Endurance (1999)

A portrait of Ethiopian runner Haile Gabrsellasie, who won the gold in Atlanta in 1996, that is both documentary and biopic—Gabrsellasie plays himself (just as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali did in their own biodocs), in present-day footage and in flashbacks, among other nonprofessional actors who play his relatives. Powerful but not manipulative—in fact, it’s rather distancing and mysterious. Codirected by nonfiction vet Leslie Woodhead and Olympics documentarian Bud Greenspan.

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Without Limits (1998)

The second of the late 1990s biopics of James Dean–ish track star Steve Prefontaine, made by impassioned screenwriter Robert Towne and starring Billy Crudup as the golden boy who broke loads of records but failed to win any medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and died tragically in a highway wreck at

Cover of "Without Limits"
Cover of Without Limits

age twenty-four. Towne tries to wax philosophical, imagining the debate between coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) and Prefontaine to be a struggle between goal-oriented reason (win) and Ayn Rand–ish individualism (run), but the cloud of preordained doom hangs heavily over the action. What makes Prefontaine a worthy subject is somewhat mysterious; he didn’t place at the Olympics (somehow, the kidnapping of the Israeli track team is supposed to have spoiled his chances), and when all the eulogies are said and done, you can’t be blamed for thinking that all that time and energy would’ve been more fruitfully spent tracking the travails of the Finnish cop who did win.

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Cool Runnings (1993)

Cover of "Cool Runnings"
Cover of Cool Runnings

Everyone enjoys rooting for the underdog, and there can’t be anyone more disadvantaged than a bobsled team training in the tropics. A lighthearted and often childish tale of Olympic trials and tribulations, bizarrely based on the true story of the Jamaican team’s history-making appearance at the 1988 games in Calgary, with the late John Candy as, unbelievably, the straight man (the down-on-his-luck coach) to the cast of youngsters and canines.

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Chariots of Fire (1981)

“More cavalier!” someone says in this Oscar winner— it’s a reference to the British participation in the 1924 Olympics in Paris, but it sums up the movie, which follows two hard-nosed runners (Ben Cross’s angry Jew, Harold Abrahams; and Ian Charleson’s pious preacher, Eric Liddell) as they attempt to outrun everyone (except each other) as a matter of principle. A lovely ode, made hypnotic by Vangelis’s electronic score. Français : Harold Abrahams, ici au stade Persh...

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Babe (1975)

Babe Didrikson, 1932, Didrikson qualified for ...
Babe Didrikson, 1932, Didrikson qualified for all five individual women’s track and field events in 1932, but was allowed to compete in only three of them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A TV movie, back in the day when network-produced feature films could actually be ambitious and/or inventive, about track star Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias, who won two gold medals at the 1932 games, struggled against the all-male sports world at home to become a champ pro golfer, and succumbed, tragically, to cancer. Susan Clark, peppy but forgotten semi-star of the decade, did her best work in this loving tribute, winning an Emmy for her efforts.

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Visions of Eight (1973)

The last international Olympic documentary to date, in which eight directors were assigned to chronicle the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich: Japanese Olympic veteran Kon Ichikawa, Czech humanist Milos Forman, French mush head Claude Lelouch, American New Waver Arthur Penn, British Oscar winner John Schlesinger, Swedish feminist Mai Zetterling, German hack Michael Pfleghar, and Russian epic-maker Yuri Ozerov. Actually, the episodes aren’t terribly varied, and all owe their poetry to Tokyo Olympiad.

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Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

Cover of "Tokyo Olympiad - Criterion Coll...
Cover of Tokyo Olympiad – Criterion Collection

Twenty-seven years after Olympia, Japanese director Kon Ichikawa was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee to document the 1964 games with a loving CinemaScope eye, a spectacular sense of visual space, and a fondness for the lyricism of losing as well as of winning. More of an epic avant-gardism, full of abstracted details rather than athletic achievements.

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