An Olympian Effort
The official films, which are sometimes marketed under the title 16 Days of Glory, can run up to three-and-a-half hours. With his wide access to the Olympic venues, the competitors, and their associates, Greenspan seeks to go the broadcast networks one better in the "up close and personal" stakes. The producer initially chooses twelve to fifteen possible story subjects, narrowing the field to seven or eight for the final film. "We have basic ideas," he told Sports Travel, "but if an idea doesn't pan out, we change gears." Greenspan used as an example a speed skater whose mother had also competed twenty years earlier. The mother was filmed in the stands as the daughter raced—and finished out of the medals. Still, the mother was thrilled; telling her daughter, "You're the sixth best in the world." "We're more interested in the humanity of the sport as opposed to chronicling the winners," said Greenspan. David Hilt-brand, reviewing Lillehammer '94: 16 Days of Glory for People, declared that Greenspan is "magisterial at presenting sports as modern mythology." A Greenspan production is characterized by sharp visuals, seldom-seen angles, and stories that are told, according to New York Times contributor Richard Sandomir, "straightforwardly but emotionally, with a tersely written, stentorian narration. There are no production tricks, special effects or gauzy, amber-lighted backgrounds. Just 16-millimeter footage of stirring action and emotional recollections."
For his 16 Days film on Los Angeles, Greenspan faced the challenge of offering new images and insights in a city already swarming with filmmakers, television producers, and other creative types. The producer "had to trust that his knowledge of people and of sports, filtered through a perspective of hindsight, leavened with some good old-fashioned cinematic beauty—18 crews shooting almost a million feet of film—could make even the most familiar, oft-told tales fresh," noted Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford.
Widening his circle of interest, he also produced several films on non-Olympic subjects, including Ageless Heroes, Kings of the Ring, and Discover Utah! Greenspan also took the director's helm in 1977 for a made-for-television docudrama on the life of track phenom Wilma Rudolph.
Though virtually every other Bud Greenspan film is a documentary, the director branched out into drama with his 1977 two-hour made-for-television movie, Wilma. This film told the life story of the great American track athlete Rudolph, portrayed by Shirley Jo Finney, focusing on her relationship with her mother (played by Cicely Tyson) and her boyfriend. Though the movie earned mixed notices, Wilma became notable years later as the television debut of the young actor playing Wilma's boyfriend—future Academy Award winner Denzel Washington.
While widely acclaimed, with honors including the prestigious Peabody Award, the filmmaker did face some controversy when he agreed to produce a promotional video on behalf of Beijing, China's, bid to host the 2008 summer games. Greenspan focused on the city and its people, but the issue of human rights violation in China "wasn't touched at all and we didn't think it was necessary," as he explained to a CNN.com interviewer.
In 1996 Greenspan produced 100 Years of Olympic Glory, a three-hour film celebrating the centennial of the modern games. As with his other films, this documentary focused on the human stories behind the medals. There is, for instance, the story of two Japanese pole vaulters who competed in 1936. They "cleared the same height and should have tied for second place," as Star-Ledger writer Jerry Krupnick related. "When the silver was awarded to just one of them, the other vaulter getting the bronze, they cut the medals in half and had them fused together to create 'the Medal of Eternal Friendship.'"
Hype and scandal have seemed to plague many contemporary Olympics, but Greenspan set his gaze on the positive aspects of both win and loss. "They're two weeks of love," he told an ESPN.com reporter. "It's a privilege to be associated with the best in the world." Indeed, Greenspan's "approach to the Olympics would not be appropriate for the mainstream media," said Randy Harvey of the Los Angeles Times. "But although he is no journalist, and proud of it, he is one of the best reporters I know."
Asked by ESPN.com to recall his most memorable Olympic moment, Greenspan pointed to the 1968 summer games in Mexico City. A Tanzanian marathon runner, John Stephen Ahkwari, injured himself in the race. He struggled in last, bloodied and bandaged. "I asked him, 'Why did you keep going?'" Greenspan recounted. "He said, 'You don't understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.' That sent chills down my spine and I've always remembered it."