Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Olympics in Classic Movies

Jesse Owens in Olympia.
Documentaries, fact-based dramas, and fictitious tales of inspiring athletic feats have revolved around the greatest event in international sports. 

Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial Olympia (1936), a vivid record of the 1936 Berlin games, remains a powerful tribute to the athletes and the spirit of the games--all this despite an underlying theme praising Nazism. Kon Ichikawa’s mesmerizing Tokyo Olympiad (1966) was trimmed from 170 minutes to 93 for its U.S. release, though the shortened version still included the dynamic volleyball match between the women of Japan and the Soviet Union. Visions of Eight (1973) featured segments by eight international directors (including Ichikawa again). Most critics found it disappointing, except for John Schlesinger’s dramatic feature on the grueling marathon. 

Film biographies of inspirational Olympians have been devoted to athletes such as: decathlete Bob Mathias (The Bob Mathias Story); track star Wilma Rudolph (Wilma); the 1980 U.S. hockey team (Miracle on Ice and Miracle); gymnast Nadia Comaneci (Nadia); ice skater Oksana Baiul (A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baiul Story); and runners Billy Mills (Running Brave), Jesse Owens (The Jesse Owens Story), and Gail Devers (Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story).  

The 1976 TV-movie 21 Hours at Munich recreated the tragic terrorist killings that cast a dark cloud over the 1972 Olympics. Another TV-movie, The First Olympics : Athens 1896 (1984), chronicled the events that led up to the first modern-day games. It Happened in Athens (1962) offered a fictitious view of the same events, placing special emphasis on Jayne Mansfield as an actress who agrees to marry the winner of the marathon. 

Jim Hutton and Cary Grant.
Earl Derr Bigger’s proverb-quoting detective Charlie Chan uncovered a murder plot at the Berlin Games in 1937’s Charlie Chan at the Olympics. Charlie’s No. 1 son (Keye Luke) was even a member of the U.S. swimming team. Jim Hutton played an Olympic walker in the 1966 romantic comedy Walk, Don’t Run, which found him in overcrowded Tokyo sharing an apartment with Samantha Eggar and matchmaker Cary Grant. A 90-pound weakling sent off for a weight-lifting program and grew up to be a muscular Olympic hammer-thrower in 1956’s charming British film Wee GeordieThe Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story (1980) found an American decathlete (David Keith) falling in love with a Russian gymnast (Stephanie Zimbalist) at the 1980 Moscow Games , which the U.S. boycotted after this TV-movie was made. The 1978 Special Oylmpics was a heartwarming story of a mentally retarded youngster who finds fulfillment playing sports and enters the Special Olympics.  

Here's a list of films about the Olympics (or which feature the Games prominently in the plots):

Million Dollar Legs (1932)
Olympia (1936)
One in a Million (1936)
Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)
Jim Thorpe: All American (aka Man of Bronze) (1951)
The Bob Mathias Story (aka The Flaming Torch) (1954)
Wee Geordie (aka Geordie) (1956)
It Happened in Athens (1962)
Tokyo Olympiad (1966)
Walk, Don’t Run (1966)
Downhill Racer (1969
The Games (1970)
Visions of Eight (1973)
21 Hours at Munich (1976 TVM)
The Loneliest Runner (1976 TVM)
Wilma (1977)
Special Olympics (aka A Special Kind of Love) (1978 TVM)
Animalympics (1979)
The Top of the Hill (1980 TVM)
On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story (1990 TVM)
Swan Song (1980 TVM)
The Golden Moment: An Olympic Love Story (1980)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Miracle on Ice (1981 TVM)
Personal Best (1982)
Running Brave (1983)
Nadia (1984 TVM)
The Jesse Owens Story (1984 TVM)
The First Olympics: Athens 1896 (1984 TVM)
Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story (1985 TVM)
16 Days of Glory (1986)
Reach for the Sky (1991)
Alex (1993)
A Promise Kept: The Oksana Baiul Story (1994 TVM)
A Brother's Promise: The Dan Jansen Story (1996 TVM)
Run for the Dream:  The Gail Devers Story (1996 TVM)
Prefontaine (1997)
Without Limits (1998)

Reprinted with the authors' permission from the Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series.


  1. Sports stories make for such interesting and dramatic storytelling, particularly the true life events. The Olympic Games ramp up that potential. Although a comedy like "Cool Runnings" can still touch the heart.

  2. 'Breaking the Surface' (Greg Lagounis Story).

    Also hats off to Sonia Henie, Johnny Weismuller and Buster Crabbe as the three most famous actor/Olympians