Every other year, I look forward to the arrival of the Olympics, and every other year I end up disappointed in the TV coverage of the games.

Every other year, I look forward to the arrival of the Olympics, and every other year I end up disappointed in the TV coverage of the games.


You can understand that the network with broadcast rights — that’s been NBC for many years — wants to maximize the number of viewers by showing popular sports like figure skating and hockey.


But the coverage is often bloated with sappy profiles of the athletes, how they had to wake up at ungodly hours to walk two miles uphill through the snow in order to train for their two-minute shot at Olympic immortality.


Fortunately, the fine cinema curators of the Criterion Collection recently released a compelling substitute for the poor TV coverage of Alpine sports: “Downhill Racer,” the 1969 film that stars Robert Redford as David Chappellet, a rising American skier.


The cinematography is amazing — a stunt skier carried a camera down some of Europe’s most renowned (and dangerous) slopes to give an unprecedented first-person experience of finding the fastest way down the mountain.


“Downhill Racer” was the first feature directed by the late Michael Ritchie (“The Candidate,” “The Bad News Bears,” “Fletch”). His camera captures aspects of competition that, commercial pressures being what they are, networks would never make time to film: the nervous breathing in the moments before a race, how the starting gate functions, pre-race waxing and shaving of skis.


The film is also a remarkable portrait of an elite athlete.


Redford’s character is dull, self-centered and arrogant. “Downhill Racer” seems to say that’s a requirement to compete at the top levels of a sport.


“The champions in any field have got to be, to some degree, fanatics,” Roger Ebert wrote in his 1969 review of the film. “To be the world’s best skier, or swimmer, or chess player, you’ve got to overdevelop that area of your ability while ignoring almost everything else. This is the point we miss when we persist in describing champions as regular, all-round Joes. If they were, they wouldn’t be champions.”


Redford’s David Chappellet may not be an all-round Joe, but he is portrayed as a full human being, flaws and all.


That’s a lot more than you can say about most of the athletes to whom we’re introduced during television coverage of the Olympics.


As I write this on Tuesday afternoon, women are competing in the biathlon, in the 10-kilometer pursuit event. Mercifully, this broadcast is strictly sports.


There are no gauzy videos about the hardscrabble backgrounds of the athletes — I’m not sure whether that’s because there’s only one American in competition, Sara Studebaker, or because she finished 46th. Maybe the NBC producers have been too busy talking to the families of figure skaters.


It also probably doesn’t help that Studebaker was fortunate enough to attend Dartmouth College, where she was on a team that won a national championship.


More likely to get the TV profile treatment is speed skater Jilleanne Rookard, whose mother died of blood cancer in December. Rookard’s shot at the Olympics was almost derailed by an acute lack of cash.


Rookard was profiled last week in a New York Times article by Karen Crouse. “There’s times when I’ve had $30 in my bank account. There are times when I don’t know how I’m going to get through it,” she was quoted as saying in the article.


Unlike many countries, the U.S. government does not support Olympic athletes. This aspect of Olympic competition is also dramatized in “Downhill Racer,” when the coach of the U.S. skiing team (Gene Hackman) tries to pry a few dollars from a room full of suits.


“The Europeans simply can’t understand why this country doesn’t turn out the world’s greatest ski team, and I’m ashamed to tell them the truth,” Hackman’s character says. “We have the mountains, we have the men, we have the muscle — we don’t have the money, in this richest nation in the world.”


Last year, U.S. Speedskating lost its main financial backer when the Dutch bank DSB went bankrupt. (Did you see that? U.S. Speedskating was sponsored by a Dutch bank. U-S-A!) It left the organization with a $300,000 deficit and the Olympics approaching fast.


Enter Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” who rallied his viewers to support the team by broadcasting segments about the athletes, including a race with star American skater Shani Davis.


“I think he’s humanized these athletes in a way that, for example, NBC hasn’t succeeded in doing,” Josh Levin said on Slate’s “Hang up and Listen” sports podcast for Jan. 25.


“We all notice how sappy and sentimental the coverage of Olympians is, and they try to win our interest by going through these sob stories about the athletes. But Colbert has shown that just by showing what these guys do, and the fact that his character is so funny and can relate to them in a funny way, is a different and better way to relate to these people,” Levin said.


If you’re looking for different and better ways to see what the life of an elite athlete is really like, add “Downhill Racer” to your Netflix queue today.


State Journal-Register writer Brian Mackey can be reached at brian.mackey@sj-r.com.