By 1976, more and more people in North America were following the Olympics on television. This created a challenge for the makers of official films. So, for Jeux de la XXIe Olympiade, the four Canadian directors decided to concentrate on four athletes, although they do weave in many other events. During the Parade of Nations, we are shown close-ups of the athletes of many countries, including several Africans. Then we see African athletes being told that they can no longer eat in the Olympic Village or use the city’s metro system. Although the film does not explain why, it would have been clear to all Canadians and foreign Olympic fans that this was because the leaders of 22 African nations (and Guyana) chose to boycott the Montréal Games to protest the fact that New Zealand’s rugby team had toured South Africa. Rugby was not affiliated with the Olympic Movement, and the IOC had banned South Africa from the Olympics for the past 12 years.
The first in-depth coverage is of Hungarian modern pentathlete Tibor Maracskó and his two teammates. Hungary and the USSR were leading nations in the sport, but Hungary was fielding an unusually young team of competitors. The Hungarians blow the very first of five sports, riding, placing 13th in a field of 14. Fortunately for them, the Soviets are disqualified after the fencing competition, although the film does not explain the reason. In fact, it was determined that one of the Soviet pentathletes, Boris Onyshchenko, was using an illegally modified épée that allowed him to record a hit without touching his opponent. The Hungarians gradually move up in the standings, but clearly find their third place finish a disappointment. Intimate coverage of team member Szvetiszláv Sasics gasping for breath after the final cross-country race is painful to watch, as he pushes away an oxygen mask and then finally accepts it.
The second highlighted athlete is Cuban sprinter Silvio Leonard. We are told that Leonard was injured before the competition. His coach and Leonard himself express optimism, but, alas, Leonard is eliminated in the first round. Left out of the film is the story of Leonard’s injury: ten days before the Games, he stepped on a cologne bottle during a bit of horseplay and cut his foot.
Athlete number three is Soviet gymnast Nelli Kim. Kim earns three gold medals and one silver medal. However, the filmmakers fail to cover the bigger stories in women’s gymnastics: the farewell performance of Kim’s teammate, Lyudmila Turishcheva, and her emotions as she collects her ninth and final Olympic medal, and the end of the reign of Olga Korbut and the rise of Romanian Nadia Comăneci.
The last highlighted athlete is U.S. decathlete Bruce Jenner. The competition is given detailed coverage, including his wife, Chrystie, yelling at him from the stands during the 1,500-meter run, urging him to “Step it up, Jenner.” After securing the gold medal, Jenner turns to the camera and says, “I’m glad you guys got all this on film.”
There are some nice touches in the coverage of other athletes and events. For example, when Guy Drut of France wins the 110-meter hurdles, he asks, “Me? First? Sure?”
There is also a wonderful sequence showing Soviet super-heavyweight weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev, earning his second Olympic championship by making a world record-setting clean and jerk lift. Alekseyev meditates himself into an almost trance-like state before approaching the bar.
One aspect of Jeux de la XXIe Olympiade that is disturbing in retrospect is the glorification of sprinter Bärbel Wöckel, swimmer Kornelia Ender and other East German gold medal winners, all of whom were taking prohibited steroids at the time.