When I was a little girl, I was obsessed with the Olympics. Like, OBSESSED. I insisted on having an Olympic-themed birthday party to coincide with the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. My friends and I competed in silly competitions and relay races and received plastic medals. My birthday cake was shaped and decorated like a stadium, complete with a Starburst-and-frosting podium in its center. Particularly fascinated with/inspired by Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug, I begged my parents to let me try gymnastics. I had one lesson at the local Y before the coach quit because the gym was "too hot." In her defense, southern summers are pretty miserable.
I never made it to any podiums—let's be honest, I'd be surprised if I could even do a summersault—but I've always loved watching the games. Who knew badminton or table tennis could be so exhilarating? Why would anyone invent a sport where participants willingly slide down a 120 m, or nearly 400 ft, hill and then launch themselves into the air? With skis strapped to their feet? Can someone please explain race walking?
So, to commemorate Olympic Fever, I wanted to round up ten great films representing the Olympic spirit. There are plenty of underdog stories, dramatic accounts, and the first documentary about the Olympics (with its own storied history) in this listicle.
Do you prefer the Winter Games or the Summer Games? Let me know, as well as your favorite events! Except for gymnastics and swimming, I tend to prefer the Winter over the Summer Games. And my favorite Olympic-themed movie is Cool Runnings!
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Writer: Leni Riefenstahl
Commissioned to make a propaganda film about the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany, director Leni Riefenstahl created a celebration of the human form. This first half of her two-part film opens with a renowned introduction that compares modern Olympians to classical Greek heroes. Then goes on to provide thrilling in-the-moment coverage of some of the games' most celebrated moments, including African-American athlete Jesse Owens winning a then-unprecedented four gold medals.
DYK? The famous dissolve in the Prologue—a gradual transition from the Classical Greek statue of the Discus Thrower of Myron to a real athlete— was achieved by placing Erwin Huber behind a glass pane overlayed with the outline of the statue. A German decathlon champion, Huber was chosen because he had almost the exact proportions of the sculpture.
Downhill Racer (1969)
Director: Michael Ritchie
Writers: James Salter & Oakley Hall
Starring: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Jim McMullan & Dabney Coleman
Smug and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Redford), joins the American ski team and quickly makes waves with his arrogant behavior and even flashier maneuvers on the slopes. He falls into conflict with the team's coach (Hackman) and develops a rivalry between David and Johnny Creech (McMullan), the man who is considered the team's best skier. Both push themselves and each other in a race to the Olympic Games.
DYK? Downhill Racer was Sylvester Stallone's feature film debut; he played a restaurant patron.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Director: Hugh Hudson
Writer: Colin Welland
Starring: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Nigel Havers, Ian Holm, Lindsay Anderson, John Gielgud, Cheryl Campbell & Alice Krige
In the class-obsessed and religiously divided United Kingdom of the early 1920s, two determined young runners train for the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell (Charleson), a devout Christian born to Scottish missionaries in China, sees running as part of his worship of God's glory and refuses to train or compete on the Sabbath. Harold Abrahams (Cross) overcomes anti-Semitism and class bias but neglects his beloved sweetheart Sybil (Krige) in his single-minded quest.
DYK? In 1982, Chariots of Fire received seven Academy Award nominations and won four Oscars, including Best Picture.
Cool Runnings (1993)
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Lynn Siefert, Tommy Swerdlow & Michael Goldberg
Starring: John Candy, Leon, Doug E. Doug, Rawle D. Lewis, Malik Yoba, Raymond J. Barry & Larry Gilman
Based on a true story, four Jamaican athletes go to extremes to compete as bobsled racers at the 1988 Winter Olympics. With virtually no clue about winter sports, it's an uphill course for this troupe from the tropics as they go for gold in Canada. After enlisting some professional help, it's now up to a reluctant ex-champion American slider to bring a team of complete novices up to Olympic speed.
DYK? In 1993, Cool Runnings was Walt Disney Pictures' highest-grossing live-action film. Against an estimated $14,000,000 budget, the film earned $68, 856, 263 in North America and $154,856,263 worldwide.
Without Limits (1998)
Director: Robert Towne
Writers: Robert Towne & Kenny Moore
Starring: Billy Crudup, Donald Sutherland, Monica Potter, Jeremy Sisto, Judith Ivey, Matthew Lillard & William Mapother
Before Steve Prefontaine (Crudup) makes it to the 1972 Olympics in Munich, he is an unlikely track star at the University of Oregon. Steve develops a strong bond with coach Bill Bowerman (Sutherland) after initially clashing over his front-running style—running the race at maximum speed from beginning to end. Steve also has a profound effect on a beautiful co-ed named Mary (Monica Potter), who becomes the object of his affection.
DYK? Producer Tom Cruise initially considered playing Steve Prefontaine but decided against it, citing that he was too old for the part.
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Writer: Eric Guggenheim
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Sean McCann, Kenneth Welsh, Eddie Cahill, Patrick O'Brien Demsey, Michael Mantenuto & Nathan West
When college coach Herb Brooks (Russell) is hired to helm the 1980 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team, he brings a unique and bold style to the ice. After assembling a team of hot-headed college all-stars (who are humiliated in an early match), Brooks unites his squad against a common foe, the heavily-favored Soviet team. As the U.S. squad tries to overcome impossible odds and win the gold medal, the group becomes a microcosm for American patriotism during the Cold War.
DYK? More than 4,000 men auditioned for only twenty roles on the U.S. Olympic Ice Hockey Team in the movie. One of the actors cast was Billy Schneider, who played his real-life father, Buzz Schneider of Team USA.
Director: Bennett Miller
Writer: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
Starring: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum & Mark Ruffalo
When wealthy John du Pont (Carell) invites Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) to move to his estate and help form a wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics, Mark sees a way to step out of the shadow of his charismatic brother, Dave (Ruffalo). However, du Pont begins to lead Mark down a dark road, causing the athlete's self-esteem to slip. Meanwhile, du Pont becomes fixated on bringing Dave into the fold, eventually propelling all three toward an unforeseen tragedy.
DYK? Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo would film all day and then go to intense wrestling practice. They were so exhausted by the end of the shoot that Tatum and Ruffalo cried after their final practice.
Eddie the Eagle (2016)
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Writers: Simon Kelton & Sean Macaulay
Starring: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken, Iris Berben & Jim Broadbent
Cut from the Olympic ski team, British athlete Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Egerton) travels to Germany to test his skills at ski jumping. Fate leads him to Bronson Peary (Jackman), a former ski jumper working as a snowplow driver. Impressed by Edwards' spirit and determination, Peary agrees to train the young underdog. Despite an entire nation counting him out, Eddie's never-say-die attitude takes him all the way to a historic and improbable showing at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.
DYK? According to the film, when Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards competed at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics for Great Britain in ski-jumping, Britain had not had a ski-jumper since 1929.
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writers: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten & William Hurt
Young Jesse Owens (James) becomes a track and field sensation while attending the Ohio State University in the early 1930s. With guidance from coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis), Owens gains national recognition for breaking numerous records. After heated debates, the United States decides not to boycott the Olympics in Nazi Germany. Overcoming racism at home and abroad, Owens seizes the opportunity to show Berlin and the world that he's the fastest man alive.
DYK? Very little historical information is known about track and field coach Larry Snyder. To develop his character, Jason Sudeikis took inspiration from Gene Hackman in Hoosiers (1986) and Kevin Costner in Bull Durham (1988).
I, Tonya (2017)
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Caitlin Carver, Paul Walter Hauser & Bobby Cannavale
In 1991, talented figure skater Tonya Harding becomes the first American woman to complete a triple axel during a competition. In 1994, her world came crashing down when her ex-husband conspired to injure Nancy Kerrigan, a fellow Olympic hopeful, in a poorly conceived attack that forces the young woman to withdraw from the national championship. Harding's life and legacy instantly become tarnished as she's forever associated with one of the most infamous scandals in sports history.
DYK? Although Margot Robbie trained extensively for the role, she could not perform a triple axel, nor could a skating double be found to do so. Because of its difficulty, very few female figure skaters can actually complete a triple axel, so the shot was achieved with visual effects. Of the stunt, producer Tom Ackerly said, "There have been only six women since Tonya Harding who has done a triple axel, even if there was one who was doing it today, she'd be training for the Olympics and couldn't risk doing it for the film."