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Ten Great Movies that Capture the Olympic Spirit

If you are sitting on your couch watching Michael Phelps try and break the record set by Mark Spitz or watching the American women’s gymnastics team try and tumble their way past China this week and you feel like you need a little extra inspiration, these ten films should do the trick quite nicely.
Chariots Of Fire
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on August 11th, 2008

If there is one thing we like to do, it is jumping all over the pride-in-country bandwagon every chance we get. That is why we take time away from barbecues and family gatherings to write all sorts of clever lists for every single Holiday. Even more enjoyable is taking the Olympic Games, both summer and winter, and exploiting them as an opportunity to share some of our favorite films. This time around, in honor of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, China, we have assembled a list of Ten Films that Capture the Olympic Spirit. These are ten films that we like to dust off every two years ago to get us all revved up and ready to cheer on our respective countries.

Until they make Water Albatross: The Michael Phelps Story, these will serve as our favorites:

D2: The Mighty Ducks

Sure, it took place at the Junior Goodwill Games, but what more inspirational story is there than a junior hockey team, fresh off a successful triumph in the pee-wee ranks, going on to represent the U.S. of A with good ole Gordon Bombay at the helm. Of all the stories in the Mighty Ducks franchise, this is the one that shook my world as a child, giving me the competitive spirit and national pride to finally fight back against that Canadian kid who bullied me all through grade school. How about a trip to the nurse’s office, eh?


Without Limits

This is the first, but not likely the last, movie about famed runner Steve Prefontaine that will make this list. The runner’s life, one cut short by a car accident at the age of 24, is probably one of the most interesting and heartbreaking Olympic stories of the modern era. In this 1998 film, actor Billy Crudup plays Steve Prefontaine, with Donald Sutherland taking on the role of famous coach Bill Bowerman. Not the best movie about Prefontaine, but one worth watching nonetheless.


Running Brave

Here is an Olympic story that I have just recently discovered, but it is certainly one that has intrigued me. Running Brave tells the story of Billy Mills, an American Indian man who came from obscurity to win the 10,000-meter long-distance foot race at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. To this day, he is the only American to ever win gold in that particular event, a feat which some have called one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.


The Jesse Owens Story

Nothing says underdog story like the tale of the great Jesse Owens. How could we even dream of leaving a film about his life off of our list? And even though writer Mike Jefferies is currently working on a script for a new Jesse Owens biopic for 2009, with Anthony Mackie in the title role, this 1984 TV movie that starred Dorian Harewood still holds the torch as the best tale of Owens’ life. On top of that, it also co-starred LeVar Burton. Yes, that LeVar Burton.


Chariots of Fire

Instead of writing a description for Chariots of Fire, which is by any measure a fantastic film about the British runners who would go on to compete in the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris, I would just like to submit the video clip below. If this doesn’t get you ready to watch the Olympics, I don’t know what will:


Peaceful Warrior

So far on the list, we’ve had plenty of Track and Field, as well as some Hockey mixed in, but this is our first chance to talk gymnastics. It would seem a little odd that this film, which starred Nick Nolte as a stranger who meets and mentors a college gymnast, would be marked mostly by the fact that it was directed by convicted child molester Victor Salva because it wasn’t a half-bad flick. It was a solid story of redemption, based on a far superior work of autobiographical fiction by author Dan Millman.


The Cutting Edge

From a movie directed by a kid-toucher to a movie, on skates, which touches me every time. D.B. Sweeney — wait a moment, whatever happened to D.B. Sweeney, anyway? — stars as a hockey player who gets his bell rung during the 1988 Olympics who meets up with Moira Kelly, who plays a figure skater who is down on their luck. Together, they fight to get their Olympic dreams back and ultimately find some love along the way. Yes, I am currently tearing up.


Cool Runnings

Ah, how we all miss John Candy. In one of his more entertaining roles, Candy played Irv Blitzer, a shady bobsled coach who is cast out of his home country and sent to sulk and drink away his life. That is, until he encounters a group of Jamaican men who will do anything to realize their Olympic dreams, even if that means doing it as a bobsled team. Based on the true story of the first Jamaican team and home of the most awesome character ever (Sanka Coffie), Cool Runnings is one of those must-watch Olympic movies.


Prefontaine

Here is number two of our two-part homage to the movies about the life of runner Steve Prefontaine. This one sports a more obvious title than the aforementioned film that starred Billy Crudup and is generally regarded as the lesser of the two, but it is worth watching either way. In this film, which was released in 1997, Jared Leto plays the young Oregonian runner and R. Lee Ermey plays coach Bill Bowerman.


Miracle

By far my all-time favorite inspirational, or otherwise Olympic related film, Miracle still gives me goosebumps as it nears its thrilling climax. We all know what happens, the 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey team defeats the Russians, thereby kicking communism square in the testicles and striking a blow that would be felt the world over. Yet, despite this obvious climax, the thrill has never ceased, not on viewing number one and not on viewing number one hundred. Great performances, great sequences of hockey action, and all of the drama you can squeeze out of an already epic situation — this is one for the books.


So there you have it. If you are sitting on your couch watching Michael Phelps try and break the record set by Mark Spitz or watching the American women’s gymnastics team try and tumble their way past China this week and you feel like you need a little extra inspiration, these ten films should do the trick quite nicely.

What are your favorite movies that capture the Olympic spirit?

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)