer had teamed with driver Wolfgang Hoppe to win both the two-man and four-man events. During the pre-Olympic season before the 1988 Calgary Games, Hoppe was injured and had to start inside the sled while Schauerhammer pushed off for both of them. Hoppe recovers in time for the Olympics, but this extra effort causes Schauerhammer to sustain a knee injury. In Calgary, Schauerhammer tells Hoppe it would be better if someone replaces him. But when it comes time for the four-man contest, Hoppe insists that Schauerhammer join him in the sled. When they miss the gold medals by just seven one-hundredths of a second as a result of their slower push times (by sixteen hundredths of a second over four runs combined, Hoppe tells Schauerhammer, “It is better to win silver with you on the team, than to win gold without you.”
The highlight of Calgary ’88: 16 Days of Glory is Greenspan’s detailed exposition of the men’s figure skating duel between Brian Boitano of the United States and Brian Orser of Canada, who were close friends. The footage of the two Brians not just performing, but also preparing themselves psychologically backstage is supplemented with post-Olympics interviews with both Orser and Boitano, as well as with their coaches. The viewer gets an intimate feel for the pre-performance tension, as both Brians have to deal with being followed everywhere by cameras as they try to concentrate. In the end, Boitano wins an unusually close vote that is decided by a tie-breaker rule.