The 2012 Summer Olympics in London are now upon us. To add some cinematic flair to the events, get to know most of the sports included in the Games by way of some memorable movies.
Track: Chariots of Fire (1981)
Not only is this Best Picture winner the most iconic film about the sport of running, particularly as represented through Vangelis' memorable original score, but it has actually been incorporated into this year’s Olympics in advertisements, fanfare music, theatrical re-release and a stage adaptation. It depicts a true story of two religious track athletes, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams,competing at the 1924 Games in Paris, where they raced for Great Britain.
Track Cycling: Breaking Away (1979)
Plenty of movies feature road cycling, typically referencing the Tour de France. This Oscar-winning classic, one of the most inspirational sports films, focuses on track racing, namely Indiana University’s annual Little 500 event. Although the film has no direct connection to the Olympics, there is an element of international competition when an Italian team comes to town to the delight then disappointment of the protagonist, a local cycling enthusiast.
BMX: Rad (1986)
This will be only the second Summer Olympics to include BMX as a medal event, but the sport goes back more than 40 years, originating as a spin-off of motocross in 1969. Years later, this movie cemented this brand of bicycle racing into pop culture. Interestingly enough, it costars a gold medalist, albeit for gymnastics, in the part of the rival racer. That athlete, Bart Conner, has since appeared more appropriately in gymnastic films Stick It and Peaceful Warrior.
Archery: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Right now there is a notable trend of archers in major films such as The Hunger Games, The Avengers and Brave. But the sport has long been prevalent in cinema, mainly in battle scenes. Tournament archery, though, can be found in most adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. The best of these stars Errol Flynn, whose famous arrow-splitting stunt was performed by the “World’s Greatest Archer,” Howard Hill, who also appears on-screen as Owen the Welshman.
Discus: Tron (1982)
One of the oldest and most emblematic sporting events of the Olympics, the discus throw is today almost more prominently linked to this sci-fi film about a man (Jeff Bridges) who becomes trapped inside a video game. Although not set in the future, the movie’s discus competition is perhaps a harbinger of where these sorts of events are headed, something combining the Olympics of Ancient Greece with the gladiatorial combat of Ancient Rome.
Decathlon and Pentathlon: Jim Thorpe -- All American (1951)
This biopic reminds us of a time when the Olympics didn’t permit professional athletes. Burt Lancaster stars as the titular Native American hero, a champ in many activities, who became famous in 1912 for winning both the decathlon and pentathlon and proved himself a versatile star. But he was stripped of his medals on the technicality that he had been paid to play baseball one summer. Fortunately for his legacy, the honors were reinstated in 1983.
Diving: Back to School (1986)
Real competitive diving may disappoint anyone who has seen this college comedy, which stars Rodney Dangerfield as a wisecracking 65-year-old student who joins the diving team. His character wows with the “Triple Lindy,” an “impossible” routine involving multiple boards and flips. Could Olympic divers accomplish any part of the feat, for which stuntman Dick Ziker doubled for Dangerfield in wide shots? Possibly, though such tricks are likely discouraged.
Swimming: Swimming Upstream (2003)
This Australian film is about Olympic hopeful Tony Fingleton (played by Jesse Spencer), who won a silver medal for the 220-yard backstroke at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. He was then invited to the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo but declined in order to attend Harvard and ultimately find success as a screenwriter. In addition to adapting this from his autobiography, he also gave us Drop Dead Fred.
Synchronized Swimming: Million Dollar Mermaid (1953)
You can’t talk about synchronized swimming without bringing up MGM star Esther Williams and choreographer Busby Berkeley, who collaborated on spectacular water ballet sequences for this “aqua-musical.” Williams portrays Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, who popularized the sport a century ago. Fans of The Great Muppet Caper will recognize some stunts in the biopic, the title of which provided Williams with a new nickname for the rest of her life.
Rowing: College (1927)
Competitive rowing is a staple of classic college movies and any later films about prep schools, the American Ivy League and Oxford University. One of the best of the silent college comedies is this Buster Keaton vehicle, in which he unsuccessfully tries out for many sports before being forced upon the rowing team as their coxswain. His stunts during the big race are hilariously astounding, and unlike his vaulting bit in the film, actually performed by him.
Boxing: The Greatest (1977)
Long before Will Smith earned an Oscar nomination for portraying Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend starred as himself in this biopic, which uses archive footage for the fight scenes. Unlike Ali, this film includes the 1960 Olympic win by Cassius Clay, though similarily concludes with the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout against George Foreman. The film features the late Ernest Borgnine as Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, who also died this year.
Basketball: Space Jam (1996)
Nobody will argue that this Looney Tunes feature is the greatest basketball movie of all time. But it might just be the most relevant to Olympic basketball. The villainous Nerdlucks steal the talents of U.S. National Team vets Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Charles Barkley and Muggsy Bogues (plus Shawn Bradley) for an alien squad with an unfair advantage dubbed “The Mean Team." Meanwhile, fellow gold medalist Michael Jordan plays for the good guys.
Football: Victory (1981)
Good football (soccer) movies have popped up in recent years around the world, but leave it to America to produce one of the earliest worthwhile efforts. Based on a true story and also a 1962 Hungarian film, this World War II POW sports drama stars Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine and Pele, who never played in the Summer Games but was named “Athlete of the Century” by the International Olympics Committee. Polish gold medalist Kazimierz Deyna costars.
Equestrian Eventing: International Velvet (1978)
Arriving more than 30 years later, this sequel to National Velvet stars Tatum O’Neal as the niece of Elizabeth Taylor’s character (now played by Nanette Newman) and involves a horse sired by the one in the original film. The setting expands to a global scale, featuring the Olympics as the main event with O’Neal competing for Britain. Rather than a steeplechase contest we’re now treated to eventing, which combines dressage, cross-country and jumping rounds.
Tennis: Wimbledon (2004)
If the Olympics are to be held in London, then the tennis matches understandably are to be found in Wimbledon. So, in spite of there not being a lot of tennis movies anyway, the most appropriate is still this A Star Is Born-style romantic comedy starring Kirsten Dunst as a young woman on the rise and Paul Bettany as the aging athlete in decline. Former tennis champ Mary Carillo, who continues as an Olympics host this year, appears as herself.
Table Tennis: Balls of Fury (2007)
In this goofy cult comedy from Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, of The State and Reno 911! fame, Dan Fogler stars as a washed-up Ping-Pong prodigy who blew his big chance in the table tennis finals at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Now grown up and performing at a casino, he is recruited to assist the FBI in busting a gun-running criminal mastermind, played by Christopher Walken, who is holding a black-market table tennis tournament.
Fencing: Die Another Day (2002)
Fencing and films have long gone hand in hand. While the sport is good training for staged swordplay, this doesn’t qualify every action scene based on fencing (like Star Wars). We avoided narrowing down everything from Douglas Fairbanks to today's swashbuckling resurgence, and selecting either William Hobbs or Bob Anderson’s choreography. In this James Bond movie we see real sport fencing, which sets up later fencing-based fight scenes.
Greco-Roman Wrestling: Win Win (2011)
One of the great films of last year, this sweet and often hilarious dramedy centers on a volunteer high school wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti), whose family takes in a troubled young runaway with a fortuitous talent for the sport. The kid is played by newcomer Alex Shaffer, a 2010 New Jersey State Champion making his film debut. Even if Taylor Lautner comes through with a long-planned Vision Quest remake, this should remain the best teen wrestling film for some time.
Taekwondo: Best of the Best (1989)
Maybe this action drama doesn’t quite live up to its name, but it definitely has a certain charm and will always be a guilty pleasure for martial arts fans. Made more than a decade before taekwondo became an Olympic event, the film’s plot focuses on an international tournament, pitting a U.S. team featuring Eric Roberts and Chris Penn and coached by James Earl Jones against Team Korea. Three sequels followed, none of which focuses on competitive sparring events.
Gymnastics: Gymkata (1985)
While some martial arts end up as Olympic events, this enjoyably ridiculous action flick sees an Olympic event adapted as a martial art. Real-life gold medalist Kurt Thomas stars as an Olympic gymnast tasked by the U.S. government to win a dangerous athletic game in a fictional Asian country. His secret weapon is his gymnastic skill, provided there are disguised pommel horses around. His talent for weird flips also helps in seductively disarming femme fatales.