In acknowledgement of the 2020 Olympics, which would have kicked off in Tokyo this week, the Criterion Collection is streaming its monumental collection 100 Years of Olympic Films on their streaming platform, the Criterion Channel.
The collection includes 53 films and covers 41 editions of the Olympic Games, from Stockholm in 1912 to London in 2012. Every weekday for two weeks, I'll highlight a different moment and film from the last century of Olympic films.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, marathoner Abebe Bikila became the world's first back-to-back Olympic marathon champion. Four years earlier, he broke the marathon world record at the Rome Olympics while running barefoot, coming in at two hours, 15 minutes, and 16.2 seconds. He was the first man to break a marathon world record without wearing shoes.
He wore Pumas in the Tokyo race, and broke the world record again by coming in at two hours, 12 minutes, and 11.2 seconds. It should be noted that his historic win in Tokyo came 40 days after having an appendectomy.
Abebe seems solemn while running, like he's solving a math problem. Nothing captures this as well as Kon Ichikawa's remarkable BAFTA-winning documentary on the Tokyo Olympics, Tokyo Olympiad, which is the best place to start in Criterion's 100 Years of Olympic Films.
Often focusing more on the crowds than the sports, Tokyo Olympiad reveals the soft details other sports documentarians miss. While filming Abebe's marathon, Ichikawa spends over a minute focused only on Abebe's face. He is quiet and determined, like he's mustering something eternal.
Abebe doesn't openly celebrate when he breaks the world record—again. He simply lies on the ground, performs a routine of calisthenics, and wiggles his toes.
My favorite scene in Tokyo Olympiad's footage of this marathon is one involving the little sponges and juices Olympic officials set out for runners. It's a great cinematic trick that elicits each runner's character.
One runner looks at the options and runs on by without grabbing anything. Another runner stops at the table and studiously drinks three glasses in quick succession. A third runner grabs a fistful of sponges without stopping, drops two of them, then furiously dabs his face with the others.
Abebe reaches the table first, obviously. He doesn't break his measured pace. He just picks up a single glass of water, takes one sip, pours the rest on his face, and drops the cup. His pace never falters. His face is inscrutable. He doesn't look tired. Almost bored, like performing a routine task.