A Swedish-French coproduction, The Games of the V Olympiad Stockholm, 1912 is actually a compilation of newsreels. For those interested in Olympic history, it is a goldmine, a chance to see video of athletes and competitions previously only available as still photographs. Although the 1912 Olympics were formally opened by King Gustaf V on 6 July, the competitions in tennis, shooting and football began earlier. During the “Olympic Week”, which stretched from 6 July to 15 July, the bulk of the sports were staged. The equestrian events, rowing and sailing took place after the Olympic Week, as did the finals of some of the Olympic Week events.
At the Olympics of 1896 Athens Games, the 1908 London Games and the 1912 Stockholm Games, the royal families of the host nations exploited the excitement of the Olympics by inserting themselves into the proceedings. This is clearly seen in the 1912 newsreel footage, which includes endless coverage of King Gustaf V waving to crowds, handing out medals and other prizes and chatting with selected athletes. Today, medal winners stand on a podium and the medal givers look up to them. In 1912, it was Gustaf who stood on a platform and the medal winners who looked up to him. He can be seen repeatedly placing wreaths on their heads and giving the wreaths a thump to make sure they are secure, although visually the gesture has the appearance of condescension. Sometimes, the athlete isn’t even included in the frame, and we only see Gustaf.
One scene includes rare footage of Baron Pierre de Coubertin looking on while Gustaf, surrounded by family and retainers, commands the limelight during the prizegivings.
There is a famous legend that when Gustaf presented the gold medals to Jim Thorpe (USA) for the pentathlon and decathlon, he told Thorpe that “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” to which Thorpe allegedly replied, “Thanks, King.” This encounter was captured on film. Alas, because the footage is silent, we do not have evidence of their exchange. Thorpe does look awkward, particularly when the officials try to load him down with two trophies: an enormous Viking ship, lined with gold and embedded with jewels that was donated by Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and a bronze bust of—guess who—King Gustaf V.
The filmmakers were good at convincing the winners of various events to pose for the camera. Judging by the athletes’ frequent huffing and puffing, it is clear that the filmmakers often caught them just as their event finished. In this sense, the 1912 coverage anticipates today’s television, although, because it was silent, we are spared the wince-making experience of watching today’s TV interviewers asking the exhausted athletes, “How do you feel?”
Today we are accustomed to multiple athletic events taking place in the stadium at the same time, such as a running race being contested while field events, such as the long jump, pole vault or hammer throw, continue in the infield. In 1912, diverse sports would take place simultaneously in the stadium. For example, while the camera focuses on a Greco-Roman wrestling match, race walkers can be seen in the background trundling around the track.
In addition to footage of Pierre de Coubertin, we are treated to video of Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, who, at age 64, is, to this day, the oldest person to become an Olympic champion. Finnish long-distance runner Hannes Kolehmainen, having swept three individual events and added a silver medal in a team race, poses for the camera multiple times.
During the extensive coverage of the marathon, we even see Francisco Lázaro of Portugal stop at the water station at the halfway point. He collapsed a few kilometers later and died the following morning, one of only two athletes in Olympic history to die as a direct result of the competition.