10 of the greatest movies about the Olympic Games

A still from Foxcatcher (2014)
PHOTO: Sony Pictures Classics

With the Summer Games of the XXXII Olympiad under way in Tokyo, Japan, we take a look at some of the many instances when the sporting contest has featured in movies.

The Games’ motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, or “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, and they have provided rich material for compelling historical documentaries and fictional feature films.

These are 10 of our favourites, in chronological order, if you can’t get enough of the Olympic spirit.

1. Olympia 1 – Festival of Nations / Olympia 2 – Festival of Beauty (1938)

The first official Olympics documentary of its kind, the two-part Olympia chronicles the 1936 Berlin Games and offers an extraordinary testament to the physical accomplishments of the human body.

Directed by Leni Riefenstahl, perhaps history’s most notorious propaganda filmmaker, the film shows Adolf Hitler’s efforts to use the Olympiad to promote his Nazi agenda.

As in her earlier, equally controversial film Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl employs innovative filmmaking – mobilising her multiple cameras using rails, hot air balloons and flotation devices, and employing underwater photography – that transcends Olympia’s political trappings and elevates film as an art form to technological heights that were unprecedented at the time.

2. Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

For the 18th Olympiad, the summer games came to Asia for the first time. Japan was eager to show the world how it had evolved since the end of World War II, and put on an incredible display, captured in this mesmerising documentary by celebrated filmmaker Kon Ichikawa.

The film focuses less on the outcome of each event and how individuals and their respective nations progressed, and instead highlights the exceptional physical prowess of those taking part.

A mesmerising, three-hour visual poem, Ichikawa’s film was initially despised by the Tokyo Games’ organisers, who forced a savage re-edit, but it has since been restored to its original glory.

3. Downhill Racer (1969)

Robert Redford stars as a hot-headed downhill skier who arrives in Europe to join the US team following an injury to a teammate.

Motivated solely by personal glory, he clashes with his fellow skiers as well as Gene Hackman’s no-nonsense coach. As the Winter Olympics draw closer, he must get in line or forfeit his place on the team.

This somewhat formulaic sports drama is elevated by some truly breathless sporting sequences, which capture the speed and danger of the slopes in exhilarating fashion, and by an effortlessly charismatic turn from a dashing Redford as the ice-cool Olympic hopeful.

4. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Arguably the most famous film made about an Olympic Games, Hugh Hudson’s Academy Award-winning epic follows the fortunes of two British track athletes as they prepare for and compete in the 1924 summer games in Paris.

One a devout Scottish Christian (Ian Charleston), the other an English Jew (Ben Cross), both are inspired by their faith as much as their patriotism and personal ambition, and must overcome additional obstacles as a result.

Ian Holm scored his only Oscar nomination as trainer Sam Mussabini, but the film is best remembered for its iconic synth score by Greek composer Vangelis.

5. Cool Runnings (1993)

One of the silliest and least faithful retellings of Olympic accomplishment, Cool Runnings nevertheless succeeds as an entertaining underdog story.

John Candy stars as the reluctant coach of Jamaica’s first four-man bobsleigh team, cobbled together from frustrated track athletes who failed to secure a spot in the summer Olympiad.

A hare-brained scheme is devised and somehow executed, as they manage to qualify for the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.

Much humour is gleaned from our heroes’ unfamiliarity with Canada’s wintry climes, but the overwhelming sense of goodwill prevails, even if their accomplishments at the tournament are greatly exaggerated.

6. Fists of Freedom (1999)

The 1968 summer games in Mexico City arrived at a time of great civil unrest. The Vietnam war was raging, as was the civil rights movement in the United States. Mexico was also reeling from violent protests in opposition to political corruption.

The enduring image from the games is the raised gloved fists of American 200-metre medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

This fascinating documentary details the struggles of these African-American athletes in the run-up to the games, their experiences in Mexico City, and the aftermath of their bold gesture – their expulsion from the sport.

7. One Day in September (1999)

In 1972, Germany was desperate to eradicate the embarrassing memory of the 1936 games with an Olympiad in Munich that showcased the democratic West Germany.

Their plan was shattered when Black September, a Palestinian extremist group, sneaked into the idyllic Olympic Village compound and took hostage 11 members of the Israeli delegation.

The ensuing stand-off became a global media circus, as well as a bitter political feud between the German and Israeli leadership.

Kevin MacDonald’s thrilling documentary rightly won the Academy Award, while the tragic event itself inspired the covert Mossad operations detailed in Steven Spielberg’s chilling 2005 film Munich.

8. Foxcatcher (2014)

The horrifying true story of Olympic gold-medal-winning wrestlers Mark and David Schultz, and their increasingly toxic relationship with eccentric benefactor John du Pont, is the focus of Bennett Miller’s drama.

Fuelled by envy, loneliness, and privilege, Du Pont (played by an exceptional Steve Carell) hires the sibling champions (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) to train his private wrestling team for future Olympic glory.

What unfolds is a shocking dissection of what drives individuals towards victory and success, and the destructive power that comes with it. Miller was justly rewarded with the best director prize at Cannes for his deeply unsettling work.

9. Race (2016)

The 1936 Summer Olympiad that Riefenstahl filmed is also the subject of Stephen Hopkins’ drama, which chronicles the achievements of African-American sprinter Jesse Owens.

Stephan James plays the 22-year-old athlete, who faced racial prejudice at home even before he won a place on the US Olympics team.

The film follows the political deliberations in the run-up to the games, how the United States considered boycotting them in protest at Nazi Germany’s discrimination against black and Jewish athletes, and how the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People pressured Owens not to compete.

This earnest, yet undeniably powerful, drama culminates in Owens’ historic four gold medal wins in front of an outraged Hitler.

10. I, Tonya (2017)

Craig Gillespie’s pitch black comedy dramatises the exploits of loose cannon Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding as though her life were a Martin Scorsese gangster movie.

Margot Robbie is incredible in this stylised pseudo-documentary that throws into question every element of her roller-coaster working class life, from her abusive mother (an Oscar-winning Allison Janney), to her live-wire husband (Sebastian Stan), to accusations that she masterminded an assault on her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan.

A biting satire on tabloid sensationalism and our unquenchable desire to destroy our heroes, I, Tonya has nothing to do with the Olympic spirit, yet remains no less entertaining.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.