It is standard practice in the world of journalism to write obituaries long in advance of the day someone dies. That way, when the day comes, you don’t have to wrestle with the emotion of the moment.
I never did get around to writing Bud Greenspan’s obituary. I simply couldn’t do it. He had been ill with Parkinson’s disease but I just could not confront the inevitable.
Over the years, Bud and I — and Nancy Beffa, his longtime companion — had become way more than professional colleagues. We had become good friends.
And Bud was always — always — one of the most vital people I ever had the pleasure and privilege of knowing. You just had to enjoy being around him, his glasses perched always — always — on his forehead. The man could tell a story, he loved to tell stories and he had stories to tell.
So apologies in advance. This column is really, really hard.
Bud passed away Saturday. He was 84.
The history books will say that Bud was one of the foremost filmmakers in Olympic history. In the mid-1980s, he received what’s called the Olympic order, the highest award in Olympic circles, the then-International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain saying that Bud had even then “been called the foremost producer, writer and director of Olympic films — more than that, he is an ever-lasting friend of the Olympic family.”
Bud was so much more than that.
The explosive growth that saw the Olympic rings become one of the most recognizable symbols around the world over the last half of the 20th century is arguably due to two factors — television and Bud Greenspan.
Television brought what happened on the track and in the pool in all those far-away places into your living room.
Through his films, Bud told you the stories of the athletes, wherever they were from. He made them real people. They had families, just like you and me. That their names didn’t sound quite like ours or maybe their clothes didn’t look like what we would wear or whatever — all that faded away.
Bud’s gift to us was simple but nonetheless profound. He reminded us all of our humanity.
That’s why his work is so powerful. And no matter how many times you see his films, the power endures.
In Bud’s world we are all the same. No matter what we look like or are shaped like or sound like, each of us is a human being imbued with potential and dignity.
“Bud Greenspan always understood that the athletes are at the center of the Olympic experience,” Peter Ueberroth, who ran the 1984 Los Angeles Games and then served from 2004 to 2008 as chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said late Saturday night.
“Their stories are the ones he told, and those stories reminded us of our shared humanity and the commitment to excellence that are at the core of the Olympic ideals around the world.”
In his Olympic films, Bud told dozens and dozens of stories. Perhaps none was as memorable as one of the first — the Tanzanian marathoner John Stephen Akhwari, who finished last, 57th, in the marathon at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games.
As the story goes, John Stephen came in about an hour after the winner, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia. John Stephen had injured his leg in a fall; his leg was bandaged and bloodied.
Why, Bud asked, didn’t you just give up?
Give up? Never, John Stephen replied.
My country, he said, didn’t send me seven-thousand miles to start a race. He said, they sent me seven-thousand miles to finish it.
“In his lifetime, through his work, he did more than any individual to bring the personal stories of Olympians into households around the world,” Mike Moran, who served as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s spokesman from 1978-2003, said Saturday night.
“His style never was out of date. What he produced will be watched decades from now by people who are or will be members of the Olympic family. No one else can ever do what he did. His contributions to what we refer to as Olympism are simply without precedent and Olympic athletes around the world owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
When I think of Bud and Nancy, I think of course of all the great stories he told on film but also the great tales he shared in the times we hung out together — the back stories of how the films came together, the projects that didn’t work, the ones that worked better than they ever imagined, all of that.
We had some great times together. We laughed and laughed with Aussie broadcasting friend Tracey Holmes in Sydney in 2000. We were super-sober while taking in the scene of all the police dogs and the soldiers while we waited our turn to get into freezing-cold Olympic Stadium in Salt Lake City on opening night in 2002; for all his celebrity, Bud was just one more guy getting into the stadium that night, believe me. After we got through and into somewhere where it was warm — more laughs. As if Bud Greenspan was a threat to anyone.
In November 2007, the USOC endowed a scholarship at the USC School of Cinematic Arts to honor Bud and to encourage future filmmakers.
Donations should be sent to that scholarship fund.
As for flowers, Bud always was fond of relating a quote from another pioneer, Red Barber, one of the great baseball play-by-play men: “If you’re going to send someone flowers, make sure they’re around to smell them.”
The world is diminished tonight because Bud is no longer with us. Godspeed, my friend.