The First Olympics Athens 1896 (1984)

I cannot imagine having “The First Olympics Athens 1896” air in May of 1984 was an accident, considering the United States was about to handle the Summer Olympics, free of the Communist bloc, no less.  However, this rah-rah sports epic is actually more than just a “go team” effort.  Cast beautifully and expertly delivered, it’s a hell of a lot less goofy than the the production that was Los Angeles in 1984 (American culture exposed to the world at its worst, and that was just the opening ceremony).

An act of selfless heroism starts the movie when a carriage breaks on an old man and Robert Garrett (Hunt Block) lifts the carriage, showing extreme strength, and saving the man.  He then dashes off to lunch with his mother Alice (Angela Lansbury).  He’s on his way to college in Princeton, with the support of his widowed mother.  “You’re a dreamer, you always have been, my darling, but don’t let that worry you.  After all, the world was fashioned by dreamers,” she tells her nervous son. 

At the same time in Greece, Spiro Louis (Nicos Ziagos) gets a letter ordering him into the army for two years.  His mother is not at all supportive because he’s the breadwinner for the family, but when he promises to buy her a new dress with the money the government will give him, she softens up.

Also at the time in Australia, a race is run, but lost by Edwin Flack (Benedict Taylor), who impresses a visiting English track coach, who sees in this boy a long-distance runner.  His wealthy parents disagree about whether or not he needs to go to England for schooling, but he can go, against his father’s wishes. 

In Paris, Dr. Pierre de Coubertin (Louis Jordan) announces to a rather small crowd that the Olympics will be held in two years in Athens.  Unfortunately, Olympic Committee can only provide a locale, so he urges everyone assembled to return to their countries and send the best male athletes they can find (females wouldn’t be part of the Olympics just yet). 

James Connolly (David Caruso) is an Irish laborer in Boston who starts by falling off a ladder to get out of work in order to try for a scholarship at Harvard.  The Brahmans are not exactly fans, though he’s obviously very intelligent. 

Now that we have met most of the principles, we can move into the story.  de Coubertin goes to America to meet with William Sloane (David Ogden Stiers), an ancient scholar who inspired de Coubertin to put together the modern Olympics.  He wants Sloane to head the Olympic movement in America.  America is wealthy and not currently arguing with anyone, so its presence is vital.  It’s not going to be an easy task because the top colleges don’t believe athletics are equal to education, or even belong on the hallowed ground of places like Harvard and Princeton.

With Spiro on leave from his army duties, there is talk of him throwing discus at these newfangled Olympics.  Edwin Flack is doing well at Oxford, despite jokes about Australians from supercilious English lads.  At the meeting Sloane and de Coubertin set for athletes, only Robert Garrett shows up, but he doesn’t know any sports.  James Connolly reveals himself to be quite a wrestler when he gets in a scrape and instead of punishment, he’s put on the team.  This is a warts-and-all story.  Olympians came not from years of practice, but luck, blackmail, hearsay and any other method.  Hell, they don’t even know the rules to the games and the marathon wasn’t part of a games, merely the distance Marathon had run to Athens to proclaim a victory and drop dead. 

When Spiro fails to make it back to barracks one night, instead of being punished, he is sent to the Olympic games, where he can win 100,000 drachmas.  “I would be honored even without the money,” he says, already realizing the Olympic spirit without knowing it.  Garrett has to convince a local blacksmith to make a discus.  They have to make high jump poles from nothing, literally everything from scratch, based on designs and pictures thousands of years old.  It’s downright comical how the sports take form because Greek pictures do not fit into the world of 1894.  The universities clamp down on letting the guys practice, so Sloane’s wife comes up with an idea: the fields of a girl’s school run by Madame Ursula (Honor Blackman). 

Sloane’s boys will be making their first public appearance as athletes.  They come out for their races wearing nothing, just like the statues and Greek lore they read have described.   James Connolly does a great job of the long jump at an Irish track meet.  He and a few others are invited to train at Princeton.  James initially turns them down because he’s afraid of water and there is no other way to get to Athens.  Edwin Flack wants to go, but he finds out the Oxford and Cambridge boys will not be going because the invitation for the Olympics came in French, which they found offensive.

By the summer of 1895, there is a core of an American team and Sloane brings them together for the first time.  Before training starts, he tells them there is no expectation of winning against the more organized European teams, but they should give their best and that’s what matters (the Olympic spirit).  However, the actual coach doesn’t agree.  He wants them to win!  Their initial attempts look mighty impressive and Madame Ursula has her girls serve them food and such to keep morale high.  James shows up unexpectedly when his mother dies and is welcomed by the coach.  It takes a black female servant at the school to show them how to properly jump hurdles.  The long stretch of training footage is very typical of American sports movies, watching the untrained become strong, focused and talented.  With the training, they actually start to surpass European records.

What is still lacking is the money to get the lads to Greece.  A meeting is held among Boston’s Irish community to support James, who gives a rousing speech about “the flag we wear on our uniform.”  He promises them that if they give the money, he’ll win!  Money is also raised by locking in boys from other sports like swimming and shooting.  Robert, a socially frightened boy, has broken through his shell and made friends, and explains to his mother how important it is to him, begging for money.

Bad news comes when Harvard denies James the chance to go because he can’t leave for that long, a serious problem, and then Princeton gives only $100 for the effort.  The boat sails in two days and they are short two tickets.  The only way Sloane can figure out how to get those two is to give up his own tickets. 

In Greece, Spiro takes up a collection from his fellow soldiers, but Edwin certainly has the money, though the only other teammates he’ll find there are guys recruited from the British Embassy in Greece. 

When it’s time to leave the US, Robert introduces his mother to his girl and then promises to win for her.  A Greek American patriot shows up to give out little American flags to the boys, who are getting quite a gigantic send-off.  But, there’s a giant problem: the difference in the Greek and American calendars, which means the guys will arrive only one day before the end of the games.  Sloane promises to “move heaven and earth” to make sure they get there at the right time. 

de Coubertin is livid because he doesn’t want the first games to be a disaster and Sloane is trying everything he can think of.  A travel agent tells him the only way to get them there faster is over land, giving them a few hours before the games begin.  Of course, it means relying on the inaccurate Italian train system and a steamer that crosses to Greece only once a week. 

The athletes are unaware of the problems, which Mrs. Sloane hopes will mean they are relaxing, but it’s not that easy.  James, as he said earlier, is deathly afraid of the ocean and is sick immediately.  Most of the rest have mal de mer as well.  Only swimmer David Gilliam is completely unaffected, able to pack down the sweets to the digestive horror of his teammates. 

At a stopover in Gibraltar, the British Consulate gives the boys the bad news about the travel, but Robert pushes through their doubts and insists on trying to make it.  Then they have a while to practice before their overland trek.

On April 1 in Athens, the flags of participating nations are up and Edwin arrives alone.  He is awestruck by the coliseum, but not as impressed with the rest of the British team, a bunch of preening peacocks.  The team also assumes the Americans won’t make it, though Edwin hopes they will.

April 2 brings no better news for the for Yanks.  The train wheel breaks and takes hours to repair.  Leaving the train to get a drink, James is bewitches by a local gorgeous Italian woman and Robert tries to buy a hat, which isn’t expensive, but he feels he has to bargain.  That works, but unfortunately, he makes some word mistakes and angers the vendor.  The train is ready before the boys are back, but they aren’t runners for nothing and make it, all except for James, who has accidentally left his wallet.  He hurdles the fence and makes it to the train, injuring one of his teammates in the process. 

Dress rehearsals are held on April 3, though the British are still sneering at the Games, with the British holding their own version in England at the same time.  The Greeks practice the national anthems, but use “Yankee Doodle Dandy” for the US because it’s the only sheet music they could find.  The musical director goes to a visiting American ship and finds out there is no national anthem, and no words to the song that would eventually become the national anthem.  The Americans have made it to Brindisi to catch the ferry to Greece, which thankfully hasn’t left yet.  Edwin gets a wonderful surprise when his parents show up for support. 

On the opening day of the games, the King and Queen of Greece are there and the parade of nations begins, with Edwin the only Australian.  Spiro has to march as a soldier until his day of competition.  As for the Americans, they are just finally landing as the ceremony is beginning, but bureaucracy tangles them up until the American Consul shows up to help.  The Greeks are the last to march (unlike in future Olympics when they would start the procession), but just as they finish, the Americans, suitcases in hand, arrive, to a gigantic cheer by naval men stationed in Greece.  It’s the King of Greece who opens the game, rather than de Coubertin, as the head of the IOC would inherit that job in the future. 

David is very guilty over the injury caused to his teammate, who refuses to let it go.  The qualifying race heats come first.  The Americans coast to astonishingly easy victories in all three heats.  The triple long jump has no qualifying rounds, just one chance for David to win.  Dramatic tension builds as David is the last to go, showboating all the way and taking his time…before winning!  The fully orchestrated national anthem is held for the first time, baffling to everyone.  “It sounds Greek to me,” one of the Americans quips.  Robert more seriously notes that David is the first Olympic champion in over 1500 years and David dedicates the honor to his mother. 

Edwin wins his first heat, though under the Australian flag.  The second heat has the injured American and a Frenchman who wears gloves because it’s polite to do with the King of Greece in attendance.  Blake (Alex Hyde-White), injury be damned, wins his qualifying heat, meaning he will battle Edwin in the finals.  Robert and his discus are up next.  The Greeks want to win this event “as a matter of national pride.”  Robert tries to use his own discus, but the official will not allow it and give him the official one, which is lighter, making it far easier to throw.  This, of course, we get in slow motion and he wins handily, another gold for the US.  Standing on the podium, he hears his mother’s words again about pride in one’s achievements.

Back in the US, Sloane gets a telegram with all of the fantastic news. 

The second day brings the hurdles.  The US guys tie and win in the first heat.  The obnoxious Brit is in the second heat, angering even the British observers.  But, he wins, so all is forgiven.  The Greeks are counting on Spiro to win the marathon, but he’s not so sanguine about his chances.  The long jump finale pits David against Robert, but it’s a third American who wins, giving them the gold, silver and bronze.  Another victory for the Americans in the 400 meters, gold, silver and bronze.  When the 1500 meter race is run, Alex is in the mix, but so is Australian’s hunky Edwin, for whom the stuffy British are forced to root because so far they have won medals only in lawn tennis.  Injured Alex loses to Edwin, forced to to hear the British national anthem.  More upset than Alex is David, who was the cause of his injury.  With the Crown Prince of Greece officiating, Robert is ready for the shot put finals.  He wins and sets a record doing it.  Another American national anthem for the beleaguered musical director. 

Edwin and his parents go off to see the ruins, but Edwin is unsure about his future, unsure about all of the plans his parents have made for him.  The constant carping of his parents finally cause him to snap at him, but he works it out with his parents.

A Greek newspaper writes a terrible quote and attributes it to Robert, but the coach thinks he can fix it.  The coach also tries to heal the bad feelings between Alex and David, who has broken his hand smashing it against a brick wall out of guilt when Alex lost his race.  Alex shows up in David’s room with a bottle of ouzo as an apology. 

The British Ambassador tries to make good with Edwin, totally embarrassed that the games in England have been canceled, begging him to run under the British flag.  He is resolute that he will run only as an Australian. 

The 800 meter race Alex and Edwin vying for supremacy, along with that Frenchman with the gloves.  It’s a photo finish and no one is immediately sure who won.  The officials decide in favor of Edwin.  On the medal podium, Edwin pulls second-place Alex up onto his block, showing the ultimate in Olympic spirit and dazzling the crowd. 

Let’s not forget we have swimmers and shooters too.  The American swimmer is worthless, finding the water too cold, so it’s back to the track for the high jump.   Unfortunately, he crashes into the bar.  David does the same.  Only the third American makes it.  There’s a cute moment on the podium stand when David forgets he didn’t win and tries to mount the gold position. 

By now everyone in the US is passionately interested in the results, swamping the telegraphy office.  Sloane reads the news proudly, even the joke about their sinking swimmer.

The last day brings the marathon and the competitors are sent off the night before to the starting point, with the Greeks turning out in force for Spiro.  Robert, Alex and Edwin are also in the wagon.  The Greek translator tells Robert that Spiro is “not just running for himself, but for all Greeks,” all the peasants and all their hopes.  Robert feels almost as if he wants him to win. 

As the marathon is underway, the pole vaulting is also happening, but the Americans are laughing because the rules state the bar has to start insanely low and it’s no problem for anyone to soar above it.  “Wake me when they get to six feet,” one of the guys quips. 

The marathon runners drink at every rest stop, but it looks like booze, so these guys might be bobbing and weaving by the time they hit the stadium.

The Americans take all three medals in the 100 meter. 

Edwin passes out running the marathon, the alcohol getting the best of him.  A French runner goes down, but injured Alex manages well. 

Since the Americans are so versatile, one of the pole vaulters has to run in the 110 meter hurdles, but the officials won’t let him leave the event because it would mean forfeiting the pole vault.  However, the American coach comes up with a way around that.  The obnoxious show off Brit angers everyone, including his own Ambassador.  de Coubertin is insistent that the game should be about amateurs and good sportsmanship.  The Brit loses the race and is pelted by fruit from the crowd.  The Americans win and the poor musical director suffers through the anthem yet again.  Back to the pole vault they go to polish that one off too.  After a second place finish in the hurdle, Hoyt wins the pole vault and another hearing of his anthem.

Injured Alex stumbles, but David is with him on a bicycle to make him run to metered poetry, just like they practiced.  Spiro and Robert are also still in the race.  Get ready for the waterworks when Alex falls, cradled in David’s arms as he crying recites more poetry.  When Robert passes, David yells, “keep going..and win!” 

The crowd goes wild when the marathoners are about to enter the stadium with Spiro in the lead, Robert close on his heels.  Robert trips and falls, leaving it to Spiro to enter the stadium in a supreme hail of glory.  No one there denies him his bravery and it’s of course the type of climax only the movies can provide, complete with stirring music.  The band leader takes pride in playing his country’s national anthem…finally! 

The American boys are welcomed back with bands and streamers.  Mrs. Garrett is unsettled that Robert dashes to his girlfriend instead of her first, but when Robert asks for her blessing to marry his sweetheart, she can’t refuse.  The team carries Sloane in the air and even reward the servant who showed them how to do the hurdles.  de Coubertin sends Sloane a telegram asking him to be a permanent member of the Olympic committee and to put together an American team for Paris in 1900.  “Will women be a part of the games?” he is asked.  He sure hopes so (thought that would not happen until 1928).

Given the terrible title, this miniseries could really have been a giant snooze.  If it had focused on de Coubertin’s problems putting together the Olympics or the politics involved, it may have been truer, but this exists to excite people for the Olympics, to get them interested in the athletes and their efforts.  The creators could have chosen any one of the Olympic games as a vehicle, but of course they chose one where the Americans were supremely victorious, with the only serious gigantic win going to a Greek, which is just as thrilling in context.  I watched this with the same choked-back tears I have when I watch the real Olympics.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

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