With the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio coming up, Kensington TV producer Robert Lang thought it would be a great time to pitch a sports doc to The Nature of Things. But he wanted to create a film that had a unique twist.
“We wanted to look at sports with a different approach,” said Lang. “We thought, would it work if we were able to put athletes in the shoes of their predecessors on a level playing field.” That’s how the concept was born.
In The Equalizer and Champions vs Legends, today’s hottest athletes are put to the test. Their competition? A world-record winning star from the past. And the catch? They would literally compete in the shoes (or in canoes or on skis) of their competitors from the past.
Robert Lang used his past experience on the award-winning series, Museum Secrets to develop the concept. “We’re always trying to find a way to bring the past alive and present history through a modern day lens.”
As a filmmaker and sports enthusiast, Lang was breaking new ground. He recruited top sports scientist Steve Haake to help set up the challenges and ensure historical accuracy, but would he be able to attract high-performance athletes to work to work with them? “Once we got past their agents, we found that the athletes were tickled by the idea — they got involved with the project just for fun.”
Sporting organizations create competition rules for a reason. They don’t want equipment to change too quickly and need to ensure that everybody has equal access to create a fair playing field for all competitors.
The biggest challenge was finding the gear. “It’s not like there’s a 1948 kayak sitting around that you can jump into.” For the challenge featuring Canadian rower Adam Van Koeverden, Lang’s research team got lucky and located a vintage mid-20th-century kayak in a Peterborough, Ont., museum, but it needed some serious work to make it competition worthy.
Next was replicating the facilities. They searched far and wide for a high school track hard parked with dirt and cinders— much like the 1936 era Berlin Olympiastadion —so that Andre De Grasse could “compete” against track superstar Jesse Owens.
Last was convincing the athletes that pushing their limits with the old-school equipment and clothing wouldn’t injure them or compromise their ability to compete in future events. “They didn’t get much time to practice in the new gear, so they knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” said Lang. But all of the athletes were definitely “in it to win it.”
“Making this film was far more fun than I thought it would be,” says Lang. “There were lots of surprises.”
In fact, the team learned that the latest and greatest sports gear is not always critical to who brings home the gold.
“Whether there’s technology involved or not, at that level, character and psychology are the determining factors — that’s the most important ingredient.”
Watch Champions vs Legends, our new doc featuring winter sport challenges on The Nature of Things