“I would never last a week at the networks,” Bud Greenspan used to boast. To him, it was a badge of honor that his view of the world was too positive, too Pollyannish for the TV behemoths on Sixth Avenue.
Greenspan, the legendary sports filmmaker who passed away at the age of 84 on Christmas day after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, never apologized for eyeing the glass half-full. “I’ve been criticized for seeing things through rose-colored glasses, but the percentages are with me,” he once said in an interview with ESPN.com. Bud earned plenty of prestigious awards, including eight Emmys, a Peabody and the Olympic Order, but none that I know of for investigative journalism. That was not his gig. Rather, his life’s work, which spanned more than 60 years in radio, TV, film and print, was built on telling stories about exceptional people who found success and honor, often against great odds, on the Olympic stage. (If you’re not familiar with Greenspan’s work, I recommend you start with his magnum opus, The Olympiad, an epic 22-hour series on the Games. To me, it remains the gold standard of sports documentaries).
I had the privilege of working with Greenspan earlier in my career when his company, Cappy Productions, was a client of our agency. My visits to his cramped office / edit suite on the Upper East Side were always special. He’d sit behind his cluttered desk, where he wrote the magical scripts to his wondrous films, and regale me about all of the remarkable people he had met and befriended over his many decades as a chronicler of the human spirit — people like Wilma Rudolph, Jesse Owens, and Greg Louganis, with whom he developed strong personal bonds. In between his tales of inspiration and courage, he would lecture about the networks and the mass media, those purveyors of negativity, in his eyes.
Nobody cherished the Rings more than Greenspan. Over the last 50+ years, he played a pivotal role in shaping and preserving the Olympic brand. Despite the controversy and scandal that often swirled around the Games – performance enhancing drugs, the clash of geopolitics, the influx of professionalism and commercialism – Bud remained firm in the belief that at its core, the Olympics were grounded in glory, heroism, heart, and perseverance. What a quaint notion that anyone who makes a living documenting the exploits of famous people could remain so upbeat, even idealistic. But that was Bud Greenspan. True, many of his films were commissioned by the IOC, so of course he would paint a picture that was wrapped in glory and honor. But his work was not propaganda or corporate fluff. It was real, and heartfelt, and filled with humanity. It was, Greenspan knew, what people truly embraced about the Olympics. Scandals were fleeting, but physical acts of heroism stood the test of time.
In 1994 at the Lillehammer Games, he may have been the only person to stay clear of the bubbling cauldron that was Nancy vs. Tonya. Instead, he set his sights on Oksana Baiul, who won the gold medal and the hearts of millions. At those same Games, he could not ignore the plight and eventual triumph of speed skater Dan Jansen. Though Jansen’s story was told and rehashed in every language, in Greenspan’s hands it took on a special glow, a tale of redemption so poignant and stirring it begged to be watched over and over.
And he was not one to wrap everything in the Stars and Stripes or simply chase the gold medals. He left that to the media hordes. For every Mary Lou Retton and Lindsay Vonn, there was a Karoly Takacs and a John Stephen Ahkwari.
Greenspan’s filmmaking, by today’s standards, was old school. The writing was simple and crisp, with a rhythm and timing that was captivating. The visuals ranged from conventional to breathtaking, free of glitz and special effects and weaved together in a way that tugged at the heart and moistened the eyes. The music would soothe and then soar majestically. And of course, the narration – it was downright sublime, thanks to the humble monotone of Bud’s brother, David, who lent his lordly voice to Cappy Productions for so many years.
Perhaps Bud Greenspan was a bit unrealistic to believe that everyone should observe the world through the same rosy lens as he. But for this self-proclaimed idealist, who saw gold where others saw bronze, who saw champions where others saw faceless crowds, this thirst for the raw emotion and humanity of athletic competition will always define him as a documentarian and storyteller nonpareil.