The Olympics have had no shortage of human drama. Add expensive
scripting, editing and cinematography, and the Games should have
yielded a slew of celluloid classics. So why have so many
non-documentary films involving the Olympics missed by a metric
mile? Why have these movies produced images that are indelible
for the wrong reasons?
Consider It Happened in Athens, a 1960 film in which the
champion of the 1896 Olympic marathon is promised booty far
beyond a mere gold medal: He gets to marry Jayne Mansfield. As
"the greatest actress in Greece," Mansfield's character is
accorded ample opportunity to prance around in complicated
underwear. Miffed that the Olympics have muscled her out of the
headlines, she frets, "What shall I do, broad-jump?"
Playing himself in the 1954 movie of his life, The Bob Mathias
Story, the 1948 and 1952 decathlon champion was "as handsome as
any young Hollywood idol and twice as guileless in his emoting,"
opined critic Howard Thompson of The New York Times. In 1960,
Mathias appeared as the U.S. coach who is the moral center of
the aforementioned It Happened in Athens. In that film the U.S.
ambassador to Greece tells his country's athletes why they're
not getting money from their government: "President Cleveland
has a terrible problem on his hands. He's a Democrat. The
majority in Congress are Republicans. And you know how the
Republicans are." Mathias nods knowingly--not foreseeing that
from 1967 to 1974 he will be a Republican congressman.
To Vincent Canby of the Times, Susan Anton as Goldengirl (1979)
was "an Alp that walks, talks, runs." Canby found it "difficult
to understand a phenomenon as spectacular as this after a single
viewing." Well, Anton is an impressive specimen, as the lens
invariably reminds us each time (and there are plenty) she
settles into her starting blocks. Anton's character is a guinea
pig for her "adoptive" father, a German scientist played by Curt
Jurgens, who uses growth hormones and behavior modification to
create a 6'2" female sprint champion. Scenes of Anton receiving
electric shocks to quicken her starts are cruel, depressing and
perhaps some nut's idea of kinky. Goldengirl goes to Moscow
(what boycott?) and not only wins the 100 and the 400 but also
blazes 200 meters in 20.03--faster than Pietro Mennea's actual
gold-medal-winning time in the men's 200 at the 1980 Games.
Anton's not much of a speedster, though; the other actresses
struggle gamely not to outrun her.
Though questionable in taste, Goldengirl was astoundingly
prescient. Germany's 5'11" blonde Katrin Krabbe, who won the 100
and 200 meters at the 1991 World Championships and was even
referred to as "the Golden Girl," was a true product of chemical
engineering: She was banned from world track for steroid use,
but not before magazines dashed to splash her on their covers.
Before those adorable pipsqueaks Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci
caused the popularity of gymnastics to skyrocket, swimming and
track and field were the cream of the Olympics, and track has
received the most cinematic attention. The downbeat Running
(1979) is "a metaphor for a guy who was afraid to win," claims
director Steven Hilliard Stern. The protagonist, a medical- and
law-school dropout played by Michael Douglas, is medal-bound in
the Olympic marathon--until he slips and smacks his head in the
middle of the race. But he staggers to the finish in the Olympic
stadium for the kind of Pyrrhic victory that movie folks can't
With Korbut and Comaneci in the '72 and '76 Games, respectively,
gymnastics caught on Hollywood style. No one in the
Anglo-American cast of Nadia (1984) attempts much of a Romanian
accent, and except for Carrie Snodgress as Nadia's teary mom, no
one can act. This biopic is as charmless and grim as the women's
gymnastics it depicts. Comaneci's first perfect 10.0 at the
Montreal Olympics is a minuscule part of the yarn. Starvation is
a weightier subject. After Montreal, all that Nadia, played by
Leslie Weiner and, as she matures, Johann Carlo, craves is a hot
fudge sundae. She comes to realize that "judges resent the fact
that little girls grow up."
Not if Albert Magnoli were judging. The director's choice of
leading lady in his otherwise appalling 1986 gymnastics
adventure, American Anthem, was Janet Jones, the actress who is
married to Wayne Gretzky. As a gymnast, Jones is a very good
dancer. If gymnasts were built like the breathtaking Jones,
gymnastics would be far more popular in that coveted 18-34 male
As haughty and sullen Sarah Velvet Brown in International Velvet
(1978), Tatum O'Neal metamorphoses into the star of the British
equestrian team. Riding with a dislocated shoulder, she clinches
the U.K.'s victory in a pitched Olympic battle with the Yanks.
Anthony Hopkins, as the British coach, shines. "Sorrow does not
win competitions," he submits after the team suffers a mishap.
"Otherwise, I'd be a three-time gold medalist." Whereas Nadia
might make little girls loathe gymnastics, the lyrically
photographed International Velvet should make them love horses.
A full 97 minutes into Walk, Don't Run (1966), actor Jim Hutton,
playing a character named Steve Davis, remains steadfastly mum
and profoundly embarrassed about the event in which he is
competing at the Tokyo Games. Finally, costars Cary Grant and
Samantha Eggar watch Hutton line up for the 50-km walk. Soon,
Grant strips to his skivvies and strolls alongside Hutton,
exclaiming, "This is the most ridiculous race." This is also a
comedy devoid of laughs.
Tokyo figures in a much better film, Running Brave (1983), about
Billy Mills, the half-Sioux runner who won gold in the 10,000
meters in 1964. The Olympic final, a small war of elbows and
multiple lead changes among Mills, Mohamed Gammoudi and Ron
Clarke, is thrillingly reenacted. Afterward, when Pat Hingle, as
the penitent college coach, tells Robby Benson, who plays Mills,
"That was the greatest race I ever saw a man run," you'll agree:
Yes, it was. And you'll almost forget that Hingle's autocratic
butthead character had branded all Indians "quitters" and drunks.
Running Brave stands out in a group of relentlessly routine
Olympic track movies that includes Jim Thorpe--All American
(1951), in which former acrobat Burt Lancaster wins the
decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, and Sweden's king
tells him, "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world";
Babe (1975), in which Susan Clark as Babe Didrikson brings home
1932 Olympic javelin and hurdles gold (and an Emmy); and The
Jesse Owens Story (1984), in which militant black athletes at
the 1968 Mexico City Olympics tell Owens (Dorian Harewood), who
had flirted with the Republicans, that they'll negotiate with
anybody but him.
The heroes of Chariots of Fire (1981) are Scottish missionary
Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic gold medalist at 400 meters, and
Harold Abrahams, the 100-meter gold medalist. Chariots is
stuffed with historical inaccuracies and omissions. Lord
Lindsay, the bon-vivant hurdler played by Nigel Havers, is based
on Lord Burghley, a gold medalist in 1928, but he's the film's
saving grace. Track fans genuflect to Chariots; its theme music
will blare at small-town road races well into the 21st century.
Robert Towne's far better Personal Best (1982) is believable
from the instant that actress Patrice Donnelly, ecstatic about
her shot put, hoists her coach, played by Scott Glenn, off the
ground. Donnelly, who was an Olympic hurdler in 1976, is
achingly raw as a lapsed heterosexual. She's smitten by a potent
track prospect played by Mariel Hemingway, whom Donnelly tells,
"You can be great....Everything I've always wanted, you've got."
The arm-wrestling match between these two women is more sexually
charged than dozens of conjugal scenes in other movies. Towne
overindulges his taste for shots of sleek athletic females--but
that's not a problem if you happen to share his taste.
Glenn plays the unflappable father/ brother/suitor/jailer of his
female charges with 156 shades of gruff. The shorthand for him
is "manipulative," but he's far more complex than that. Glenn
aptly describes the high jump as "a masochist's event. It always
ends on failure."
As the amiably goofy water-polo player who admires Hemingway's
bench pressing, Kenny Moore, a senior writer for this magazine,
appears nude and is "the film's biggest surprise...a natural
film personality," according to the Times's Canby. It's poignant
when the courtly Moore thanks Hemingway "for making me feel like
I'm not in a hurry." Whereupon she jumps his bones.
Freelancer Peter Gambaccini is the author of "The New York City
TWO B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOFEST Mathias (in hat with Mansfield and right) showed nice form in a hit and a miss. [Bob Mathias and Jayne Mansfield in movie The Bob Mathias Story; Bob Mathias holding shot]
B/W PHOTO: MOVIE STILL ARCHIVES Hemingway was convincing in "Personal Best"; Anton (below) wasn't close in "Goldengirl." [Mariel Hemingway in movie Personal Best]
B/W PHOTO: EVERETT COLLECTION [See caption above--Susan Anton in movie Goldengirl]