Every Olympics Games gets its official Olympics movie. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: just about every major sporting event has an official film produced as part of the documentation and marketing process. This provides fans and participants an opportunity to relive the event’s glory and allows the hearts of organizers to swell with pride at their multi-million dollar, elaborately constructed achievement.

However, what sets the Olympics films apart from other sporting event documentaries is their historical reliance on big names in global art cinema to capture and recount the proceedings. Infamously, there’s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, about the fascist-flavored 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, but the likes of arthouse favorites Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Mai Zetterling, Arthur Penn and Miloš Forman have also tried their hand at Olympic cinema. (Thanks to Criterion for reminding us of this fact with their 32(!)-disc Blu-ray set, 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012.)

While many Olympics films offer a kind of official recap or—in the case of the resolutely arty Olympics documentaries, like Olympia and Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad—at least provide a clear sense of which event we’re watching and the names of the athletes competing with one another, Carlos Saura’s Marathon, which documents the Barcelona edition of the 1992 games, shies away from providing a summary of events or clarifying who won which event. Instead, it immerses us directly in the action with zero explanatory voiceover (minus the occasional snippet of stadium announcement or commentator summary) and usually a total absence of informative framing (occasionally, we see something like “Marathón / m 38 km” to help situate us a tiny bit). We must keep track of the athletes and events through visual cues and our preexisting knowledge of Olympic history and convention, or, even better, set aside this knowledge and give ourselves over to the compendium of visual play that Saura has gathered for our meditative pleasure. Like Saura’s dance works completed in the same decade (Sevillanas [1992] and Flamenco [1995]), Marathon reveals itself as an achievement in stripping sensational physical activity and its related traditions down to their essence: bodies in motion.

The film’s glorying in movement and physical gesture—provided through steadicam shots in real time, slow motion and freeze frame from a dizzying array from vantage points—goes well beyond any notion of athletic achievement, even though the movie has its fair share of “just how the hell do they do that, Bob?” moments (see, for example, the women’s gymnastics training segment, where splits and flips seem as effortless as yawns and stumbles for the rest of us). There’s never been an Olympics film that cared so little about the winners as winners yet so much about the winners as embodied creatures situated among their likewise embodied ilk. The title implies we’ll spend a lot of time with marathon medalists (and its two-hour, 10-minute runtime is just a little shy of Hwang Young-Cho’s gold-medal-winning time), but instead we’re treated to images of runners finishing last or nearly last, exhausted and sometimes injured, a blend of relieved and massively disappointed to reach the end of the road in this way.

Even when we’re allowed a moment to glory in a champion’s victory, Saura pays as careful attention to the mechanics of the celebration as the athlete’s strength or gracefulness. Take Bulgarian weightlifter Ivan Ivanov, who won the gold medal in one part of the weightlifting competition. After successfully lifting what looks to be eight times his weight (he was in the flyweight division), he claps out a power beat, sending up a cloud of talcum dust and then nearly stumbles backwards as he exits the raised platform. The other two times we see him lift the weighted barbell, a much larger teammate arrives to drape him over his arms and carry him away from the scene, as if Ivanov had just ascended to the throne and needed a lift to the royal bedchambers. It’s great to see this guy win gold, but that’s nowhere near as fun as witnessing his exuberance routine and, as a consequence, seeing strength as relative: one moment Ivanov’s holding 330 pounds over his head, the next he’s being held like a child’s doll.

The focus upon bodies in motion extends beyond the athletes to a host of minor yet memorable characters. The camera follows a photographer as he trots (and fails) to find the right angle for a dramatic post-race shot instead of tracking gold medal hurdler Mark McKoy on his victory lap. Much later, it looks on from a distance as an usher rushes to prevent a non-medaling marathoner from jogging an extra lap around the track of Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys after finishing the race (a truly heartbreaking moment—imagine completing a whole damn marathon only to get shooed away by some bureaucrat in a red dinner jacket and a pair of khakis). It also speeds gracefully along the marathon course to watch a fan sprinting with the Australian flag in an attempt to keep stride with a group of runners midway through the titular race. All of this is a credit to the film’s generosity of spectacle: we all look absolutely crazy on fine-grain, slow-motion celluloid, it convincingly argues.

The movie uncovers a startling sadness in this recognition, one tied to the fact that the festivities must inevitably end. If the beginning of the marathon (and, by extension, the Olympics as a whole) is about the glory of youth and strength, the ending, Saura suggests, is about life’s inexorable movement towards aging and death. The games happen only once every four years, which means four years of opportunity for injury, physical breakdown and the exhaustion of everyday life. Like many other sporting events, the Olympic Games love to tell tales of victors overcoming all odds on the way to success, but for every tale of triumph, there are countless almosts, nearlies and maybe next times. Marathon doesn’t present this idea verbally but implies it through unflinching attention to embodied life as physical breakdown, never clearer than when showing marathoners hobble their way to the finish line.

When watching the usual coverage of the Olympics, we might be tempted to see dramatic celebration as a result of being overcome by happiness at success (“I did it!”). But Saura instead figures ecstatic celebration as an overwhelming realization of non-reproducibility (“It is impossible that this has happened, and it will never happen in this way again”). In her piece about the Olympics docs for Cinema Scope, Linda C. Ehrlich observes, “Olympics films have often been haunted by spectres of horror and catastrophe even as they celebrate hope and triumph.” This helps clarify the connection between Saura’s bodies in motion and the presence of death. If the Olympics have, on the one hand, always been a display of the world’s most athletic bodies, they’ve also reminded us of these bodies’ vulnerability—not only the exhaustion that comes with physical exertion or the fact that hours and hours of training can be used for militaristic ends but also the general precariousness of human existence, which rarely allows one’s body to be brought to fruition so spectacularly.

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