The idea for Visions of Eight, the unconventional official film of the 1972 Munich Olympics, was hatched by U.S. producer David Wolper. Wolper obtained permission from the Munich Organizing Committee to hire several famous directors from different countries and allow them each to produce their vision of one aspect of the Games. Originally there were supposed to be ten directors, but Franco Zefferelli withdrew to protest the IOC’s exclusion of Rhodesia from the Olympics, and Ousmane Sembène’s segment about the Senegalese basketball team did not make the final cut, although the reasons are unclear. So, instead of Visions of Ten, we have Visions of Eight.
Visions of Eight won the Golden Globe award for Best Documentary. However, from the point-of-view of Olympic history, it has two major flaws. First, as is the case with so many anthology films, it is uneven. Some segments are fascinating, while others are boring. Second, it leaves out most of the important stories from the Munich Games.
The film begins with Juri Ozerov’s brief visual essay, “The Beginning,” about athletes getting ready to compete. This is lightweight material better conveyed in other Olympic films.
Mai Zetterling’s segment about weightlifters, “The Strongest,” is more interesting. Zetterling explains that she chose weightlifting because she knew nothing about it, and because weightlifters are obsessed. “I am not interested in sports,” she says, “but I am interested in obsession.” She shows us athletes training, each in his own world. There is also a section on food preparation and data processing, but eventually, Zetterling zeroes in on the super-heavyweight lifters. Although the lifters are not identified by name, we do see Vasily Alekseyev of the USSR fall over backwards during one attempt before earning the gold medal. Zetterling includes several memorable shots. We are shown one lifter having his hair combed before he performs, and then he makes a successful lift while his boyfriend watches from the wings. As they clear the arena after the competition concludes, five soldiers struggle to move a weight which a lifter, presumably Alekseyev, hoisted by himself. Zetterling concludes with two lifters, one a super-heavyweight and the other a flyweight, leaving the training room together, chatting as friends.
The third segment, “The Highest,” is directed by Arthur Penn and deals with the pole vault. Penn was already well-known for such films as The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man. Penn opens with slow-motion fuzzy images of vaulters, which, unfortunately, is symbolic of his failure to grasp what he is seeing. The contest evolves into a nighttime duel between two unnamed vaulters, with one finally winning the gold medal. After the competition, the loser walks over to an official and forces him to take his pole, while the crowd whistles and boos. I’m guessing that this audio disapproval is an unrelated sound bite added by Penn, because the actual crowd could hardly see what was happening.
This story begs for clarification. The gold medal winner is Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany, who won the bronze medal at the previous Olympics. The silver medal winner is the defending Olympic champion, Bob Seagren of the United States. The official is Adriaan Paulen, an official of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). Before the Munich Games, American athletes had won every Olympic pole vault competition since the modern Olympics were inaugurated in 1896—16 in a row, the longest national winning streak in a single event in the history of the Olympics. Seagren, along with most of the other leading vaulters, used a pole called the Cata-Pole. Nordwig was the only medal favorite who did not use a Cata-Pole. The East Germans filed a protest against the Cata-Pole, claiming that it used carbon fiber. On July 25, one month before the opening of the Munich Games, the technical committee of the IAAF banned the Cata-Pole. When it was pointed out that the Cata-Pole did not, in fact, contain carbon fiber, and that IAAF rules stated poles could be made of any material, the IAAF leadership switched its reasoning, claiming that the Cata-Pole “had not been available through normal supply channels” for at least 12 months prior to the Olympics. Once again, it was pointed out that the IAAF rule book did not include such a prohibition.
On August 27, five days before the competition was to begin, the IAAF reversed itself and lifted the ban. Relieved vaulters returned to practicing with their usual poles. But then, on August 30, two days before the qualifying round, the IAAF reimposed the ban. IAAF officials went to the athletes’ rooms and confiscated their Cata-Poles. It was Adriaan Paulen who had taken responsibility for the ban. That was why Seagren, who graciously congratulated Nordwig, thrust his own pole at Paulen.
“The Women,” directed by Michael Pfleghar is not of interest, the performance of women in the Olympics having already been better portrayed in previous Olympic films. The same can be said for “The Fastest,” Kon Ichikawa’s presentation of the men’s 100 meters final, Ichikawa himself having covered this same cinematic and athletic ground in his own 1964 film.
Miloš Forman’s coverage of “The Decathlon” is classic pre-Hollywood Forman whimsy, matching the various events with Bavarian folk music, bell-ringing and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Claude Lelouch, who directed one of the 1968 Winter Olympics films, contributes “The Losers.” As usual with Lelouch, the athletes are not identified. Some of them are merely frustrated with themselves, some look more tired than defeated, and some are injured. There is one “loser” whose story merits explanation. Lelouch shows us a boxer outraged at his disqualification and refusing to leave the ring, while, as with Arthur Penn and the pole vault, the spectators boo and hiss. In fact, this is Juan Francisco Rodríguez of Spain, one of the medal favorites, in his quarter-final match against Alfonso Zamora of Mexico. In the final round, Rodríguez was knocked down, but was back up by the count of eight. However, he noticed that his gum shield had been knocked out and reached down to retrieve it. The referee thought Rodríguez was falling down again, continued counting to ten and ruled that he had been knocked out. No wonder Rodríguez was upset.
Lelouch includes one nice sequence from the super-heavyweight division of freestyle wrestling. While facing defending champion Aleksandr Medved of the Soviet Union, Moslem Eskandar-Filabi of Iran sustains an injury. He keeps getting up and trying to continue the match, but eventually he can’t continue. Medved, who went on to earn another gold medal, shakes hands with Filabi and then helps him off the mat.
The final sequence of Visions of Eight, “The Longest,” is directed by John Schlesinger, who had won two of the last three Best Director Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday. Schlesinger chose to cover the marathon from the point-of-view of one athlete: Ron Hill, who ultimately places sixth. We see Hill training at home (running 135 miles a week) and leaving for the Olympics. While he is in Munich, at the Athletes’ Village, Palestinian terrorists invaded the Village, eventually causing the deaths of 11 Israelis. Hill tells one of Schlesinger’s interviewers, “It’s affected me in that the tragedy has put off my race for a day. If I allowed myself to think about what had happened, I would have become emotionally involved and thus not able to run….I don’t want to know about it.” Schlesinger intercuts the marathon race with coverage of the attack and its aftermath. He shows a terrorist, the shot-up helicopter containing athletes and terrorists, makeshift memorials to the victims and the Olympic flag flying at half-mast. When the Olympic Flame is extinguished it takes on more meaning than just the conclusion of the Games.
By choosing such an unconventional approach to the official film, a lot is missing. Here are a few of the highlights from the 1972 Summer Olympics that are not included in Visions of Eight:
- Swimmer Mark Spitz of the United States won seven gold medals.
- Lasse Virén of Finland fell midway through the final of the 10,000 meters, got up, caught up and won the race, setting a world record.
- Russian freestyle wrestler Ivan Yarygin pinned all seven of his opponents to win the heavyweight division.
- West German rider Liselott Linsenhoff, competing in the dressage event, became the first woman to win a gold medal in an individual equestrian event.
- Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut bridged the Iron Curtain to win the hearts of westerners.
- The basketball final ended in controversy with the U.S. appearing to have won, only to have the clock reset twice, leading to a victory for the Soviet Union. Prior to this game, the U.S. had won 62 consecutive Olympic games and every Olympic championship since basketball was included in the program in 1936.
- Russian diver Vladimir Vasin won the men’s springboard event to end a U.S. streak of eleven gold medals.
- Archery returned to the Olympics after a 52-year absence, and whitewater canoeing (canoe slalom) made its first appearance.