Bud Greenspan, equal opportunity Olympic documentarian

The Christmas Day death of Bud Greenspan, the official documentarian of the Olympics since 1984, is generating the typical fond remembrance pieces from the likes of Alan Abrahamson and Richard Sandomir, among others.

What I found most striking about some of Greenspan’s “official” work is how he didn’t make distinctions between male and female athletes in his storytelling. To be sure, the gender of the athletes depicted is obvious. But in his filmmaker’s eye and mind, a great story doesn’t differentiate.

Recall the 1984 Los Angeles Games, when the International Olympic Committee began moving out of the stone age and began offering competition in a number of sports for women, including the first women’s marathon. There also was the controversial 3,000-meter run involving Mary Decker and Zola Budd.

This also was a period of great contention in women’s sports in the United States, two years after the NCAA began sponsoring national championships for women (a move that the now-defunct AIAW fought vigorously, to no avail),¬†and during a time in which Title IX officially wasn’t being enforced. In the Grove City v. Bell decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that only educational programs receiving direct federal aid were subject to the non-gender discrimination statute.

For four years, women’s sports activists were predicting doomsday, when in truth, women’s sports — especially at the college level and under NCAA auspices — made great strides. To cite one example, 1984 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, coached by Pat Summitt and including a very young future Olympic legend in Teresa Edwards, roared to the gold medal.

To be sure, the absence of most Iron Curtain nations, especially the Soviet Union, was quite notable. But the cries that women’s sports were sliding back because of the Grove City ruling — and which died down only after Congress passed the overriding Civil Rights Restoration Act in 1988 — were also muted by the simple, eloquent examples of female athletes that Greenspan brought to the screen.

Say what you will about the IOC in recent times — and there’s plenty of hot air coming from the usual places — Greenspan didn’t overlook the stories of women competing in obscure events, some for the first time.

And say what you will that women athletes today remain invisible. But take a glimpse, if you care, at Greenspan’s profile of women cyclists in 1984 that few have heard of before or since. He gave visibility to athletes of both genders in sports that get just one chance every four years to capture a fleeting moment of glory. Luckily for all of us Greenspan’s eye was very sharply attuned.

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