The Olympics at the Pictures
Why are there so few films about the Olympics? The world is not short of sports films — though there tends to be a fairly wide divergence in quality among them, and few are memorable. But very little of the Olympics has made it to the big screen, and it is more than a little disturbing that probably the most famous of Olympic films is of the most notorious provenance.
Probably one of the main reasons for the Olympics being overlooked is logistical and economic. It’s hard to reproduce impressively the scale of an Olympic Games without recourse to a large budget. For that reason, most Olympic stories tend to be told through TV movies and mini-series, where it is a little easier to skimp on the details of scale. Leni Riefenstahl had no such budgetary problem though when the Nazis commissioned her to make a film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The resulting film, Olympia, is at once austere and aesthetically beautiful, a cold masterpiece of movement and framing. Curiously, it does not bother itself too much with victory and glory (Riefenstahl might have found that Jessie Owens’ four gold medals cramped her style a bit in that respect); instead it is concerned solely with the physical manifestation of the sporting endeavour. She was probably swayed by the old Prussian school of Turnen, a teutonic code of gymnastics that was formulated as a quasi-militaristic means of invigorating the male population, and in which medals and winning were far from paramount. Though Hitler at Berlin was, of course, keen to translate so-called Aryan superiority into medals, the ethics of Turnen was still prevalent, to such an extent that Germany lagged far behind other large Western countries in success at organised sport. Only after the second World War would that change.
Extract from Olympia
The only other official Olympic film of note is Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad, made during the 1964 Games. Ichikawa, a director of elegant technicolor widescreen films, such as An Actor’s Revenge, eschewed narrative voiceover, just as Riefenstahl had done and the result is breathtaking, particularly during the famous marathon sequence, where the great Ethiopian Abebe Bikila stunned the world to become the first ever person to win two Olympic marathon titles, winning at a canter.
The marathon sequence from Tokyo Olympiad
It is largely forgotten now (though a stage adaptation for the London Games might change that) but Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire was a big hit on its release in 1981. The film is about two British medallists at the 1924 Paris Olympics, the Jewish Harold Abrahams and the Scottish Presbyterian Eric Liddell, who spurned his opportunity to win the 100m because the heat took place on a Sunday. Abrahams, who has scandalised the anti-Semitic Cambridge masters in taking on a professional coach, instead wins the 100m while Liddell takes the 400m. The film is workmanlike Oscar fare, picking up four and today is best remembered for its much-parodied beach-running scene, set to Vangelis’ syrupy score.
The beach scene from Chariots of Fire
Disney later took up the mantle for two Olympic films, the comedy Cool Runnings tells the strange tale of Jamaica’s first-ever participation at the winter Olympics (in Calgary in 1988), in the men’s four-man bobsleigh. The famous "Miracle on Ice", where a team of amateurs and college students from the US shocked the USSR in the ice hockey gold-medal game at Lake Placid in 1980 was adapted in 2004 as Miracle, with Kurt Russell playing the team’s world-wary coach. Neither film is much to write home about but Cool Runnings does have a memorable title in French.
Extract from Cool Runnings
Extract from Miracle
An event invested with even greater Cold War symbolism than the Miracle on Ice was depicted in the 2006 Hungarian film Children of Glory. This was the infamous "Blood in the Water" game between Hungary and the USSR in the Men’s Water Polo at the Melbourne Olympics. Taking place only two months after the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising, the Hungarians were hell-bent on getting revenge for their country in the pool. A vicious match ensued, with eyes being gouged and kicks and blows exchanged under water. Hungary won 4-0, their penultimate game in the final group, which saw them take the gold medal. The heroic tale of plucky underdogs was not exactly mirrored in the pool though — Hungary had long been the powerhouse in international water polo, and remains so, and the Hungarians were the reigning Olympic champions at the time too. Hungarian water polo also has a reputation for being physical so you could argue that it was the Soviets, whose first Olympic title would not come until 1972, who were the underdogs. But try telling that to the people of Hungary in the wake of their uprising being crushed.
Extract from Children of Glory
A final Olympic film concerns not the sport as such but one of the more tragic incidents to have befallen the Games – Kevin MacDonald’s One Day in September, which documents the kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Black September at the 1972 Munich games. It was a grim atrocity, made all the worse by the International Olympic Committee’s abject response, refusing to suspend the Games. MacDonald’s documentary is dramatically impeccable and brilliantly edited, even if it is clearly tendentious and makes little effort to provide historical context for the attack or the Israeli response to it, something Steven Spielberg’s dramatisation, Munich, went some way to righting. But it is a powerful documentary about one of the darkest episodes in the Games' history.
One Day in September (full film)