While the original Olympic games date back thousands of years to ancient Greece, our modern biannual gathering of the world’s greatest athletes commenced in 1859—not all that long before the development of the motion picture camera.
Naturally, the drama, spectacle, triumphs and heartbreak inherent in the Olympics have long proven to be ideal fodder for the movies. The following films capture the games’ grandeur, struggles, controversies, and spectacularly human sagas of inspiration and translate them into entirely winning cinematic experiences.
Here are ten Olympic movies that go for the gold—and get it.
Stephan James stars as track and field superstar Jesse Owens in Race, a stirring recreation of the African-American athlete’s experience at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Nazis were in charge and Adolf Hitler sought to prove that his German teams did indeed represent a “master race.” Owens fantastically shattered that fascist delusion by winning four gold medals. Race brings Jesse Owens’ world-changing victory to visceral life.
Eddie the Eagle (2016)
In 1988, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards became legendary at the Calgary Olympics as Great Britain’s first ski jumper in nearly sixty years. He finished last in all his events, but proved to be so spirited and lovable a character that the world fell in love with his perseverance. Taron Egerton is great in Eddie the Eagle’s title role, and Hugh Jackman is a blast as his boozy trainer.
The powerful documentary Salute chronicles the mesmerizing moment at the 1968 Olympics when two African-American medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists on their winner’s platforms to signal a “Black Power” salute. In addition, film covers the third medalist who was present, Peter Norman of Australia, who showed solidarity with Smith and Carlos by wearing a badge to promote the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
The most harrowing tragedy in modern Olympics history occurred at the 1972 games in Munich, Germany, when terrorists associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization kidnapped and murdered members of the Israeli weightlifting team. Director Steven Spielberg’s tense, occasionally brutal thriller Munich picks up after the massacre, and tracks Israel’s mission to bring the killers to justice.
The triumph of the ragtag, wholly amateur 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team over state-sponsored professional players from the Soviet Union remains one of the most moving and inspirational underdog stories in sports history. Kurt Russell is perfect as U.S. coach Herb Brooks in Miracle, a full-press Disney effort complete with comedy, irresistible tear-jerking moments, and a killer late ’70s soundtrack.
Two films came out in rapid succession about the tragically cut-short life of Steve Prefontaine, a college champion long-distance runner from Oregon who lost at the 1972 Olympics but looked poised to win big in ’76. Before he could get there, though, Prefontaine died in a car accident. The first biopic, 1997’s Prefontaine, stars Jared Leto as the runner and focuses on his efforts to get better support for amateur athletes who have to face well-funded competitors from other countries. Billy Crudup turned down the lead in Titanic (1997) in order to play Steve Prefontaine in Without Limits (1998). It’s the more sophisticated of the two films, after being in development for nearly twenty years by co-writer and director Robert Towne. Donald Sutherland is especially gripping as Prefontaine’s coach, Bill Bowerman, who invents a new kind of running shoe and happens to launch a little company known as Nike.
Cool Runnings (1993)
One of the most endearing Olympic stories ever makes for one of the most lovable sports films of all time. Cool Runnings details the wildly unlikely, entirely inspiring journey of the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team from their tropical training rituals to the way they turn a loss into one of the ultimate Olympic triumphs on a snowy track in Alberta. Leon Robinson, Doug E. Doug, Malik Yoba, and Rawle D. Lewis all deliver star-making performances as the team members, while John Candy is pure joy as a disgraced bobsled coach who gets another chance when he believes in these underdogs.
American Anthem (1986)
Although its story is fictional, American Anthem stars real-life Olympic gold medal gymnast Mitch Gaylord as a football player who trades in the gridiron for the parallel bars. The movie boasted a hit soundtrack, and numerous subsequent Olympic athletes cite American Anthem as a key inspiration that drove them to take up their sports.
Personal Best (1982)
Writer-director Robert Towne, who’d go on to make Without Limits in 1998, first took on the Olympics with the daring, heartfelt, and hotly controversial (at the time) Personal Best. Mariel Hemingway stars as a young pentathlon competitor in training for the 1980 Moscow games (which the U.S. ended up boycotting) who embarks on a lesbian relationship with Patrice Donnelly as a more experienced runner.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Chariots of Fire, the sweeping, elegant, fact-based drama about British runners in the 1924 Olympics, not only won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, the film’s instrumental theme song by synthesizer guru Vangelis, hit #1 on the U.S. billboard charts and became the unofficial sports music for what seemed like the rest of the 1980s.
Who do you think are the hottest athletes at the 2016 Olympics? We break down our choices in the video below.