Tag Archives: Sports Documentaries

The Extraordinary Gift of “Back on Board”

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Photo: louganisdoc.com

In August of this year, HBO aired a new documentary film on legendary Olympic diver Greg Louganis.  I don’t keep an active subscription to HBO; but when I read about the film, I knew that I, of all people, needed to watch it.  So I contacted my cable provider and subscribed to the premium channel; and on a weekend evening, my husband and I sat down to watch “Back on Board.”

It was Louganis’ return to diving a few years ago which caught the attention of producer Will Sweeney, who read a news article about Louganis’ new role as mentor to the 2012 US Olympic Diving Team.  In an interview with the film’s director, Cheryl Furjanic told me about the series of events which led to the making of the film:  “[Will] wondered why the best diver ever was away from his sport.  He thought that there must be a story there.  Where has he been, why was he away, and why is he back?”

It’s a question that more of us should have asked, but didn’t.  There is no name more synonymous with diving and Olympic diving than Greg Louganis.  That he virtually disappeared from his sport after retiring in 1988 should, perhaps, have been questioned sooner than it was.  When they began working on the film, Sweeney and Furjanic came across numerous people born after 1988 who had never even heard of Louganis!  “We were stunned,” Furjanic commented.  “This was surprising to us but it also made some sense–Greg really hadn’t been talked about much in their lifetimes.”

I for one hadn’t questioned his disappearance.  Instead, I assumed he’d moved on to a new chapter in his life, choosing to leave behind diving for new adventures and achievements.  After all, it’s not uncommon for Olympians to seek something different in life following years of incessant training and competition.  It is, however, less common for athletes of Louganis’ talent and accomplishments to be no longer connected to their sport.  What most of us don’t know is that aside from the numerous medals and awards, Louganis’ life has been complicated, riddled with emotional turmoil: bullying, rejection, struggle with sexual identity, financial woes, and a diagnosis of HIV.  Feeling unworthy and at times unloved, the young Louganis found solace in the somewhat isolating sport of diving, and his natural talent was quickly recognized by elite coaches who took his raw talent and molded him into the greatest diver the world has ever seen.  Yet the sport in which he excelled would also be a source of heartache.  He was discriminated against and rebuffed by those within the diving community due to jealousy, homophobia, and other irrational agendas, both during and after his years as a competitive diver.

Early in the film, Louganis repeats the question asked to him by an interviewer.  “Who is Greg Louganis?” he asks.  With a somewhat strained smile, Louganis replies, “I don’t know.”

There is no easy answer to the question.  Using no narration other than those being interviewed (including Louganis), we see for the first time other parts of his personality, particularly his extreme vulnerability and sensitivity.   Many of his personal struggles unfold in front of the camera, allowing the viewers to be a part of his journey of self-discovery—or as Furjanic says, “finding his way—and his footing—again after being a bit adrift.”

There are various themes in the film:  the longing for a home, for security, for love; the pain of rejection; and the struggle to navigate one’s way through life….I could go on and on.  The title “Back on Board” applies to many aspects of Louganis’ life, to name a few.  The title, “Back on Board” not only suggests Louganis’ return to diving; it also shows the man’s incredible resiliency.  As Furjanic says, “We…were confident that Greg’s story of resilience was so moving that our film could convey his life story while inspiring audiences at the same time.”

“Back on Board” is an invaluable record of Louganis’ competitive years.  It’s not that I totally forgot about Louganis after he retired from diving; but as time wore on, the appreciation for his talent and skill began to fade from memory.  Watching “Back on Board” brought him back to mind.  Furjanic and her team, using footage of his diving (much of it in slow motion), accompanied by music from composer Tom Rutishauser and Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” remind us of Louganis’ unparalleled talent and skill.  For me, it was a stark reminder of  how ethereal and otherworldly Greg Louganis was.  I’ll admit that I found myself tearing up a bit, the hair on my arms bristling, and I said to my husband, “There will never be another like him.”

As a young girl watching Greg Louganis in the Olympics, I was entertained and enthralled by his skill and accomplishments.  Now as an adult, watching these dives again evoked different feelings:  awe and reverence of that kind of natural talent, that kind of skill,, and I realized how lucky I was to have grown up watching him dive.

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we’ll watch the diving and other athletes compete in their respective sports.  And there will, no doubt, be inspiring stories of athletes who have triumphed over injury and other obstacles.  “Back on Board” offers us a similar yet different story of triumph—one that occurred after the Olympian left athletic competition and worked tirelessly to pull himself up, collect the fragments of his life, and start anew.

If you will pardon the pun, there are more themes I’d love to dive into, but to do so would detract the reader from the experience of watching this beautiful documentary and coming to one’s own conclusions as to who Greg Louganis is.  “Back on Board” is a gift—a gift of extraordinary cinematography and sport history.  The manner in which Furjanic tells Louganis’ story is both heart-wrenching and inspiring.  I recommend it with enthusiasm.

(“Back on Board” first aired August 4 on HBO.  It is still available for viewing using HBO On-Demand or HBO GO and will be available for purchase in September.)

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‘9.79*’, Part 2

These eight runners ran one of the most famous races in Olympic history.

(Continued from Part 1)

Back in 1988 I remember the shock and disgust I felt when learning of Ben Johnson’s positive test for steroids, and how I felt vindicated when Carl Lewis was bumped up from silver to gold.  Ben Johnson represented the most evil and dishonest aspect of Olympic sports.  Now I find myself hating him less and sympathizing with him more.  Yes, Ben Johnson took performance-enhancing drugs during his amateur competitive career.  Yet according to test results and the testimony of several of Johnson’s contemporaries, so did four of the other competitors from the 1988 race–Including Carl Lewis.  (And I’m not even going to address the allegations that Johnson was framed in his failure to pass post-race drug test.)

I grew up revering Carl Lewis, the heir apparent to Jesse Owens.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve

“9.79*” offers us a never-before-seen perspective of Ben Johnson.

had my eyes opened to the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs and the real Carl Lewis, whose enormous ego and motives are sickening.  Those who read this blog know what an idealist I am when it comes to the Olympics.  Yes, there’s even some naiveté there as well, because I can’t comfortably accept the idea that we should just enjoy the performance and to hell with trying to maintain the purity of sport.  When I asked Gordon about this and about the impact of 1988 on sports, he offered an interesting comment.  “I believe that the vast majority of times [in races] were not done clean and have never been done clean….1988 was certainly a wake-up call.”  He’s right, but it’s still a bitter pill for me to swallow.

After I watched “9.79*” I didn’t sleep well that evening.  Am I more upset about the injustice of Ben Johnson being the patsy, the fall guy?  Or is it the child in me who feels betrayed by those she once idolized?  After watching I felt angry, betrayed, and sad.   Carl Lewis wasn’t Ben Johnson’s victim.  If anything, it was the other way around.  Nor were Linford Christie, Dennis Mitchell, Ray Stewart, of Desai Williams.  As for Robson da Silva and Calvin Smith, the only two of those eight runners that never tested positive for drugs, they were victims.  But so were we, the fans.  Especially those of us who are hopelessly idealistic and believe in the purity of sport.  When I posed this question to Dan Gordon, he was hesitant to say who—if anyone—is the victim.  Here again, he’s determined to remain objective.  “ ‘9.79*’ asks a lot of questions, [but doesn’t] provide answers,”  he reminded me.

As the interview concluded, Gordon relayed a conversation with a university professor on the issue of doping in sports.  “He said, ‘Remember that it’s just entertainment.’  Well, I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.”

Neither am I.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

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“9.79*” Is a Win, Start to Finish

“9.79*” first aired October 9 on ESPN. The film will be re-broadcast October 20 and 21 on ESPN Classic.

Each generation seems to experience its own sporting scandal.  My generation is no different, and for this Olympic fanatic, the one which still haunts me is Ben Johnson and the 1988 Olympics.  In fact, after watching “9.79*,” ESPN’s latest film in its “30 for 30” series, I think my heart is even heavier.  I walked away from this film with new questions, unexpected sympathy, and anger over multiple injustices.  BAFTA-nominated filmmaker Daniel Gordon has done his job and done it well.

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ESPN’s “Marion Jones: Press Pause” Fails to Hit Stride

Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

I was excited about this week’s documentary for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series.  Last night the network aired “Marion Jones: Press Pause,” which focuses on Olympian/fallen hero Marion Jones.  The potential for another moving and intriguing documentary was there, as it had these elements:

  • A respected director:   Oscar-nominee John Singleton
  • A superstar athlete and Olympic medalist for the subject matter:   Marion Jones
  • A controversial story involving superstar’s fall from grace:  Jones’ guilty plea and prison sentence for perjury, and the IOC stripping her of all Olympic medals for steroid use.

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ESPN’s “Once Brothers” Is Profound and Heart-Rending

“May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure.” – Pierre de Coubertin

In honor of its 30th anniversary this year, ESPN is airing a series of 30 sports documentaries aptly titled, “30 for 30.” The documentaries, made by various filmmakers, have enabled ESPN the opportunity to achieve something new:  offer viewers sports-related documentaries with a sophisticated storytelling usually found only on networks such as HBO or CNN.

After recently watching the episode titled “Once Brothers,” I can’t really offer any profound commentary.  Several bloggers and columnists have already done so.  However, several days after watching the film, I realized that I was left feeling extremely maudlin and somewhat disheartened.

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