Carrying torches 

Olympics, golden and tarnished, on film

Didja hear the one about former Olympian Picabo Street donating a good chunk of her post-Olympic earnings to a hospital in her hometown? Yep. Now there’s a Picabo ICU.

If you liked that, you’ll love Cool Runnings. In honor of the Special and Senior Olympics this month, we give you a short list of Olympic movies worth reconsidering. Or not. Mostly not.

Olympia (1938, dir. Leni Riefenstahl)
Having endeared herself to the Nazi party (and assured her future vilification by almost everybody else) with Triumph of the Will, the most important woman in the history of cinema followed up with a stunningly beautiful two-part documentary about the 1936 Berlin games. Ever the innovator, she dug camera pits so that athletes could be filmed against stark, filtered skies and, for aerial shots, sent a camera up in a balloon every day with a note attached telling whoever found it where to return it. In order not to miss a single record in the breaking, Riefenstahl and her handful of assistants filmed every heat of every event, exposing nearly 250 miles of film.

Riefenstahl’s critics (and they are legion) always see what they want to see, and in Olympia it’s the Nazi ideal supposedly embodied by the strength and athleticism she so admired in her muscular subjects. Never mind that one of them is Jesse Owens. As with Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl claimed to the end of her life that she was interested only in aesthetics, not political significance. The extent of her complicity is for you to decide, but there’s never been a more beautiful sports movie.

It Happened in Athens (1962, dir. Andrew Marton)
Jayne Mansfield stars as an over-the-top sexpot actress (but a Greek one—that’s where the “acting” comes in) who agrees to marry the winner of the marathon at the first modern Olympics in 1896. Male viewers are more likely to be distracted by the zeppelin race, in which Mansfield and herself are always tied for first. Real-life Olympian Bob Mathias stars as Coach Graham.

Running (1979, dir. Steven Hilliard Stern)
An American marathon runner played by Michael Douglas wants to compete in the Olympics. So he runs and runs some more—in his business suit, using his tie for a sweatband, before eventually upgrading his workout apparel to jeans. Meanwhile, his marriage is falling apart and his kids think he’s a jerk. Would-be viewers sprinted away from this movie when it came out; Douglas himself, already 35 and with, like, one decent movie under his belt, must have wondered if he was running laps in his own career. Fortunately, Romancing the Stone was just a few years away…

Goldengirl (1979, dir. Joseph Sargent)
The title calls to mind one of those small-town-kid-with-big-time-dreams comedy-dramas, yet Goldengirl is anything but. Future “Baywatch” babe Susan Anton stars as—get this—Goldine Serafin, a human guinea pig whose neo-Nazi scientist father has been conditioning her since birth to become an Olympic superwoman. The movie was originally planned as the pilot for a TV miniseries, but subsequent events made it redundant: Released in summer 1979, Goldengirl depicts American athletes competing in the (subsequently boycotted) 1980 Moscow games. The multitalented Anton, a former Miss California, also sings the title song, “Slow Down, I’ll Find You.”

Chariots of Fire (1981, dir. Hugh Hudson)
Based on real events, this film about two British athletes—one the devout son of Christian missionaries who refuses to run on Sunday, the other Jewish and the son of a Lithuanian emigrant father—competing for gold in the 1924 Paris games is arguably the best Olympic drama ever made. It manages to be blood-stirringly patriotic (if you’re British) while also getting in a few good jabs at the class system, particularly at a moneyed establishment trying to reassert itself after the all-comers carnage in France a decade earlier. Both Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) are competing for something more than Olympic gold, and Hugh Hudson’s intimate direction—lots of anguished running faces, here—turns the mutual and inward competition into something much bigger than just a footrace. And it’s got that catchy Vangelis theme song.

One Day in September (2000, dir. Kevin Macdonald)
Here’s one Olympic movie worthy of boycotting: Though it managed to snag an Oscar, Kevin Macdonald’s mercenary account of the terrorist attack on the 1972 Münich games also brought a very public shaming upon itself at the award ceremony, when producer Arthur Cohn held up the statuette and crowed, “I won this without showing [the movie] in a single theater!” Cohn had essentially rigged the vote in his film’s favor by limiting both the number of screenings and the number of Academy members invited to them; since Academy bylaws stipulate that only members who have seen all five entries in a category can vote, Cohn essentially won the Oscar by excluding as much of the judging body as possible. Now how sportsmanlike is that? Note: A Steven Spielberg-directed treatment of the same events, Vengeance, is set to begin filming this summer.

Cool Runnings (1993, dir. John Turteltaub)
This is exactly the kind of movie my mother would rent because she thought it looked “cute.” But it was my wife who summed it up perfectly about halfway through Cool Runnings, as we were debating whether to put something else in or not watch anything at all: “We’ve already made it through the torturous parts—we might as well enjoy it.” That’s this family funfest all over: almost enjoyable if you’ve got low expectations and a double-high threshold for cheesy dialogue and bad Jamaican accents. If you can hang with the kitschy fake ethnicity and one-dimensional Jamaican caricatures long enough to get invested in their performance at the 1988 Calgary games, by that point it’s basically over.

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