Is there any worldwide event more compelling than the Olympics? We doubt it. Maybe that’s why so many films have been made about the trials and triumphs of athletes competing in the summer and winter Games. Usually based on the lives of real people with extraordinary skills and discipline, Olympic movies of all varieties are nearly impossible to resist.
Join us as we run the gamut of Olympic cinema with recommendations that include documentaries, Academy Award-winning feature films, and deliciously watchable made-for-TV movies. Next stop, Sochi in 2014!
Don't let anyone’s reputation intimidate you. All it means is that they used to be good; they must prove that they still are.
With many excellent made-for-TV movies about Olympic athletes to choose from (Wilma, Breaking the Surface, etc), Nadia, based on the experiences of Nadia Comaneci, the 14-year-old Romanian gymnast who scored seven perfect “10s” at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, has to be our favorite. Nadia was also the first Romanian gymnast to win the gold medal in the all-around competition, and this delight follows Nadia’s career from when she was discovered by famed coach Bela Karolyi (who is still in the news today) through her vigorous training routine and the drama of her Olympic triumphs. The film also chronicles her subsequent struggles with coaches, body image, and depression, not flinching from the dark side of competitive gymnastics. Starring Joe Bennett, Talia Balsam, Jonathan Banks and Johann Carlo, the film has you rooting for Nadia through and admiring her dedication. Fun fact: The filmmakers use actual footage of Nadia Comaneci performing in the Olympics!
Great moments are born from great opportunity.
“Welcome to the Olympics, gentlemen.” We say the same to audiences who settle in to enjoy this true story of the team that rallied our nation and secured hockey gold for the U.S. at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks (a stirring Kurt Russell) retired as a player soon after he was cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic Hockey team a week before their first game. As a veteran coach, Brooks is given the dubious task of pulling together a hockey team to represent the United States at the 1980 Olympic Games at a time when Russia, Canada and Sweden dominated the international sport. While Miracle could have been just one more formulaic sports film, under the masterful direction of Gavin O’Connor, it is so much more. Even those of us too young to have watched the 1980 Olympics can share in the exhilaration that fans at the time felt as they watched Brooks lead his rag-tag group of young players (featuring appealing actors like Eddie Cahill and Nathan West) against seemingly invincible odds. The culminating event of Miracle—the defeat of the heavily favored Russian team on their ice en route to winning the Gold—will have you chanting “USA, USA, USA!” long after the movie ends.
I can endure more pain than anyone you've ever met. That's why I can beat anyone I've ever met.
Without Limits is the second film made in two years about legendary runner Steve Prefontaine (the first being the aptly titled Prefontaine, starring Jared Leto), the American runner whose life was tragically cut short by an automobile accident. Prefontaine held numerous NCCA records and was an All-American many times over. He had competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics and was deep into training for the 1976 Games at the time of his death at age 24. Directed and co-written by Robert Towne (who also directed the excellent Olympic sports drama Personal Best), Without Limits features Billy Crudup as the enigmatic Prefontaine, masterfully dramatizing his discovery of the sport, his tireless training, his career highs and lows, and his all-important relationship with his trusted coach, Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland). Prefontaine’s resilience and determination in the face of numerous obstacles could well inspire you to put on your running shoes and hit the track.
There's only two things I do really well, sweetheart, and skating’s the other one!
Okay, we had to include a couple of fictionalized Olympic sports films in this smorgasbord, and there is none better than The Cutting Edge, an extremely watchable romantic comedy that focuses on the pairs competition for ice skaters. Penned by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Michael Clayton), The Cutting Edge stars D.B. Sweeney as Doug Dorsey, an all-star hockey player who is forced to retire due to an eye injury. Still dreaming of Olympic gold, he reluctantly meets with Kate Moseley (a radiant Moira Kelly), a talented but difficult figure skater who needs a partner for doubles figure skating in the upcoming 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Both Sweeney and Kelly trained extensively for their roles, and their hard work pays off on screen. Delightful skating montages, witty banter and a grizzled but affable coach who knows best (Roy Dotrice) are ingredients that make The Cutting Edge irresistible.
There's no such thing in this culture as being big and strong and completely and totally accepted as a woman… no matter how much you can kick everybody's ass.
Women’s weightlifting is a relatively new sport not usually covered by the mainstream media. However, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 17-year-old Cheryl Hayworth caught the world’s attention when she won the Bronze medal for the U.S. in women’s weightlifting (the first year the sport was included as an Olympic event). This riveting documentary follows Hayworth as she trains for the 2008 Beijing games with her coach and transitions from her familiar gym to the Olympic Training Center located in Colorado. Though she deals with injuries, cultural issues, a disrupted body image and financial hardships, Cheryl always keeps a smile on her face, charming those around her and stopping at nothing to reach her goals. Her story ends on a bittersweet note and leaves the audience wondering what will happen to Cheryl once she leaves the mat for good.
If you don’t run, you can’t win.
Even if you haven’t seen Chariots of Fire, you’ve no doubt heard its iconic soundtrack. Winner of four Oscars (including Best Picture), the film is based on events in the lives of Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (a wonderful Ben Cross), two British runners who regularly competed against each other. While the men are extremely different—Abrahams is a Jewish artist, while Liddell is a devout Protestant freshly returned from serving as a missionary in China—the men find common ground based on their love of competitive running. They run strictly for their love of the sport and the rush they feel when they push themselves to their limits of endurance. This film allows you to comprehend somewhat the pure elation that runners attain—almost a holy experience.
History is made of chaos and murder.
If you wish to indulge in one purely fictional, frivolous, lightweight, cheesy Olympic movie, Pentathlon is just the ticket. Dolph Lundgren (near the peak of his career) stars as Eric Brogar, a German Olympian who travels to the 1988 Seoul Olympics to complete in the Pentathlon. Between events, Eric dreams of leaving his cruel coach, Heinrich Mueller (David Soul), to start his life anew. Trained in swimming, fencing, shooting, running and horse racing (legit Pentathlon events), Eric is well equipped when he decides to make his escape to freedom by hiding among the members of Team USA. Rather than be hunted for the rest of his life by his former coach and his former cronies, Eric exacts his revenge and defends the ones he has come to love with the strength and skill of an Olympian driven to the edge. Who says that Olympic training does not come in handy in real life? Grab some popcorn and enjoy!
If you can tear yourself away from the real Olympic Games, tell us what movies we missed!