The Olympics and Liberty

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I’m often asked what makes a film “libertarian.” Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority? Many libertarian films do contain those features. But my favorites are those in which a protagonist achieves a goal or overcomes obstacles without turning to the government to fix things.

Two such films are in theaters now, and both are based on true stories about Olympic athletes who achieved their goals in spite of government interference, not because of government aid. Race tells the Jesse Owens story, and Eddie the Eagle tells the Michael Edwards story. Both are worth seeing.

Race is the perfect title for this film that focuses on both racing and racism. Owens was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Historian Richard Crepeau (who spoke at FreedomFest last year) described the 1935 college track meet at Ann Arbor in which Owens, in the space of 45 minutes, set three world records and tied a fourth as “the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.” Nevertheless, Owens (Stephan James) is not welcome at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) intends to use “his” Olympics as a propaganda piece to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan race, and he does not want any blacks or Jews to spoil his plan. He hires filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to document the glorious event.

The film reveals the backstage negotiations between Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and the German organizing committee at which Brundage insisted on assurances that Jews and blacks would be allowed to compete. Brundage’s insistence is somewhat hypocritical, considering the treatment Owens and other black athletes were enduring at home, but he was successful in forestalling a threatened American boycott of the Games.

What makes a film “libertarian”? Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority?

Owens faces similar pressure from the NAACP, as he is warned that he ought to boycott the Games to protest racism in Germany. Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order. This is as it should be. What good would it have done if Owens had stayed home to protest German policy? Would it have made any difference? Would anyone even have noticed? I felt the same way when President Carter made the opposite decision in 1980 and forced American athletes to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. What good did it do to destroy the dreams of hundreds of American athletes who had trained their whole lives to compete in a tournament that comes along only once every four years? Did it help anyone in Afghanistan? Did it hurt all those Russian athletes who took home more medals because the Americans weren’t there? I think not.

In the movie, Owens also faces the pressure of athletic celebrity, and Stephan James skillfully portrays the ambition and the temptations of a small-town boy chasing big-time dreams. He is anchored in his pursuits by his college coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton), who would become his wife and partner until the day he died in 1980. As with most sports films, the outcome of the contest is known from the beginning. The real story is how the hero gets there, and how he conducts himself along the way. Owens was a hero worthy of the title.

Eddie the Eagle tells the story of an Olympic hero of a different sort — one who is remembered for his tenacity rather than his innate skill. Michael Edwards (played by Taron Egerton as an adult and by brothers Tommy Costello, Jr. at 10 years old and Jack Costello at 15) simply dreams of being an Olympian; he doesn’t care what sport. His mother (Jo Hartley) nurtures that dream, giving him a special biscuit tin to hold his medals and praising his accomplishments, even if it’s just holding his breath for 58 seconds. Ironically, Eddie is motivated by a picture of Jesse Owens in a book about the Olympics. By contrast, Eddie’s father (Keith Allen) is a pragmatist, encouraging Eddie to give up his silly dreams and become a plasterer like him. His father isn’t a bad man; he just wants to protect his son from disappointment and financial waste. Fortunately for Eddie, he has the kind of optimistic personality that simply doesn’t hear criticism.

Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order.

Eddie settles on skiing as his sport and manages to qualify for the British Olympic team, but the Committee cuts him because he “isn’t Olympic material.” Read: you don’t dress well or look right and you’re rather clumsy. Undaunted, Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping. If he can compete in an international event and land on his feet, he can qualify for the Calgary Olympics. This is the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team slipped through the same loophole — a loophole that was quickly closed before the following season. Now athletes must compete internationally and place in the top 30% of finishers in order to qualify. But in 1988, if you could find a sport that few people in your country competed in, you could literally “make the team.”

With his father’s van and his mother’s savings, Eddie takes off for the training slopes in Germany. There he tackles the jumps, crashes on his landings, and tackles the jumps again. When he lands the 15-meter jump successfully, he moves on to the 40 and the 70, crashing more than he lands. Low camera angles during the jumps create the sensation of height and speed, providing a rush of adrenaline for the audience. Frequent shots of Eddie tumbling after a crash emphasize just how risky this beautiful sport is. We admire Eddie’s persistence, even as we cringe at his crashes. He believes in himself, no matter what.

Eventually he meets up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a chain-smoking, hard-drinking slope groomer who looks incredibly lean and buff for an alcoholic. Peary turns out to be a former ski jumper who lost his chance for Olympic glory by not taking his training seriously. This, of course, sets us up for the perfect sports metaphor movie: unskilled amateur with indomitable heart meets innately talented athlete who threw it all away, and both find redemption while training for the Games.

Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping.

It’s a great story about overcoming obstacles, sticking with a goal, and ignoring the naysayers. It demonstrates the power of a mother’s encouragement, and the possibility that even a poor, farsighted boy from a working-class neighborhood can achieve his dreams — if he doesn’t kill himself practicing for it.

All this allows us to forgive the fact that the movie mostly isn’t true. Yes, Michael Edwards did compete in the Calgary Olympics. He did set a British record for ski-jumping, despite coming in dead last in both events, simply because, as the only British jumper, his was the only British record. His exuberance and joy just for participating in the Olympics led to his being the only individual athlete referred to specifically in the closing speech that year (“some of us even soared like an eagle”). But Bronson Peary never existed, and Michael Edwards actually trained with US coaches at Lake Placid, albeit with limited funds that caused him to use ill-fitting equipment. But that wouldn’t have given us such a feel-good story.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Race," directed by Stephen Hopkins. Forecast Pictures, 2016, 134 minutes; and "Eddie the Eagle," directed by Dexter Fletcher. Pinewood Studios, 2016, 106 minutes.



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