Monday, September 9, 2013

Film Review: Negative Split

There are many skills from my schooling that go unused on a daily basis; my film degree is amongst them. When ASCA had announced that they were screening this film at the conference, I was very excited and sat in. Here is my review.

Director: Douglas Follmer
Executive Producers: Charlie Dobal and Rick DeMont
Director of Photography: Brian Griffith
Film Editor: Morgan Schenk
Music by Katie Quinlin
Narration by Wes Whatley

Negative Split is the story of American Swimmer, Rick DeMont who, battled chronic asthma and became Olympic champion in the 400FR at the Munich Olympics in 1972. The story, however, does not stop there. DeMont's story is a very interesting one and one definitely worthy of telling by film. 

The story begins with Rick's family telling stories about Rick's early years and flips through his life via interviews with family, friends and coaches. Asthma is a theme mentioned quite a bit and Rick's dealings with it as a young athlete were a prevalent theme. Another theme that I picked up on were how lightly important aspects of sports, sports medicine were taken in those days. An example of this laxed professionalism is the story of Rick being chosen for a tour team as a youngster and the coach of that team not allowing him to swim, telling him that he was too slow and had no future in the sport. When he returned home, his father asked how he did and Rick said that he didn't get to swim. His father laughed while telling the story.  3 things here are very telling of the time and foreshadowing of issues to come. First, would a coach be allowed to keep their job if they kept an athlete off of a tour team today? Second, How many parents DON'T know how their kids did at a swim meet (granted, communication is much easier these days), but thirdly, Rick's father did nothing about it. He didn't write an angry letter, confront the coach or complain to USA Swimming... he just accepted it and moved on. 

Rick's brother & coach tell the story of how Rick made the Olympic team in 1972. Video of the event is shown which elicited chuckles at first (during the starts of 1972) and then applause at the finish. Immediately, we were taking to the 1972 Olympics, where ABC footage is shown of the 400FR, which Rick won. The crowd was, again, very exited with the finish. DeMont's story, then takes a sharp turn.

Rick had tested positive for a banned substance in his asthma medication, which he declared upon arrival in Munich in 1972. However, the medical staff mishandled his information and somehow (not explained exactly what happened) Rick was disqualified from the 1500FR the next day (Rick was the World Record holder in the 1500FR). He was also stripped of his 400FR gold medal. Rick, as a 16 year old, was interrogated by the IOC in meetings and denied counsel of any type. It was an awful experience for Rick and was big news in the world (until Black September took Israli Hostages a few days later). The film contains footage of Howard Cosell interviewing Team USA's doctor and coach about the mishap.

As was reflected earlier in the film, the attitude to this type of mishap was pretty relaxed. Rick's parents did not seem to push their way into the situation, the USA doctors pointed fingers at each other and the coaches seemed pretty powerless. Everyone seemed disappointed, but no one seemed able to do anything. In the Q&A session after the screening, Rick said that the USA staff, in those days, were there to party and didn't take their job's seriously. This would have been a great quote to have in the film; however everyone seemed to have to accept it and move on, especially as the Munich Massacre became a much more serious and prevalent issue a few days later.

Immediately, we are taken to Belgrade the following year during the World Championships. Rick is back and refocused and wins the 400FR in a time of 3:58.18 (becoming the first man in the world under 4min & breaking the World Record). The film them wraps up with more interviews with Rick and his family and coaches.

My impression is that the film rushed through some of the best parts of this story and tried to cover too wide of  a base too quickly, lacking focus. For instance, some of the biggest news stories of 1972 came out of the Olympics: 
  • Mark Spitz winning 7 gold medals & 7 World Records (not mentioned in this film).
  • Two American 400 m runners, Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, acted casually on the medal stand, twirled their medals (gold and silver, respectively), joked with one another and did not face the American flag as "The Star-Spangled Banner" was being played during the award ceremony. They were banned from the Olympics for life (not mentioned in this film).
  • In the final of the men's basketball, the United States lost to the USSR, in what USA Basketball calls "the most controversial game in international basketball history" (not mentioned in this film).
  • Palestinian terrorists, Black September, took 9 Israeli athletes hostage and executed them. This was briefly mentioned in the film (although it took place after Rick's positive test).
I think that given the chaos and excitement of Rick's experience at the 1972 games, these stories could have added a few layers to the viewers experience and frame it in history better for younger viewers (like myself) who were not alive to watch those games. I hope that the director did not get locked in the trap of forgetting that films live forever, especially documentaries. The opportunity to engage an outside audience was lost here.

I also feel that there was a missed opportunity to show more of Rick's personality between the 1972 Olympics and the World Championships in 1973. How does someone come back after being dealt such a crappy hand? What motivated Rick to want to win the 1973 World Championships? What was his attitude? When did he start training again? I know these questions are all important because they were asked by members of the audience directly to Rick during the Q&A session after the film screening. If I were to tell this story, the 1972 Olympics would be my set up and the 1973 World Championships would have been my climax. I would have definitely focused on Rick's personality and coping ability going into World Championships.

There was also no report on the outcome of the drug scandal and the actual mishandling was a bit unclear. I would have been interesting to know what the UOC did to make sure that this could not have happened in the future. Rick kind of shrugged it off in questioning saying that he deserved the medal but not because of it's value, because of what it represented. He also noted that Australian, Stephen Holland, "made his whole life around that gold medal [that was given to him after it was stripped from DeMont]" and gave the distinct impression that DeMont still felt it belonged to him. I think that it would have added more to the story to add that, In 2001 the US Olympic Committee admitted that it had mishandled DeMont's medical information at the 1972 Olympics and appealed to the IOC to reinstate the medal. The IOC refused to offer any official acknowledgment of DeMont's innocence and achievement. This fact was never included in the film. 

Overall, I feel that it is a competent retelling of the facts. The Rick DeMont story is beautiful and left many in the crowd with a tear or two. I would recommend it for anyone who knows the story and loves sports nostalgia and for anyone who is not aware of the story. I enjoyed the story but was left cold by the rushed ending and lack of a real climax... however, I am from a drama filled, Disney generation. Life doesn't really have a climax. This all happened to Rick when he was 16-17 years old. Rick is now 57 and has done a lot of living since this all happened, and maybe that is the  point; if it was though, it was a little too implicit for me.

ABC still owns the rights to the Olympic race footage and the interview with Howard Cosell. As such, this film is not allowed to be posted on Youtube or Netflix or releasable on DVD. Please visit the film's website and contact the film's distribution team for more information on where you can see it. As was mentioned in the Q&A session, the more interest that is there, the more feasible it is to purchase the rights from ABC and make this film widely available.