Marlene Dietrich, Garbo and the Lady Macbeth of the uneven bars

When a gymnastics star like the knock-out Svetlana Khorkina hits the Olympics, the daftness of casting actors as athletes in movies becomes all too apparent
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Film Studies

Film Studies

The old imperialism of American network television has taken a beating with the Sydney Olympics. NBC, the once proud purchaser of Olympic rights, owns the next few Olympiads, but it can hardly treat them as it has Sydney 2000. The pace of technological change could turn this year's embarrassment into lunacy by 2004.

In winning the rights to Olympic broadcasts in the USA, NBC paid an enormous sum of money. To have any chance of recouping that, they needed to sell premium advertising time, and so they elected to delay the coverage from Sydney by as much as 20 hours and then run edited highlights in the prime-time evening hours.

It didn't work: the American audience is not trained to watch track and field, swimming or gymnastics - let alone archery or weight-lifting. It doesn't know the competitors, or understand the scoring system. Moreover, the Olympics this year coincided with the end of the regular baseball season, and the onset of American football. But for those who do care, all the other networks, plus cable, radio and the internet ran the results seemingly a day ahead of the telecast.

Americans living close enough to the Canadian border could tune in to CBC's live coverage of events. Otherwise, the American sports fan was tormented by delays, by the constant interruption of action, by the crass bias towards American performers and the grisly portraits - "up close and personal" - of stars. These are shot in soft focus, and placed gently in our laps as candidates for canonisation.

So I want to praise Svetlana Khorkina, of whom I knew nothing until a few days ago. She is a Russian gymnast quite different from the automata children that usually implies. She is 20 or 22, I'd guess, but she is plainly a woman, her own silver birch tree, with blonde hair, sulky ice-maiden looks, and the expectations of a star.

Her show began early on in the first week when she was presented as the star and goddess of a Russian team with a chance of gold. She excelled at the vault and the uneven bars. And she wore a kind of black underwear leotard that epitomised the new marriage of streamlined kit and pornography in sports. Svetlana is a knock-out, and she knows it. The camera closes in, desperate to mate.

Well, in the vault, because of stupidity or low cunning in the officials, the height of the vaulting horse was wrong by five centimetres. Svetlana jumped early, before the error was discovered, and had a hideous, humiliating fall. She scored so badly the medals were immediately affected. Her brittle confidence was shattered; and she had looked graceless for an eternally replayed slow-mo instant. She went straight to the uneven bars and in her deranged passion fell again. Perfection had failed her.

You didn't need a word of Russian or any sophistication with gymnastics to follow this. The contrite officials offered second shots at the vault - the other children who had been victims meekly followed suit. Not Svetlana. She knew she had been plotted against. She was Dietrich. She was in tears, and you knew that Nature itself had been upset.

A few days later, the cast re-assembled for the individual contest. Aha, the fan thought, a chance for Svetlana to show what she could have done at the vault. But no; with a wave of her wand-like arm she gave up her place in the vault - I vill never trust your vault again! - to another Russian, who won. And then Svetlana agreed to offer herself to the uneven bars. She flew, she twisted, she spun, she was a knife to the air. She won, of course, and with tears in her eyes she went up to the bar and kissed it. Garbo never had such a moment. She cried again, and through a translator said she had done it for all Russians. But we knew why she'd done it, and knew she was tearing one more strip of living flesh from those dumb, swinish officials. Off with their heads!

God knows what a silver birch does once she's past 22 and her breasts grow in. Once upon a time, outstanding Olympians like Johnny Weissmuller and Sonja Henie, got screen careers. Svetlana could play ... what am I saying, she has already done Anna Karenina, the Scarlet Empress and Lady Macbeth in about 15 minutes' air time. I'll never forget her, or the sudden realisation that a phenomenal athlete was a spoiled bitch, a raging pain in the neck and All About Eve. Not even NBC could get her wrong.

Which makes it more of a daft wonder that the movie industry still tries to make movies in which actors play athletes. The best chance is to settle for a film-maker who knows little and cares less about sport, and trust him - hence Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. But when actors have to win the race, and real, ex-athletes jog along behind to make them look fast, the dismay is profound. There is no easing up, or betraying the brilliant body. You might just as well wait for a Svetlana who is so good, and so totally into self-dramatics, that she could vault and fly with a camera perched on her cold shoulder.