Bud Greenspan created the most captivating sports documentaries ever produced.
Greenspan covered the Olympic Games as a writer, radio broadcaster and filmmaker for more than six decades. A filmmaker whose riveting tales soared as triumphantly as the men and women he chronicled, Greenspan was a supremely gifted storyteller.
A master in the art of telling the tale of the Olympic Games, Greenspan’s work was to the Games what John Ford’s cinema was to the American West. His most influential work was The Olympiad series, which, for the first time, visually documented the Olympic Games. Originally broadcast in 1976 as part of a ten-part series on PBS, The Olympiad expanded to 22 one-hour shows. It was aired in more than 80 countries.
Producing The Olympiad took ten years and required three million feet of film. The project required visits to more than 30 countries and involved interviews with hundreds of Olympic athletes.
Greenspan’s 1977 NBC Movie of the Week, Wilma, was based on the life of sprinter Wilma Rudolph and featured an up-and-coming young actor named Denzel Washington. Wilma paved the way for Greenspan to produce the official film of the 1984 Summer Games, a five-hour documentary titled: 16 Days of Glory – Los Angeles.
The Washington Post called 16 Days of Glory “the single-most inspiring sports film ever created. It’s more about people than sports, and the viewer can’t help but share in the joy, hope, fears and tears of victory and defeat.” He went on to produce nine more official Olympic films, including his final work chronicling the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
Greenspan realized that sport is a dramatic and unpredictable experience. He covered the performances of the stars, but his most deeply-felt work dealt with lesser-known athletes who persisted, yet often fell short, in their pursuit of Olympic glory. His trademark was telling the intimate and little-known story.
Among the athletes Greenspan chronicled was John Stephen Akhwari, who finished last in the 1968 Olympic Marathon in Mexico City. The Tanzanian runner had injured his leg but continued running despite his bandaged and bloodied knee. After crossing the finish line an hour after the winner, Greenspan asked Akhwari why he had continued. “You don’t understand,” explained Mr. Akhwari. “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.”
Born in New York City September 18, 1926, Jonah Joseph Greenspan studied history at New York University. He dispatched his first Olympic report at 21. As the sports director at New York radio station WHN, Greenspan reported from a phone booth outside Wembley Stadium during the 1948 London Games.
Four years later, he wrote a story for Reader’s Digest about U.S. weightlifter John Davis, whom Greenspan learned had won gold in 1948. After his story was published, he followed Davis to Helsinki to chronicle his quest to repeat as Olympic champion. Greenspan produced his first film, Strongest Man in the World, detailing Davis’ gold medal journey at the 1952 Helsinki Games. He sold the film to the State Department for $35,000 and never considered another line of work again.
A contributing writer for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and the Los Angeles Times, Greenspan published three Olympics books. He produced nearly 20 spoken-word albums and won seven Emmy Awards. Greenspan’s early work, 1964’s Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, captured the African-American track star’s return to Germany nearly 30 years after competing in front of Hitler. It was one of the most human stories ever told and instantly linked Greenspan with the Olympics.
With his signature black-framed eyeglasses perched atop a bald dome, Greenspan revolutionized filmmaking. He amassed an army of cameramen to gather remarkable footage of the competitions. Like Ed and Steve Sabol of NFL Films did with football, Greenspan featured isolated, telephoto shots. A tight focus on a balance beam just before a gymnast made a move, or close-ups of relay runners waving their hands, urging their teammates.
Although he had no peer in his craft, Greenspan was criticized for viewing the Olympics through rose-colored glasses. He avoided scandal and controversy. “I spend my time on the 99 percent of what’s good about the Olympics. Most people spend 100 percent of their time on the one percent that’s negative.”
In addition to his official films, Greenspan produced more than 150 vignettes and retrospectives on the Olympic Games. When the IOC opened its museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, Greenspan was commissioned to create a 36-monitor multi-screen visual and musical tribute to the Olympic Games. The Spirit of the Olympics is on permanent display in the museum’s front hall.
Bud Greenspan’s dream was to inspire future generations through his films. In 2007, the U.S. Olympic Committee endowed a scholarship in his honor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He earned a Peabody Award for creating “his own genre of sports documentary” filming the Olympic Games.
Called “an everlasting friend of the Olympic family,” Mr. Greenspan was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2004. He received the Olympic Order award – the highest award of the Olympic Movement — in 1985. A decade later, Greenspan was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America.
An avid tennis player into his 70s, Greenspan died of Parkinson’s Disease on Christmas Day 2010 in New York City. He was 84.