The official film of the Barcelona Olympics, Marathon, was directed by Carlos Saura, a noted, prize-winning Spanish filmmaker who already had a couple dozen feature films to his credit. It is an exceptionally well-made film, highlighted by a plethora of slow-motion close-ups of athletes preparing, straining during competition, crossing the finish line in celebration, experiencing satisfaction, disappointment and exhaustion. This is augmented by a score by Alejandro Massó that attempts to match each sport or event. There is no narration, but the athletes are often identified by the stadium scoreboard or the announcer.
For a film with such class, it actually gets off to an unfortunate start, with Freddie Mercury screeching his song “Barcelona.” During the Opening Ceremony performances, Saura emphasizes the least appealing segment, which, using sharp objects and ominous music, portrays Herakles fighting sea monsters. A rare caption claims that Herakles founded both the Olympic Games and Barcelona, although in both cases this is just one of many versions of the founding of the Games and the city.
Once the Olympic Cauldron is lit as an archer’s flaming arrow passes over it, all is well with the film. Saura concentrates completely on the running events. He frames the film with the running of the men’s marathon, beginning his competition coverage with the start of the race, checking in five times during the race, and concluding with the finish. In fact, the film is two hours and ten minutes long, just three minutes shy of the winner’s time. At the start of the marathon, there is an unplanned event, as one of the officials, while trying to ensure that the runners are in their proper places, is caught in their midst when the starter’s gun goes off, and he is almost swept away by the pack.
The shorter track events are shown in their entirety in real time and then shown again in slow motion. For the longer events, Saura catches up with the runners on their final lap. In each case, for both men and women, the intensity of their facial expressions is riveting. There are several notable moments. When leader Gail Devers of the United States trips over the last hurdle in the 100-meter hurdles, Greece’s Voula Patoulidou wins a completely unexpected victory. Patoulidou is so shocked that she faints. When American Gwen Torrence wins the 200 meters, she, too, is overcome by emotion and collapses.
At the end of the women’s 4×100-meter relay, the Nigerian team members wait anxiously for the results to be announced on the scoreboard. When they learn that they earned bronze medals, their joyful celebration is simply uplifting. Indeed, Ken Geiger’s iconic photo of the Nigerian women at the moment of realization earned him a Pulitzer Prize.Christine Bakombo of Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) limps across the finish line of the marathon in last place, but, unlike nine of the other runners, she completes the course.
When the four runners from the United States win the men’s 4×400-meter relay, they call over their two teammates who ran in the qualifying heat, but not in the final, and pose for photos with them. When Dieter Baumann of West Germany, in fifth place entering the final curve, comes from behind to win the 5,000 meters, he celebrates by doing a somersault.
Non-running events are represented by beautiful cinematography and music. For the throwing events, Saura gives us a montage of discus throwers and shot putters, both men and women, yelling and grunting as they release their implements. For weightlifting, he contrasts the victors of the lightest and heaviest weight divisions, Ivan Ivanov of Bulgaria and Belarussian Aleksandr Kurlovich. And, a rarity in Olympic official films, Saura manages to show the cross-country portion of equestrian three-day event without including a single horse falling in the water.
Finally, we arrive at the dramatic finish of the men’s marathon. Hwang Yeong-jo of South Korea pulls away from Koichi Morishita of Japan to win the gold medal. Hwang has enough energy to sprint at the end and wave to the crowd, but as soon as he crosses the finish line, he collapses face first and is carried away on a stretcher. He recovered in time for the medal ceremony. The last time a Korean won the Olympic marathon, in 1936, the winner, Sohn Kee-chung, was forced to compete for Japan and use a Japanese name (see Seoul 1988). Although it is not mentioned in Marathon, in Barcelona, Sohn, now 80 years old, was in the stadium. Hwang refused to regard his victory as a measure of revenge, pointing out to the media that he was wearing Japanese shoes. The 1992 men’s marathon was a particularly difficult race, not only because of the heat and humidity, but because it concluded with a climb up Montjuic hill to the Olympic stadium. Twenty-three of the 110 starters were unable to complete the course. For those who did, we see their extreme distress. Hwang is not the only one in need of a stretcher. We follow the travails of defending bronze medal winner Ahmed Saleh of Djibouti, who incurs some sort of injury to his left arm early in the race, but struggles on to the finish to be met by the Red Cross. We also see Benjamin Keleketu of Botswana running around the track until an official runs up to him and explains that Keleketu has already crossed the finish line.