Though they are always interesting and usually quite informative, the documentaries of Bud Greenspan have been of uneven quality. For example, a program on Jesse Owens' return to Berlin and the series, The Olympiad, both of which ran repeatedly on public television, were overpraised, except for the segment The African Runners, which merited its accolades.
Still, whatever Greenspan does is often superior to anything the networks produce. His theory about that is simple: "We think people are smarter than the networks do." He is probably right. Where the networks tend to present events in an oddly mindless atmosphere of hyped-up shouting, Greenspan, at his best, comes on with an approach that is tasteful, delightful and illuminating.
His latest production shows Greenspan at his best. It is called Numero Uno, a series of half-hour programs dealing with celebrated sportsmen from 13 different countries. As Greenspan's introduction for each film says, "In every country of the world there is a legendary sports hero. Athletes whose exploits are revered from generation to generation...timeless, universal, immortal. They are Numero Unos."
This collection presents as eclectic a crowd of premier athletes as one could imagine. There is Roger Bannister from England, Jean-Claude Killy of France, Italian diver Klaus Dibiasi, and track stars Irena Szewinska of Poland and Peter Snell of New Zealand. From Finland comes cross-country skier Veikko Hakulinen, from Japan sumo wrestler Taiho, and from the U.S. the venerable discus thrower, Al Oerter.
Greenspan sticks by his list. It is purely arbitrary, of course, and probably will create heated arguments from the hot stoves of the U.S. to the hot saunas of Finland over who is each nation's true Numero Uno. But, there is no question that Greenspan has assembled a lineup of demigods; in gently bringing them down to earth he has made them totally human and somehow done so without diminishing their dazzle by so much as a kilowatt.
It is with affection, rather than awe, that Greenspan approaches these stars. His film shows Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile some 25 years ago, as he is today, a balding and rather fogeyish middle-aged physician. Bannister maunders on in his English manner about this dramatic sports event. He tells how he had been "following the wind by the flag on the church flagpole" near the track at Oxford University in order to decide if he would actually make the effort to break the barrier. "But then, about eight or 10 minutes to the time of the race, the wind seemed to settle a bit, and then I talked to myself and realized that I must do it," he says. Perfectly paced by Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, Bannister did it. All of it, every stride of the historic race and the events that followed, are preserved—and beautifully enhanced—on Greenspan's film.
Mainly Greenspan lets the Numero Unos tell their own stories, using foreign-accented voice-over translations for subjects who do not speak English. Argentina's Juan Manuel Fangio, perhaps the greatest of auto racers, expresses his almost mystical relationship to an automobile: "I could never think of the machine as an inanimate object to be thrashed at will. I felt that the car entrusted to me was a living thing. As a result, when anything broke, I felt as if I myself had been wounded." Taiho, the sumo wrestler who won the Emperor's Cup 32 times before he retired in 1971, tells how he arrived at the decision: "I asked my little children if it was all right for their papa to retire. They did not understand what I was talking about, but they sort of nodded their heads. A great burden was lifted from my chest."
The evocative footage of each athlete's achievements is skillfully intercut with childhood snapshots. Commentary and insight is provided by experts, opponents or coaches involved in the various deeds. Stirling Moss speaks of Fangio's genius. Dr. Sammy Lee talks of the brilliance and daring of Dibiasi. And Belgian Roger Moens still speaks with undiminished despair of the 800-meter victory Peter Snell stole from him in the 1960 Olympics: "I gave everything I had down the stretch. I closed my eyes again and I said to myself, 'Roger, this time it is certain. You're the Olympic champion.' The finish line was 20 meters away. I looked to my left. A black uniform flashed by me. It was Peter Snell...."
Frequently, Greenspan lets an entire event unreel with only fragmentary remarks, no background music and only natural crowd sounds. It is an effective touch, the more so for the contrast it makes with the compulsive nattering that network commentators indulge in over every step of every event. Of his silence-is-golden philosophy, Greenspan says. "I think a sports event is like a painting or a symphony—it has to stand by itself."
At the moment Numero Uno has not found a home on U.S. television. The BBC has bought the series and will run it later this year. Not that the art of Greenspan (and wife Cappy, the executive producer of Numero Uno) will go entirely unseen in the States. All three of the networks have ordered up Greenspan vignettes for mini-documentaries: NBC for the 1980 Summer Olympics, ABC for the 1980 Winter Games and CBS for the 1979 Pan-American Games. "We seem to have made a breakthrough at last," Greenspan says.
It's high time. The standard set by Numero Uno is one that all TV sports producers should try to emulate. But the attitude Greenspan brings to his work is not one usually found in the hard sell of network TV.