Brettius, Altius, Cullumius—Hail Olympia!
It's all Greek to me!
In honor of 2004's Summer Games being held in Greece, the History Channel decided to make a documentary about the first Olympic Games, entitled (startlingly) The First Olympics. It's a thought-provoking piece that reminds us that the original games were naked, bloody, all-out battles for a single olive branch from a sacred tree in Olympia. The documentary explores the origins of the games, and looks at the conditions under which they were held. It's an interesting topic, and the piece itself is very well produced and executed. My only gripe is about the DVD itself. There are three programs listed: "The First Olympics," "Blood and Honor at the First Olympics," and "The Greek Gods." Surprisingly "The First Olympics" and "Blood and Honor at the First Olympics" are exactly the same; the only difference coming in the choice of narrators. The first is hosted by a typical History Channel personality, and the second is narrated by Spock…er…Leonard Nimoy. Given a choice, I would pick the Vulcan-hosted version, because Nimoy's delivery is superb compared to the academic and dry narration of the first. All the footage, all the interviews, and everything else is exactly the same. Yet a quick glance at the chapter stops would lead you to believe otherwise. Don't be misled: Even though the titles of the chapters on each "version" are different, the material is the same. The third documentary on the gods is basically an explanation of Greek mythology, and covers much of the stuff that fans of Clash of the Titans know by heart.
The topic itself is pretty racy when you consider the role that sex played in the Olympic games. Lots of nudity, homosexuality, and virgins shopping for a man to try out for the first time. I was hoping for some pretty risqué re-enactments—but no such luck. You get tons of talking heads, shots of pots, statues, paintings, and the occasional silhouetted figure throwing a javelin. Sigh! I did glean some interesting facts, including the tidbit that Nike was the sponsor of the first Olympics. Okay, so it was the Nike the goddess of victory, but I still chuckled quite a bit. The Olympics used to be huge cultural events where artisans and poets would be on display as well. Musicians, painters, and great thinkers would entertain the masses. Now who do we get? Bjork, if we're lucky. And they used to only award a first prize, with no recognition for second or third place.
The Olympics were resurrected at the end of the 1800s, and have since evolved into what they are today. It's still what it always was: A time for countries to compete not on the battlefield, but through the artful grace of their best athletes. Only now they wear clothes, and there are a lot less sacrificial animals and Bacchanalian events to attend.
This is a great disc if you're a big fan of the Greeks, or of the Games themselves. The DVD is presented in a fullscreen format, and offers a perfectly fine Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix. Pretty standard stuff for a documentary disc. No real extras save for a listing of winners at the 1896 revival of the Olympic games, where the U.S. was second overall in the medal count behind Greece. It seems odd that attendance was so low this year, since the Olympics were returning to the place where they were born. Maybe the Greeks were disappointed that there was a lot less death and nudity. But we've come so far, and civilization has its privileges. The Olympic Games were always about sacrificing energy for the gods, and giving the winner bragging rites for a lifetime.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Text Listing of Winners at the 1896 Olympics
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