Olympics in Film

Like most of the world these days, I’m glued to my various screens for coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. I love the spectacle, the competition, the heartbreak, the implausible victories, the personal triumphs, and all the pomp and ceremony. Since I can never get enough Olympic drama, I decided to write about a few of my favourite Olympic-themed films (in no particular order). When I started this post I fully intended to include movies involving Winter Games sports as well, but the list was just too long… thought I’d dangle that carrot so you’ll keep reading until 2014… but for now, let’s stick to all things Summer Games. Enjoy!

  Munich (2005)

Eric Bana struggles with his moral convictions in Munich (Source)

“Munich” definitely represents the darker side of Olympic history. A controversial thriller / political drama, Steven Spielberg’s Oscar nominated film interprets the real life events of what’s generally referred to as the “Munich massacre” at the 1972 Olympic Games where members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September. To make long and complex story way too short, the crisis and subsequent failed rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches as well as five members of Black September. In response to the massacre, covert Israeli operatives were tasked with finding and assassinating those involved in the massacre. Eric Bana plays the Israeli assassin coordinating the mission. Roger Ebert’s take on “Munich” speaks so clearly to my own experience of it: “As a thriller, “Munich” is efficient, absorbing, effective. As an ethical argument, it is haunting.”  I was haunted by this movie long after I saw it, particularly by “the year’s most audacious sex scene” where graphic flashback memories of the trauma in the Olympic Village intrude on Bana’s lovemaking with his wife. Way heavy.

Without Limits (1998) & Prefontaine (1997)

Billy Crudup in “Without Limits” (Source)

Jared Leto in “Prefontaine” (Source)

There were two movies released right on top of each other that detailed the true story of Steve Prefontaine, the American long distance runner who died in a car accident at the age of 24. During his athletic career in the early 70s he at one time held American records for all seven Olympic distances from the 2,000 to the 10,000. He competed in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich and was known for his aggressive, no-holds-barred approach to long-distance running. I’ve only seen “Without Limits”, which is pretty standard sports movie fare with strong performances by both Billy Crudup as Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland as coach Bill Bowerman. “Prefontaine” starred Jared Leto (aka Jordan Catalano from TV’s “My So-Called Life”) as the Olympic runner. If you’re looking for advice on which one to see, check out Movie Smackdown’s comparison of the two films and respective lead performances.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Running on the beach in “Chariots of Fire” (Source)

I defy you to think of “Chariots of Fire” and not hear Vangelis’ Academy Award winning theme. It’s playing in your head right now, isn’t it? When I used to play the piano that was one of the first popular songs I remember learning to play – my playing more resembled Rowan Atkinson’s in the London opening ceremonies than Vangelis’, but what could I do? I was like, 8.

So you likely know the theme music. But do you know the story? This Oscar winning film was based on the true story of two British athletes running in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Each competed for very different reasons, one a Scottish missionary who ran to prove his religious devotion, and the other a Jewish student at Cambridge seeking to prove himself within elite circles. And here’s a tidbit for you… did you know that a young Ian Holm (now widely known as Bilbo Baggins from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in Chariots? What more do you need to bring  Olympic spirit to life on the big screen?

To be clear, this was not intended to be a complete list of all Olympic movies ever, just my personal favourites. I pretty much stuck to feature films that I’ve seen, but in my interweb travels I found a couple of TV movie gems in this genre that are worthy of note:

Nadia (1984) about who else… star Olympic gymnast and perfect “10”, Nadia Comăneci.

Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story (1997) with none other than Mario Lopez in the title role. Oh yes, my friends, this exists. I think I have my line-up for a post-Olympic viewing marathon (that’s one type of marathon I might actually be able to accomplish).

So this list should satisfy your cravings for all things gold, silver, and bronze until Hollywood casts Michael Phelps as Aquaman (don’t laugh, it could happen).

What are your favourite big screen Olympic moments?

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4 thoughts on “Olympics in Film

  1. Thanks for the list, Janet. Yes, Vangelis was playing through my head as soon as you mentioned Chariots of Fire. LOL.

    Some of these movies I haven’t seen. I need to check them out…especially Nadia. She was an amazing gymnast.

    • I have to check “Nadia” out myself one of these days (my to-watch list is always pretty lengthy). Apparently the real Nadia makes a cameo appearance in it. I’ll bet it’s a fascinating story!

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