If history is written by the victors, where does that leave those who were never allowed to be part of the game?
Life Is Not A Competition, But I’m Winning does its damndest to give runner Lina Radke, the first winner of the women’s 800m in Olympic history, the spotlight she deserves. The audience is shown the 800m through archival footage, shot in 1928, with handheld cameras from 1928, on film stock with all the messy, jittery texture you’d expect. The content of the image is also what you’d expect: the race starts, someone (Lina Radke) wins, and, given that it is an exhausting exercise, another of the athletes collapses. This isn’t uncommon for the Olympics, but, because the athletes are women, the all-male Olympic establishment clutches their pearls and puts a halt to the ceremony. The event is canceled and Radke’s victory is ignored.
Thanks to green screen and ADR, our modern day athletes and filmmakers (lead by writer-director Julia Fuhr Mann) provide the illusion of time travel, so that they may change the archival footage, and give Radke the victory she deserves. The sentiment has the right amount of levity. To convey silly images of time travel, the green screen looks intentionally absurd. It’s silliness doesn’t mock the athlete they’re awarding, but the sham of the denial itself.
The film opens with similar means of derision, showing a coliseum in Athens with some generic triumphant music. This music slowly lowers in volume and changes its source to that of a radio or speaker. Fuzzy and distorted, the absolute purity of the triumphant music over such a classic monument to our perception of sports is watered down. This is because Life Is Not A Competition seeks to undermine the faulty, white and cis/hetnormative foundations of the Olympics that we turn a blind eye to. Michael Phelps’s “perfect athletic body” is seen as a monument to physical perfection, but intersex runner Annet Negesa was banned from participating in women’s events until she suppressed her natural testosterone.
Negesa’s story is one way the film correlates the exhaustion of exercise with the exhaustion of the lives of these athletes. Told through voiceover on a slow-motion close-up shot of her face as she runs, Negesa remains steadfast and strong-willed—even as the narrator speaks of an irreversible surgery forced upon her so that she may participate in the Olympics. This is a simple and important point on the film’s part. Whenever transphobes deride trans or gender-nonconforming athletes, they cover their transphobia with moronic accusations of cheating or unfairness, as if the blood, sweat, and tears that these athletes put into their work just don’t exist. Trans woman, Amanda Reiter, doesn’t push herself to the absolute limit to run in marathons, the transphobes claim. No, she’s just “pretending” to be a woman so she can get medals.
If the Olympics are meant to be a celebration of bodies, then they should be a celebration of all bodies, not just bodies that embrace white and cis/heternormative values. Additionally, the documentary expresses this celebration of distinction through form. With compelling work by cinematographer Caroline Spreitzenbart and editors Merit Giesen, Lena Hatebur, and Melanie Jilg, writer-director Julia Fuhr Mann expresses little interest in traditional documentary form for its own sake. They don’t see cinematic form as a means to simply record interviews and get some B-roll of athletes doing athlete stuff, but as a means to express.
The previously mentioned image of Negesa and intentionally silly green screen stand out the most, but they’re not alone. Take a shot with a few athletes preparing to sprint. Shot with a wide angle lens, almost looking like it could be from a Wes Anderson film, the aspect ratio expands from 1.33 1 to 1.85 1. The expansion is accompanied by a sound akin to that of a balloon expanding. The silliness of the sound does not undermine the stress the exercise puts on their bodies, it just expresses it distinctly. It expresses it uniquely. It’s a reminder that the film has no obligation to portray the stresses of exercise in traditionally tough means, and that the exertion we put on our bodies can be conveyed beyond that which we expect.
There’s another image of Reiter that may stay with you. She’s running, in slow motion, the camera circling her, framed as though her upper body were hands on a clock, the image resonates powerfully. Running, and all the exertion that comes with it, is her world. It’s how she expresses herself, how she takes control of her body, fighting through the pain to not only be the best she can, but to just be.
With Reiter, as with Negesa, Lina Radke, and all the other marvelous athletes on display, to just be, comes with pain that’s both twofold and uniquely twofold. They don’t just push their bodies the way all athletes must, they must push them against these social norms that don’t want them to exist. The green-screen time travel segment, where the historical wrong against Lina Radke is made right (much as they could), is not Mann’s way of conceding that all is well now for women and queer athletes. There is still a fight ahead of them, and the world they’re fighting against will cause all manner of pain.
But as long as these bodies exist, then so will the reason to fight.