Virtual view of the ideal Olympic history

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
A DOCUMENTARY about the history of the modern summer Olympics is no small endeavour, so it is puzzling that the BBC decided to show The Essential Olympics (BBC2) all in one go, instead of parcelling it up into bite-sized, time- efficient chunks. But one two and a quarter-hour Friday night marathon it was, and the accountants at White City must have been chewing the carpets at the wasted opportunity.

The programme opened with an extreme close-up of what looked like a particularly ornate bar of fudge. As the camera pulled back this turned out to be an imitation bronze sculpture of the Olympic rings. It was one of a collection of expensive-looking artistic devices (stained-glass windows, Grecian columns etc) - their purpose was to provide a suitably Pantheonesque backdrop for Desmond Lynam's ramble through Olympic history.

Lynam made a commendably dramatic start, walking through a computer-generated wall and on up the hill towards the Acropolis. It was an eye-catching moment, and you had to take your hat off to the designers - it is not often that Des is upstaged by a wall.

The story he narrated was one of triumph and tragedy unmatched in sporting history. The balance seemed just about right: scenes of joy and heroism balanced by the menacing influences of totalitarianism, war, terrorism and drug abuse. But the chief delight of the programme lay in the interviews with Olympic competitors.

The first - and the most delightful - interviewee was Sir George Robertson, who competed in the 1896 Olympics and was quizzed in ancient archive footage by Brian Johnston. "I wanted to throw the hammer," the twinkly-eyed knight recalled. "But there wasn't one." So he lighted upon other chuckable objects instead, and putted the shot and threw the discus. "Were you any good at the discus?" Johnston inquired. "No," Robertson admitted. "But I don't think any of us were. We had never seen a discus, most of us." His competitive ardour undimmed, Sir George wandered over to where the tennis competition was taking place, and signed up for that as well. He lost, but that didn't seem to matter. In 1896, taking part really was all that mattered.

Rowland George, who won a rowing gold medal in Los Angeles in 1932, was similarly modest about his achievement. "All that mattered in those days was cricket and rugger," he observed. "People weren't interested." George's feat earned him three or four lines in his local paper. These days it would earn a comfortable living.

Pausing barely for enough time to debunk the central plot details of Chariots of Fire, Lynam next swept through a scarlet curtain and on to the Fuhrer's platform at Berlin's Olympic stadium. From this eerie vantage point he related not only the well-known legend of Jesse Owens but the less-publicised tale of Margarethe Bergmann, the high-jumper who was the token Jew in the German team, included to ensure the participation of the Americans, but dropped as soon as the US party had set sail for the games.

Hers was an extraordinary testimony. In the end she was relieved to have been excluded from the Games. "It was like a nightmare to me," she recalled. "I knew I could have won the gold medal, but what was I to do, Heil Hitler?" Her pain must have been assuaged a little by the Fuhrer's comical dismay as Owens swept the board and humbled the would-be master race.

Ben Johnson's impact on the Olympics was as villainous as Owens's had been heroic. In a rare interview he had an opportunity to salvage his reputation by coming clean, or at least undergoing a thorough rinse. Instead he was by turns pugnacious and shifty, taciturn and cocky. Why did people accuse him of cheating? "Because they are jealous. Because they can't run that fast." Had he been taking steroids? "I was clean." If he had his time again, would he do anything different? "I'm not going to answer that." Why not? "I'm not going to answer that."

The long-jumper Lynn Davies, who won the gold in Tokyo in 1964 partly thanks to a providential outbreak of "Welsh rain" provided light relief. He revealed that the male athletes used to while away the time between events by scouring the windows of the women's hostel opposite for competitors undressing. They even devised a grid system so that they could pass on the co-ordinates of the sauciest window to other frustrated males. "We'd shout 'A4 - there she is'," he recalled "grab the binoculars, focus, then - 'Oh no, she's Russian.'"

There was more. Johnny Weissmuller demonstrating his Tarzan call beside the Olympic pool, Emil Zatopek chatting his way through the marathon, the Fosbury Flop, the charm of Olga Korbut (now alarmingly middle-aged), the British champions Peters, Thompson, Coe, Ovett, Gunnell, Christie and others too numerous to mention. Each of them is worthy of a programme in their own right, as the bean counters will no doubt point out once they have digested the Axminster.