"The First Olympics: Athens 1896" was a TV mini-series aired in May of 1984 just before the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles. Staying relatively close to the facts, it tells the story of how the modern Olympics were revived. We get early back-and-forth sequences that focus on men from the United States, Greece, and Australia, which makes you think that the multiple weave will continue. But after David Ogden Stiers is introduced as the Princeton professor of classical studies who was asked by the fledgling International Olympics Committee to recruit an American team, the focus shifts to the formation, training, and point-of-view of that team, which was blended mostly of Princeton and Harvard athletes. Why a non-athletic professor? Because he knew what these strange events were all about, and could help the young athletes figure out how to compete based on ancient texts and drawings of Olympians from centuries ago. The one disturbing thing? The athletes were all naked.
As TV mini-series go, this one is a little slow off the starting block. Part of it is that the screenplay veers here and there, not certain where to go, while the recruitment process occupies far too much air time. Even at that, I still found this period mini-series more watchable than "Chariots of Fire," which, like "The English Patient," could be shown continuously on large screens outside of malls to dissuade young people from congregating and causing trouble. Shown in two parts, this 248-minute mini-series has a thankfully brisker pace, and while the scenes occasionally lapse into clichés (as when an Irish lad from the rough part of Boston informs his mother he made the team, she's in her sickbed and remarks, of course, something like "The saints be praised!"), the story and the exploits of this first American team eventually become as compelling as the Olympic "moments" and profiles of athletes we see each year on TV coverage of the games. In fact, you could say that the structure of this screenplay is that it strings together a number of expanded Olympic profiles, followed by the events and podium shots of the winners.
As they train, the Americans tick off a chalkboard that compares European records for events with their own best times and distances. Part of the charm of this series is that it recreates a time when there was no instantaneous communication--no television or Internet that would show them how things were done. We watch them experiment with different techniques for each sport, rather than having an expert come in and show them how it's done, or rather than being able to see on television the winning style. In fact, these guys trust the ancient texts so much that they construct their own hurdles and pole vault based on those antiquarian drawings. And things like the discus and shot put they take a picture to a local blacksmith, who crafts them out of iron. Later, that pays dividends when the Americans finally get to Greece (where this was partly filmed) and realize that the "real" discus and shot put are considerably lighter. It's the equivalent of a baseball player taking practice swings with a heavy metal donut on the bat, and it makes the Americans able to excel.
David Caruso ("N.Y.P.D. Blue") anchors the American team and this production with his performance as James Connolly, the feisty Irishman from the poor side of town who mixes it up with his upper-crust classmates. His character is a cliché, but it's no matter. We're seeing so many things as if for the first time that you almost believe he's an original, and everyone to follow is the stock character. Other cast members include Hunt Block, Alex Hyde-Whihte, Benedict Taylor, Edward Wiley (as the American coach), Edwin Flack (as the Australian runner), and Nicos Ziagos (as the Greek who was forced to run the marathon for his country because as a soldier he was declared AWOL).
When you get right down to it, there really isn't as much back-story to these characters as there seems to be. It's all pretty superficial. Yet, there's enough to make us care about them, and the production values are strong enough to where it makes the 1890s come alive. You begin to realize and appreciate how daunting a task it was to revive the Olympics, and understand that before big money backing it took a little "juicing" from the IOC and its members to bring athletes together to compete. But once you get that first one off the ground and it's a success, it's easier to keep that Olympic torch lit.
Louis Jourdan is convincing as Baron Pierre du Coubertin, the head of the IOC who's determined to make the games a success no matter what. It's interesting to hear his argument for why it was essential for the Americans to field a team, and it's almost persuading enough to justify the shift in focus. After all, here was a ragtag group of young men, a baker's dozen, who travel around the globe (one of them frightened to death of water) to compete in events they'd never seen in the U.S. and training with homemade equipment. Talk about a David and Goliath story.
For many, there will be interesting side lessons about the Olympics, as with the origin of the Marathon. The event commemorates the run of Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who was sent running in full armor from Marathon to Athens to tell the citizens that the Persians had been defeated and Greece had been saved. Of course, Pheidippides dropped dead after he delivered his news, which gives pause to some of the would-be participants, but tidbits like this give nice background into the Olympics of today.
There are a lot of characters in this mini-series, but most of them are kept on the periphery, used, no doubt, to heighten a larger sense of scope and to reinforce the feeling of being in the period. Others are used to illustrate things, such as the ways in which athletes from different countries interacted, or what the experience is like to travel to another country for the first time and to represent your own. There's a little flag-waving, a little melodrama, and a number of clichés, but "The First Olympics: Athens 1896" manages to avoid the cheesiness that can quickly turn a mini-series into a real stinker.
Shot in 35mm and presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, "The First Olympics" was remastered in High Definition and it shows. Some close-ups look as sharp and detailed as a Blu-ray, though that clarity isn't maintained throughout the film. Outdoor shots take on a little grain, but the colors are bold and vibrant and the level of detail is really pretty amazing for a 1984 TV offering. The series has been transferred to two single-sided discs, and packaged in a regular-sized keep case with an inside "page" to hold one of the discs.
The audio is less impressive, but not because it's bad: because it's just there. There's nothing to impress and nothing to depress about the Dolby Digital Mono. It delivers the dialogue just fine, with no distortion and a tone that's pleasingly rounded for a single track. But hey, it's Mono.
There are no extras.
Obviously, the timing of this release is perfect, with the Olympics set to begin in just four days. I can't say how much this will appeal to people from other countries, but for Americans, "The First Olympics: Athens 1896" is a pretty good warm-up for the real thing.