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Jul 23, 2021

Road to the Tokyo Olympics 2021: Best Summer Olympics Films

Once upon a time, in the 1990s, Father Vince swam for the University of Notre Dame, competing a couple of times on the international level. While not quite fulfilling his Olympic dreams, he reflects on his favorite Summer Games films.

Some won Oscars, and some not, but they all examine the highs and lows of humans striving for athletic excellence on the world stage.

Best Oscar-nominated film

Chariots of Fire (1981) covers the 1924 Paris Games, the city’s second hosting of the Olympics.

At the core of the film lie two faith journeys of British athletes. Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who competed in the 100-meter sprint, and Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), who ran middle distance.

Abrahams experienced an empty victory, of sorts, dramatically depicted as the secular athlete alone in the locker room, following his claiming the “fastest human in the world” title.

The film contrasts this to Liddell’s faith-filled epilogue. After his 400-meter gold medal (having scratched the 100-meter sprint as it was contested on a Sunday), he followed his Christian convictions into professional ministry. To him, sport was not the be-all-and-end-all, but a means to glorify God.

As a side note, Harold Abrahams converted to Catholicism in the 1930s. And, the film's title comes from a line from a poem about England by William Blake, adapted later into the British hymn Jerusalem, heard at the end of the film (spoiler alert -- the clip below is from the film's conclusion).

 

Best should’ve-been-nominated film

Race (2016) brings to life U.S. sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens (Stephan James) and his quadruple-gold-medal triumph in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, set in the middle of the Nazi Empire.

The film is named “race” with a nod to the double entendre. It considers the racism Owens experienced in his one Olympic experience, but the social issue doesn’t overwhelm the story. The heart of the story is sports and more specifically, the objective nature of a timed, individual sport.

Jesse would have had no one to blame but himself (with the exception of the 4 x 100 relay) had he not emerged victorious in all his events. He won all of his races and the long jump competition, as the clock and measuring tape don’t lie, shattering all Nazi-superiority nonsense.

 

Dueling Prefontaines

Prefontaine (1997) & Without Limits (1998)

Germane to the 1990s were studios releasing similar, competing projects. Prefontaine starred Jared Leto in the title character role of the charismatic long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, nicknamed "Pre," with R. Lee Ermey playing Bill Bowerman, his coach at the University of Oregon.

Billy Crudup and Donald Sutherland play the two in Without Limits. Despite great success in college (he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1970, at 19), Prefontaine finished fourth, outside the medals in the terrorism-marred 1972 Munich Olympics (more on that below). He died tragically in a car accident at 24 while preparing for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Bring tissues, both films are tearjerkers.

 

 

Best Documentary

A great documentary can turn an already great sporting event into a masterpiece of high drama -- and that's what Tokyo Olympiad (1965) does.

The IOC selected famed Japanese director Kon Ichikawa to film the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the result stands as one of the greatest documentaries made in the century.

Ichikawa’s best fictional films involve Japanese families going about ordinary life in simple character arcs.

Much like ABC later did in its up-close-and-personal vignettes on athletes and coaches, which began in 1972, Ichikawa utilizes this style to domesticate larger-than-life athletes. For example, the same gold-medal-winning sprinter who sheds a tear on the medal stand was just moments ago hammering in his own starting blocks.

Here's the whole thing:

 

Editor's note: On a more somber theme, the 1999 documentary One Day in September chronicles the Sept. 5, 1972, murder of 11 Israeli athletes by members of the Palestinian group Black September, at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. Narrated by Michael Douglas, it took the Oscar for best documentary feature.

Many complain that the Olympics are too political, but world events and cultural shifts have never been far from the Games.

Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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