Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is training for the Olympics, just in case they make wastebasket basketball an official Olympic sport.
"Send us your finest, your ablest. For without those dedicated young men, our efforts will have been in vain."
James Connolly's victory in the triple jump on April 6, 1896, meant more than just a medal for the United States. His feat made him "the first Olympic champion in more than 1,500 years," as the International Olympic Committee's site put it.
That first modern Olympics was on a small scale—only 14 countries participated—but it revived a competition that began in 776 B.C. and continued until it was banned in 393 A.D. (IOC again). We've still got a few centuries to go to see if the modern Olympic Games will persevere as long, but the games are now in their second century.
The First Olympics: Athens 1896 recreates the events surrounding that first modern Olympics, or at least tries to look like whatever faded photographs have survived. The 1984 miniseries also provided a big early role for some kid named David Caruso. You might have heard of him, since he starred in a couple of cop shows after this.
Facts of the Case
Baron Pierre de Coubertin (Louis Jourdan, Can-Can) seeks the help of Dr. William Milligan Sloane (David Ogden Stiers, M*A*S*H) to form an American team for the Olympic games. Sloane, a Princeton prof, puts up posters on campus that are quickly torn down. Still, Robert Garrett (Hunt Block, Knots Landing) manages to see one before they're all gone and turns up to join the team.
Meanwhile, James Connolly (David Caruso, C.S.I. Miami) sneaks off a construction job to take a scholarship test for Harvard, which he passes with ease. A fight with one of the football players proves he's not having the same ease at making friends. As punishment, he and his adversary are told to go out for this first Olympic team.
In Greece, Army draftee Spyridon Louis (Nicos Ziagos) is running home each evening to see his girlfriend. On the evening he reaches base after the gates are closed, he's ordered to join Greece's Olympic team.
In England, student Edwin Flack (Benedict Taylor, Star Wars—Episode I: The Phantom Menace) is disqualified from an English competition because he's an Aussie, so he decides to compete in this little thing over in Athens instead.
That's the basics. From there, each of the main characters begins an eccentric training regimen and some interpersonal conflicts that'll be easily resolved in the miniseries' last hours.
There's a cliffhanger at the end of the first part, as Sloane discovers, just after his team sets off for Athens, that the Americans have somehow gotten the start date of the games wrong and could miss the competition unless he takes some fast action.
The First Olympics: Athens 1896 is well-intentioned and good-natured. It's also predictable and sometimes dull. You know in the first few minutes which characters are going to win, and the hour or so in Part Two that shows Americans racking up medals plays out tediously. While watching, I wished the miniseries had been at least an hour more mini. Since The First Olympics jumps between several stories and a lot of characters who aren't that well-developed, you might need a scorecard to keep track of who's who.
In the lead, David Ogden Stiers gets to do things like look out a bedroom window in New Jersey as the games are starting in Athens, listen for the cheering crowd, and make philosophical statements about competition. He handles this stuff well and manages not to sound like Charles Emerson Winchester III redux, thankfully. Edward Wiley (Highlander) also fares well as a tough American coach.
David Caruso managed to stand out as James Connolly, who brought the first modern Olympics medal home to Boston's Irish community. His emoting feels like it's straight out of a black-and-white B-movie biopic, but he gets away with it.
There are a few familiar faces in small parts, such as Angela Lansbury and Honor Blackman. The two who steal the show are Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (the real-life couple who starred together in Born Free) as Edwin Flack's bickering parents. After the couple shows a flair for comic relief, Travers gives what's easily the best of many heart-to-heart speeches in the miniseries in a scene with his TV son.
The picture's mostly good, although fading in some places occasionally makes it look like an old-time tinted photo from 1896 or so.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Did the United States really clobber the competition in the first modern Olympiad? A look at the IOC site shows that the United States did indeed take home the most gold medals (11), but Greece claimed more medals overall, including 10 gold. Germans, who fielded one of the top stars of the Athens games, could also claim boasting rights. In other words, it depends on how you look at it, so naturally a miniseries aimed at American TV audiences is going to declare the United States the winner.
The IOC site says Great Britain had one of the largest contingents, but The First Olympics suggests that the English team was thrown together at the last minute. What's the real story here?
The other big question left in my mind is: Did they really get the date wrong for this thing? That aspect of the story was entertaining, but it just sounds like TV miniseries hokum.
Even if you actually were one of the Americans who sat through five hours of The First Olympics: Athens 1896 on television in 1984, you might find it hard to believe that people sat through stuff like this back then. It certainly makes 24 years seem like a long time ago.
With the 2008 Beijing Games on the horizon as I write, I expect there will be some people who buy this one on impulse, or at least that's what Sony must have had in mind. If you've already bought it, you might like it, especially if you're a David Caruso fan, but expect some boring patches.
Some of the historical drama seems suspect, but I'll let this one off on a
misdemeanor for earnest plodding.
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