Paul Little's cinematic-scale Olympic list.
The modern Olympics and motion pictures were born within a few years of each other, in the 1890s, so it is only natural that the sporting spectacular has been a screen staple from the start. The post-Covid, Tokyo Olympics 2021 will be a Games like no other. As we wait to see just what that will mean in practice, we can distract ourselves with some landmarks in Olympic-related cinema. Streaming options are listed where possible.
THE OLYMPIC CHAMP
1942 7 mins Disney+
Goofy is selected to demonstrate some basic Olympic events in this animated short. As well as carrying the torch in the relay, he takes part in sprinting, the mile, the marathon, walking, hurdling and the pole vault. There's a brief lapse into high culture when this last effort prompts the narrator to quote from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar": "Sunset and eventing star,/ and one clear call for me!/ And may there be no moaning of the bar,/ When I put out to sea." The athletic subtext of the Victorian Poet Laureate's elegy had not previously been noticed.
1955 96 mins BFI (British Film Institute) Player Classics
Also known by its alternative title Wee Geordie, and the film debut of Brit acting jack-of-all-trades and former war hero Bill Travers. Geordie – or Wee Geordie, if you prefer – is an undersized lad who takes a correspondence course in bodybuilding, becomes one of the strongest men in Scotland and gets to go to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to compete in the hammer throw. There is a crucial plot point involving (Wee) Geordie's determination to wear a kilt at the Games' opening ceremony, despite official opposition.
WALK DON'T RUN
1966 104 mins YouTube
Even a crawl was too much for this sluggish farce, whose good nature and star power have not given it staying power down the years, although it was a hit at the time. It's not a sports movie but a comedy, with the Games providing some of the complications. With everyone in town for the Olympics, there's a premium on accommodation, and mismatched folk have to share digs. Trivia trifecta: it has a score by Quincy Jones, 16 years before he produced Michael Jackson's Thriller; it was Cary Grant's last movie; and it features George (Mr Sulu of Star Trek) Takei as "Police Captain".
1970 96 mins No streaming option found
This story follows the progress of four athletes from different countries as they train for the Olympic marathon. It is most notable for the incongruous group of talents that somehow came together to make it. It was based on a novel by the prolific but little-known Australian writer Hugh Atkinson, with a screenplay by Erich Segal – the Harvard classics professor who wrote the blockbuster tearjerker Love Story, and directed by Michael Winner, whose biggest hit was the vigilante vehicle Death Wish. Stars included French-Armenian lounge-lizard Charles Aznavour as a Czech athlete and Athol Compton, whose previous credits comprised one episode of Skippy, as the Australian member of the quartet, which was rounded out by Ryan O'Neal (US) and Michael Crawford (Great Britain). The soundtrack featured a song by a then-unknown performer credited as Elton Johns. It also inspired an example of the sort of cryptic film reviewing you don't get these days, being described in The New York Times as "a nice antidote for the hot weather".
1979 104 mins No streaming option found
Not to be confused with documentaries The Golden Girl (2020) about Romanian gymnast Andrea Raducan or Golden Girl (2016) about Swedish boxer Frida Wallberg, this is that rare hybrid, the sci-fi sports drama. It stars acting heavyweights James Coburn and Leslie Caron in the story of a Nazi doctor who uses his strength-enhancing serum on his daughter and decides to test it by getting her into the Olympics. Complications ensue. Definitely a film that knew its market.
OH SPORT! YOU ARE PEACE!
1981 141 mins YouTube
It takes a brave movie to use two exclamation marks in its name – including one halfway through. Bagging the gold for ironic titles in this list is the official Soviet documentary of the 1980 Olympics – the ones we and many other countries didn't go to because they had invaded Afghanistan. It is distinguished by extraordinary Soviet propaganda-type graphics, animation and the inevitably thrilling competition footage. The closing ceremony clearly relied more heavily on the impact of having lots of balloons than you would get away with in the digital era.
1986 101 mins iTunes
The Olympic connection here is the choice of multimedal-winning, real-life Olympian gymnast Mitch Gaylord and his abs to star. The move from sports fame to screen success has been attempted by many but achieved by few. Which is hardly surprising – not everyone can be O.J. Simpson. Gaylord plays working-class hero Steve Tevere, supporting characters include an angry synthesiser virtuoso in a wheelchair and the whole thing ends up coming across like a blend of Flashdance, Phantom of the Opera and Rocky.
1998 117 minutes iTunes
In a successor of sorts to his then highly praised, now dated sports movie Personal Best, Robert (Chinatown) Towne wrote and directed this film based on the true story of the partnership between Olympian Steve Prefontaine and his coach Bill Bowerman. Tom Cruise produced and was supposed to star until it was decided that he was (keep your voice down) too old. Well reviewed at the time, the film failed to find an audience.