There are two films of the 1928 Summer Games in the Criterion/IOC collection, one made by an Italian company and one by the Dutch. After a contract dispute, the responsible Dutch officials signed away the exclusive film rights to an Italian company. This caused understandable outrage in the Netherlands and there was an industry boycott of the film there. The German company, UFA, purchased the rights to the Italian footage and then made a deal with a Dutch company to use the footage for a Dutch version.
The Italian version, The IX Olympiad in Amsterdam, is more than four hours long, and the Dutch one, The Olympic Games, Amsterdam 1928, more than three hours long. The Italian film covers a wide range of events, but often in an odd way. Sometimes we are told an athlete’s country, but not his or her name. Often, we are told the winner before a race is shown. The Dutch version is far superior. Not only does it identity the athletes and often add commentary about the progress of an event, sometimes it even tells us which athletes are in which lanes.
In the Italian version, for example, an intertitle introduces the men’s 100 meters as a highlight of the Olympics, but all we see is the start from behind, and the unnamed winner (Percy Williams of Canada) is only seen in the distance being photographed. The Dutch version, on the other hand, shows the full race and close-ups of Williams after his victory, including being hoisted on the shoulders of his countrymen.
Today, there is an ongoing controversy about whether the governments in non-dictatorships should help fund the staging of the Olympics, and referendums often reveal that locals reject holding the Games in their hometown. The Dutch version of the 1928 film reveals a reverse situation. The Dutch national parliament voted against funding the Olympics, but Amsterdam organizers managed to cobble together funding anyway, including loans from the government.
In the Italian version, we are shown some of the boxing finals, but the contestants are identified by nation, not by name (except for one Italian). The Dutch version shows slightly less footage, but does identify the boxers. There are no referees in the ring. In the featherweight semi-final, Harry Devine of the United States twice slips and falls…and his opponent, Bep van Klaveren of the Netherlands, lends him a hand to get back up. When van Klaveren is declared the winner, he kisses Devine, who is clearly unfamiliar with this custom.
Paavo Nurmi wins the 10,000 meters, this time without consulting a watch. However, as intertitles in both versions note, he refuses to be filmed afterwards, so we get to see second place finisher Ville Ritola instead. The Dutch film shows Nurmi collapsed on his back, exhausted after placing second to Ritola in the 5,000 meters. But he jumps up and rushes away when he realizes that cameramen are coming towards him. The Italian version also includes an unusual moment in Nurmi’s illustrious career. During a qualifying heat in the 3.000-meter steeplechase, Nurmi falls on his side into the pool at the first water jump. Lucien Duquesne of France stops to help him up. Nurmi would repay the favor by pacing Duquesne for the rest of the race. In the final, Nurmi earned another silver medal.
For some sports, such as swimming, water polo, show jumping (which was held in the stadium preceding the Closing Ceremony) and some (but not all) of the athletics events, the stands are full of spectators. For other sports, like gymnastics, they are almost empty.
Speaking of gymnastics, the events in the men’s competition are recognizable (pommeled horse and rings), but the women’s team event is really a series of dance routines with a few exercise moves thrown in.
There is a wonderful shot of Johnny Weissmuller beaming after winning the 100-meter freestyle final. In an early case of media awareness, Weissmuller, apparently at the request of the cameraman or someone beside him, stands on tiptoes so that the U.S. emblem on his swimsuit can be seen, and, again at someone’s request, he points a finger at it.
For the first time, women were allowed to compete in athletics, (in four events compared to 22 for men). An intertitle tells us that the winner of the woman’s high jump, Ethel Catherwood of Canada, was deemed the most beautiful athlete of the 1928 Games and then shows us a close-up of her to prove it. After footage of the women’s discus throw competition, we are introduced to the lively and expressive winner, Halina Konopacka of Poland.
There is a story that the male sports officials in charge of athletics were so appalled by the sight of women collapsing in exhaustion after the final of the 800 meters, that they forbid women to run Olympic races longer than 200 meters, a prohibition that would last until 1960. However, coverage of the race in the Dutch film shows that only one woman fell to the ground after crossing the finish line. By the way, as a reminder that men become exhausted too, we are told in an intertitle that after winning the 1,500-meter swimming final, Sweden’s Arne Borg had to be helped from the pool.
The Italian film dismisses the marathon with footage of the start and close-ups of the winner, Boughera El Ouafi of France, the first African-born Olympic champion. The Dutch version, on the other hand, devotes thirteen minutes to the race and includes commentary about its progress. The marathon was filmed from automobiles and there is also a beautiful shot of El Ouafi taken from a boat following along part of the course.
Apparently, some footage was poorly developed and/or disappeared. Coverage of cycling is reduced to one photo in the Dutch film, and there is no coverage at all of football, field hockey, modern pentathlon, weightlifting or wrestling.
At the Closing Ceremony, the prizegiving begins with flags being raised for events that were held outside the stadium. The medals are distributed by nation rather than by event. When the Italian winners come forward to receive their medals, they each give the Fascist salute. The gold medals are handed out by Queen Wilhelmina, while the silver medal winners receive theirs from grumpy Prince Consort Henrik and the bronze medal winners from IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour. The horses of the winning Dutch team in show jumping are given cockades to wear as they take a victory lap with their riders.
A lot of people today complain that there is too much emphasis on national medal totals, but it already existed back in 1928. Not only did the medal winners come forward by nation rather than by event, but the Italian film ends by awarding the team prize to the United States based on three points for a first place, two points for a second place and one point for a third. One more thing that seems like a modern phenomenon but isn’t: after the Opening Ceremony and Closing Ceremony of the Amsterdam Games, the exiting spectators have to stand in long, long lines as they wait to board public transportation.