The Grand Olympiad, directed by Romolo Marcellini, was the first Olympic film to be nominated for an Academy Award. There was only one other nominee in the Best Documentary Feature category, the winner, The Sky Above and the Mud Below. The Grand Olympiad is definitely a cut above previous official Olympic films. It was produced during a golden period for Italian cinema. The following year, another Italian film, Divorce, Italian Style, earned a screenwriting award at the Academy Awards.
The Grand Olympiad is beautifully presented with superb cinematography that juxtaposes panoramic shots with unposed close ups taken with telephoto lenses. There is even decent coverage of the sporting events themselves. The film does engage in occasional silliness. There are too many shots documenting the suffering of heavyweight weightlifter Eduardo Adriana of the Netherlands Antilles who, by the way, reappeared in the Olympics twelve years later – in a rifle shooting event. The field hockey final between Pakistan and India is compared to a scene from Rudyard Kipling.
The men’s 100 meters is presented from the point-of-view of the eventual gold medal winner, Armin Hary of Germany. But we are forced to endure numerous fictional examples of what Hary is supposed to be thinking. The women’s 100 meters and 200 meters are also shown from the point-of-view of the winner, Wilma Rudolph of the United States. However, the filmmakers limit themselves to giving her personal background and letting the camera reveal her strength and grace, which, for the Italians, earned her the nickname “The Black Pearl.”
We are informed throughout of the professions of various athletes, a reminder, when viewed in a different era, that in 1960 athletes in most sports still had to make a living somehow.
Decathlon winner Rafer Johnson of the United States is referred to as a “philosopher.”
Because it is an Italian film, there is extra coverage of sports in which Italian athletes did well, such as cycling and boxing. Italian boxers won medals in seven of the ten divisions, including three gold. Of heavyweight champion Francesco de Piccoli we are told that “he is afraid only of his mom.” No mention is made of the American boxer who would go on to the greatest fame, 18-year-old light heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali.
Although the football final is not included, the semi-final between Italy and Yugoslavia is. The match ended in a draw and, according to the rules of the time, it was decided by a drawing of lots, which, alas, went the way of Yugoslavia.
The Olympic highlight for Italy is saved for late in the film. Livio Berruti’s victory in the 200 meters is called “the most precious” of Italy’s thirteen gold medals.
Although we are shown some ugly falls in the equestrian three-day event, the fact that two of the horses died is not included.
There are some charming moments. After winning the 400 meters, Otis Davis appears shocked (and thrilled) by his success, which is not surprising considering that he had taken up competitive running only two years earlier and had placed only third at the US Olympic Trials. Representing Romania, Iolanda Balaș wins the high jump easily. But, just to make sure, she sweeps the runway herself before jumping.
As usual with Olympic films, there are captivating montages of gymnasts and divers. Bing Crosby appears again, as he did in the film of the 1960 Winter Olympics, which were held several thousand miles away.
In the men’s 4×100-meter relay, the US team crosses the finish line first, but is disqualified because their first pass was completed outside the zone. But, as the Italians point out, the officials were so preoccupied with studying the photos and evidence regarding the US case that they failed to notice that the team from Great Britain did the same thing. The film presents clear evidence that Britain’s second runner, David Jones, doesn’t secure the baton from Peter Radford until he is outside the passing zone. Indeed, Radford grabs his head in despair. Because of the officials’ error, Great Britain is not disqualified, and we see the British runners receiving the bronze medals that should have gone to the team that finished fourth – Italy.
As it often the case in Olympic films, the marathon is given extended coverage, this time ten minutes’ worth. Indeed, the 1960 marathon is one of the most famous events in Olympic history. Running barefoot, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first black African to win an Olympic event. The filmmakers show one runner collapsing across the finish line and another finishing long after the others. But they remind us that, “Anyone who completes a marathon is a winner.”