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Rituals and Records: the Films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games

  • Luke McKernan (a1)

The title of Allen Guttmann's landmark study of sports history, From Ritual to Record, captures the way cinematic treatments of the Olympic Games, Europe's most resonant sporting invention, developed in the early twentieth century. Projected film and the modern Olympic Games began in the same year, 1896, and the way the two phenomena have grown together demonstrates a progression from formality and ritual to an ever-increasing emphasis on individual, nation and achievement. This transition from ritual to record is demonstrated by two Olympic films from the European Games of Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928, Les Jeux Olympiques Paris 1924 and De Olympische Spelen. These cinematic records are not only documentary records of the events they portray, but are an important reminder that modern sports are witnessed by most not as stadium spectators but as viewers – in the case of the 1924 and 1928 films, as members of a cinema audience. The film record is essential to our understanding of the popularisation of modern sports, while through their contrary impulses to document and to idealise (particularly through the use of slow-motion photography), the two films demonstrate what is meaningful about Olympic sport.

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1. This essay builds on arguments originally put forward in my article McKernan, L. (1998) Lo Sport Nel Cinema Muto / Sport and the silent screen. Griffithiana, 64, pp. 80–141. The leading studies of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia are C. Graham (1986) Leni Riefenstahl and Olympia (Metuchen, NJ/London: Scarecrow); and T. Downing (1992) Olympia (London: British Film Institute).
2. A thorough examination has been made of surviving film catalogues from the period and archival sources. Several films exist of the Paris and St Louis expositions, but none shows any of the Olympic events. Footage on the International Olympic Committee's website ( claimed to show athletics events from 1904, but the location was clearly not Francis Field (the main athletic venue) and the film has now been removed from the site (accessed 3 May 2010).
3.Braun, M. (1992) Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) (Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press), pp. 204212. Surviving examples of the chronophotographic sequences from the 1900 Games are held by the Cinémathèque Française, Paris, and at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK.
4. The Gaumont film is held by the BFI National Archive. A 1906 cinema programme supplies this description of the film: ‘Arrival of H. M. King Edward, Entry of Royalties into Arena, Royalties Taking their Seats, Grand March Past of Competitors, The Danish Teams including ladies, The Swedish and Germans Teams, Heavy Weight Lifting, Rope Climbing Extraordinary, And other events.’ Details from a programme for the Daily Bioscope cinema, 23 May 1906, reproduced in White, H. (1993) The Pageant of the Century (London: Odhams Press), p. 147.
5. This is held by the BFI National Archive under the rather unhelpful title of Athens 1896 [sic].
6. The non-Pathé films were Olympic Marathon Race (Charles Urban Trading Company) 425ft; The Marathon Race (Gaumont) 375ft; Olympic Regatta at Henley (Charles Urban Trading Company) 319ft; Olympic Sports at Henley (Charles Urban Trading Company) 300ft. See Gifford, D. (2000) The British Film Catalogue Volume 2: Non-Fiction Film, 1888–1994 (London, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn) cat. nos. 03597, 03598, 03605, 03606.
7. The Pathé series was issued in the UK as The Stadium Sports series in five parts: 1. (unnamed) 1,088 ft; 2. (unnamed) 824 ft; 3. (unnamed) 538 ft; 4. The Marathon Race, 445 ft; 5. Distribution of Prizes, 445 ft. Gifford, The British Film Catalogue Volume 2, cat. no. 03595.
8.Bergvall, E. (ed.) (1913) The Fifth Olympiad: The Official Report of the Olympic Games of Stockholm 1912 (Stockholm: Wahlstrom & Widstrand), p. 35. Cinematographic arrangements are not mentioned in the official report for 1908.
9. There are six episodes in the Pathé catalogue, under the title Jeux Olympiques de Stockholm, the individual lengths being 110 m, 170 m, 105 m, 130 m, 92 m and 165 m. Details from the Pathé catalogue available at (accessed 3 May 2010).
10.Comit é Olympique Fran ç aise (1924) Les Jeux de la VIII Olympiade Paris 1924, Rapport Officiel, pp. 798799.
11. The Winter Games film was premiered in Paris on 11 March 1924 and the Summer Games film on 1 July 1924. La Cinématographie française, no. 279–280, March 1924, Ciné-Journal, no. 759-760-776-778, March–July 1924. There is an indication in the latter report that the Winter Games films were exhibited as a series in France, as was the case in Britain. Information from Robert Jacquier, Information Management Department, International Olympic Committee.
12. In Britain the films were released in October 1924 as The Olympic Games, 1924, issued by Sports Film Co. (Rapid), combining Summer, Winter and Ancient Games sequences. (Kinematograph Weekly, 25 September 1924, p. 42.) The following month a series was issued under the title The Olympic Games by Unity Films as 12 single reels, released weekly, in London and the home counties. This series does not appear to have featured the Ancient Games sequences. (Trade News. The Bioscope, 2 October 1924, p. 388; Film Reviews. The Bioscope, 9 October 1924, p. 55.)
13.Les Jeux de la VIII Olympiade Paris 1924, pp. 798–799.
14. I am grateful to Adrian Wood of Inkulla Media and Robert Jacquier of the International Olympic Committee for granting me access to the film during the process of restoration.
15. It is to be assumed that when the films were originally shown they would have been projected at a uniform speed throughout, probably between 16 and 18 frames per second. Today audiences would probably want to see the slow motion sequences speeded up slightly to match modern taste, and this is the policy being followed by the IOC restoration for its transfer to DVD.
16. The Olympic Games, 1924. Kinematograph Weekly, 25 September 1924, p. 42.
17. Currently Das Weisse Stadion is considered to be a lost film.
18.McKernan, L. (1998) Lo Sport Nel Cinema Muto / Sport and the silent screen. Griffithiana, 64, pp. 133135.
19. The film is available on DVD from the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, where the film is preserved. The film on its original release was 3593 metres.
20.Kracauer, S. (1947) From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (London: Dennis Dobson), 142143.
21.Guttmann, A. (1978) From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 55.
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European Review
  • ISSN: 1062-7987
  • EISSN: 1474-0575
  • URL: /core/journals/european-review
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