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A belated salute to Bud Greenspan

January 18, 2011 |  3:01 pm

Between a holiday vacation and total immersion in a story to be published later this winter, I have been absent from this space for several weeks.

Fabforum That means it's time to catch up.

There were a number of things worth comment here over the last month, but only one was so significant that I both feel remiss over not having written about it earlier and compelled to do it now.

That is the Dec. 25 death of filmmaker Bud Greenspan, 84, whose work was among the best documentary storytelling of the last 50 years.

(And kudos to Universal Sports for reminding us of his skills in its "9 Nights of Glory" tribute to Greenspan, during which the network aired his Olympic Games retrospectives, called "16 Days of Glory.'' Play it again, Universal.)

In his "official'' Olympic Games films, his 22-part "Olympiad Series,'' his brilliant idea to bring Jesse Owens back to Berlin for a TV film and his other movies, including a 2002 portrait of figure skater Michelle Kwan, filmmaker Greenspan often chose not to elaborate on what TV broadcasts had covered in-depth but to show us instead the good stuff we had missed.

Prime examples, both from track and field:

 -- His film on the 1988 Seoul Olympics acknowledged the biggest pure news story, the doping disqualification of 100-meter winner Ben Johnson, by telling it through the prism of U.S. sprinter Calvin Smith, who was "all but unnoticed'' at the start of the 100 meters, finished fourth and later received the bronze medal out of sight under the stadium.

-- And his film on the 2000 Olympics showed what most reporters there were too distracted to notice because of the uproar caused by the doping story involving Marion Jones' then husband, shot-putter C. J. Hunter, and its potential effect on Jones' celebrated quest for five gold medals. The day the Hunter story broke ended with what may have been the greatest night in track and field history. Greenspan relived that night by forgetting poor Marion (who turned out to be the biggest fraud in track and field history) and highlighting the emotional triumphs of Cathy Freeman, Michael Johnson and Haile Gebrselassie, among others.

I just watched again the piece of his 1988 Winter Olympics film that focused on the highly publicized women's figure skating and was struck by how he let the story tell itself, with little voice-over, especially in letting Debi Thomas' brutally honest backstage reaction stand without comment.

Yes, Greenspan was inclined to romanticize the Olympics and their ideals, to favor a hagiographic approach in athlete profiles. As the International Olympic Committee said in noting his death: "Bud Greenspan was a talented filmmaker and a true supporter of the Olympic Games and their values throughout his career.''

But Greenspan also humanized the Games in a way no one ever had done before, telling us the stories of competition and competitors even better than the "up close and personal'' features with which ABC had revolutionized Olympic coverage in the United States many years ago.

"Bud is one of those who made an impact on peoples' lives by capturing what inspires and creating dreams,'' Kwan, the two-time Olympic medalist, said after Greenspan's passing. "He always makes me think of how I dreamed about the Olympics.

"He told stories in his own way, focusing on the details and the subtleties that would carry the story and make it real. For him to do a film on me was a complete honor.''

I was honored that Greenspan often sought my opinion on what might be the most interesting stories of an upcoming Olympics.

Most of all, though, he ennobled us all with a vision of our better sides, of the values of striving, of how triumph often belonged to an athlete who never came close to medals, best exemplified by his portrait of the last finisher in the 1968 Olympic marathon, or to those who struggled with personal demons, such as 1988 skating bronze medalist Lu Chen of China.

I also watched the piece on Lu again Tuesday, and my eyes were blurred by tears at the end.

This man who always wore glasses uselessly perched atop his bald head still had an eye discerning enough to see what athletes really accomplished, especially in the Olympics.

And while I feel bad about not getting to this earlier, I realized in seeing the films again that it really makes no difference.

Because Bud Greenspan's work is timeless.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Bud Greenspan in 1980. Credit: Associated Press