10 of the best movies about the Olympics

In today’s world, the Olympic Games have become borderline inseparable from the film and television industry. Every sporting event is live-streamed across the globe to billions of viewers.

Additionally, in preparation for each Olympics, the International Olympic Committee selects an accomplished director from the host country to create an official film of the Olympic Games. These documentary films were first started in 1912 with the intention of celebrating the distinctive culture of each game and their host country. But don’t be mistaken: These are not your average sports documentaries. The Olympic films are such artistic, technological, and cultural explorations of such high caliber that the cinephile favorite Criterion Collection has published the “100 Years of Olympic Films” set to memorialize them.

The popularity of documentaries surrounding the Olympics has naturally given rise to narrative films, often blockbusters, which fictionalize the powerful stories that come out of the Olympic Games. For example, the 1988 Calgary Olympics spawned both the pop culture staple “Cool Runnings,” depicting Jamaica’s first-ever bobsled team, and the 2015 biopic “Eddie the Eagle,” following Britain’s first Winter Olympics ski jumper.

As recently as 2023, an Olympics blockbuster called “The Boys in the Boat” found box-office success with its uncomplicated depiction of the University of Washington’s journey to winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. These films, in addition to critically acclaimed ones like “I, Tonya” and “Munich,” cement the Olympics as a highly valuable and inspirational subject matter for filmmakers.

With so many Olympics-related films to pick from, Casino Bonus CA researched the history of the Olympics as portrayed in cinema and chose 10 films to highlight. Collectively, they catapult us into the world of the Olympics, spanning the event’s iconic history. IMDb user ratings and Metacritic scores are provided for popular and critical context.

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Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

– Director: Kon Ichikawa
– IMDb user rating: 7.8
– Metascore: Data not available
– Run time: 170 minutes

The International Olympic Committee commissioned director Kon Ichikawa to make “Tokyo Olympiad” based on his largely fictional but highly celebrated film work, including 1960’s “Brother” and 1959’s “Odd Obsession,” both of which competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

The ’64 Olympics were monumental for Japan as they hadn’t had the opportunity to host since 1940—the same year as the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which ultimately forced them to cancel the games. Ichikawa captured both the cultural import of the Olympics at large and the specific significance of the long-awaited ’64 Tokyo Olympics for Japan with an almost poetic rendering of the high-stakes sports drama as they unfold.

Despite the praise the film receives now, at the time it came out the committee demanded Ichikawa reshoot to produce a more traditional documentary but ultimately the reshoots never occurred.

Cinema 5 // Getty Images

Visions of Eight (1973)

– Directors: Milos Forman, Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Yuriy Ozerov, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, John Schlesinger, Mai Zetterling
– IMDb user rating: 6.8
– Metascore: Data not available
– Run time: 110 minutes

“Tokyo Olympiad” director Kon Ichikawa returns to the world of sports documentary in “Visions of Eight” where he joins seven other directors, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” director Milos Forman, among others.

In this anthology film, each director was tasked with creating their own short film centered around the 1972 Munich Olympics and was given total creative control over style and subject. The chosen directors shifted—Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman were originally asked to participate in the project but declined the opportunity while Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène created a short for the documentary that was ultimately cut from the final film.

The 1972 Munich Olympics are most known for the terrorist attack that occurred against Israeli athletes in the Olympics Village, which director John Schlesinger tackles in his short “The Longest,” considered the “most impactful” of the eight.

Characters celebrate an Olympic 400 Metres victory in a scene from 'Chariots Of Fire.'
Warner Bros./Archive Photos/Getty Images

Chariots of Fire (1981)

– Director: Hugh Hudson
– IMDb user rating: 7.1
– Metascore: 78
– Run time: 125 minutes

Almost everyone knows the classic theme from “Chariots of Fire” by Greek composer Vangelis, whose sweeping and inspiring score perfectly captures the uphill battle of the film’s protagonists Harold (Ben Cross) and Eric (Ian Charleson). Hugh Hudson’s film tracks the pair’s unexpected rise from young rivals to Britain’s star athletes at the 1924 Paris Olympics, overcoming religious persecution and their own limits to win the gold and beat the Americans.

While this film is a narrative drama, it’s based on the true story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Abrahams was a Jewish man who repeatedly faced antisemitism on his path to the Olympics and Liddell was the child of Scottish missionaries whose faith dictated that he never race on Sundays—a major conflict as his Olympic race was, of course, scheduled on Sunday. “Chariots of Fire” was director Hugh Hudson’s first feature film which quickly became a shining example of the importance and excellence of British film.

China Photos/Getty Images

16 Days of Glory (1985)

– Director: Bud Greenspan
– IMDb user rating: 7.7
– Metascore: Data not available
– Run time: 284 minutes

Where “Visions of Eight” centers on eight Olympic-based stories, “16 Days of Glory” manages to pack 18 stories into an almost five-hour-long run time. Centering around the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, this sports documentary was created by Bud Greenspan who, at the end of his life, had been commissioned to create the official Olympics film 10 times. This isn’t even Greenspan’s most ambitious Olympics-related work, as he created a 22-hour series titled “The Olympiad” in 1976.

“16 Days of Glory” exemplifies Greenspan’s trademark idealism, preferring to spend, in his own words, “100% of our time on the 90% that’s good”—and the good doesn’t just mean the medal winners and stars as Greenspan features unknown subjects and athletes who don’t even place top three, finding the beauty in their struggles nonetheless.

JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

Cool Runnings (1993)

– Director: Jon Turteltaub
– IMDb user rating: 7.0
– Metascore: 60
– Run time: 98 minutes

Disney’s “Cool Runnings” is a fictionalized narrative of the first-ever Jamaican bobsled team and their unlikely path to the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Described by critic Roger Ebert as “surprisingly entertaining, with a nice sweetness,” the sports comedy is a beloved underdog story—however, it’s guilty of dramatizing the truth to the point where “not much in [the movie] actually happened in real life” Dudley Stokes, founding member of the Jamaican bobsled team, said on a Reddit Ask Me Anything event.

Bobsledding, or really any winter sport, is an atypical choice for Jamaica as it typically requires snow, ice, and cold, not to mention the fact that there were no training facilities, no Jamaican coaches, and the recruited members had military backgrounds. Ultimately, the team failed to place at the 1988 Olympics after a disastrous crash but won the hearts of viewers everywhere and provided much-needed positive press for Jamaica.

Billy Crudup attends the 2000 New York Awards in New York City.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Without Limits (1998)

– Director: Robert Towne
– IMDb user rating: 7.2
– Metascore: 71
– Run time: 117 minutes

Steve Prefontaine was nothing short of a running prodigy, undefeated for two years straight in high school, setting eight collegiate records at the University of Oregon, and eventually competing at the 1972 Munich Olympics. “Without Limits” is a biopic starring a young Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine which tracks this meteoric rise to Olympic stardom, co-written and directed by Robert Towne, whose previous credits include writing the 1974 classic “Chinatown.”

While “Without Limits” isn’t the first biopic about Prefontaine (“Prefontaine” released in 1997), Towne’s film captures both the magnetic energy of the star athlete and the idealistic attitude the early ’70s United States held toward sports culture. In his lifetime, Prefontaine became a strong activist for reform of the Amateur Athletic Union, which banned track athletes from endorsements or receiving compensation from performing—as a result, he became the first-ever athlete to sign with Nike only one year before his untimely death.

Lee Celano/WireImage for Hollywood Reporter // Getty Images

Miracle (2004)

– Director: Gavin O’Connor
– IMDb user rating: 7.4
– Metascore: 68
– Run time: 135 minutes

Much like “Without Limits,” 2004’s “Miracle” is an Olympics-based biopic—unlike “Without Limits,” however, “Miracle” makes the bold choice to focus on an Olympic coach instead of the athletes themselves. The 1980 Winter Olympics saw one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history when the U.S. hockey team won the gold medal after defeating the Soviets who’d previously won the last four Olympic hockey gold medals. How did a newly formed team defeat a powerhouse?

According to “Miracle,” their success hinged on their coach Herb Brooks, played by Kurt Russell. Brooks relied on local Minnesotan talent to form his team and taught them a new offensive game plan called the “weave.” Despite being a Disney film, “Miracle” manages to push past its stereotypical underdog story and provide a compelling look at both the personalities and prowess that cemented the 1980 hockey team as American heroes.

Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Munich (2005)

– Director: Steven Spielberg
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 74
– Run time: 164 minutes

Steven Spielberg is perhaps best known for his upbeat and crowd-pleasing blockbuster films like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or, more recently, his remake of “West Side Story.” However, his 2005 film “Munich” takes on a far more somber tone.

The film is a historical drama about the 1972 Munich Olympics—a subject also explored in “Visions of Eight”—when a terrorist attack occurred against the Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village. Spielberg’s narrative is an adaptation of George Jonas’ book “Vengeance,” a nonfiction book documenting the attempts of an Israeli team to hunt down the Palestine Liberation Organization militants responsible for the attack.

Despite Spielberg’s stellar filmmaking cache, “Munich” received public backlash for alleged “liberal naivete and moral relativism” according to Salon. Film critics had a different perspective, with New York Times critic Manohla Dargis describing it as, “slammin’ entertainment filled with dazzling set pieces and geometric camerawork.”

Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

I, Tonya (2017)

– Director: Craig Gillespie
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 77
– Run time: 119 minutes

There are few names as infamous in sports history as Tonya Harding, a figure skater who became, some might say rightfully so, demonized by the media in relation to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Harding’s story really begins in 1991 when she landed the incredibly difficult triple axel in competition, making her the first American woman to do so. In the months leading up to the 1994 Olympics, the competition began heating up between Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and the latter was mysteriously attacked by a man hired by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly.

Director Craig Gillespie made the bold choice of dramatizing the event from Harding’s perspective instead of Kerrigan’s, forcing audiences to first understand the harsh reality of her upbringing in a low-income, abusive household and the toxic nature of her relationship with her then-husband. When the film finally arrives at the Kerrigan attack, audiences understand how Harding was pushed to this breaking point and must endure the depths of the country’s hatred for her.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for National Board of Review

Richard Jewell (2019)

– Director: Clint Eastwood
– IMDb user rating: 7.5
– Metascore: 68
– Run time: 131 minutes

The real-life experience of Richard Jewell is so full of twists and turns that it would be easy to misconstrue the truth as a wholly fictional narrative when watching Clint Eastwood’s 2019 biopic. The film centers around the bombing that occurred at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta; the bomb was discovered by security guard Richard Jewell, who helped clear the area before the explosion. While Jewell was first praised as a hero, the tides quickly turned when he became the FBI’s lead suspect, causing the media to quickly grab hold of the story and turn him into a national villain. After three months of this, he was eventually declared innocent.

Eastwood’s adaptation is filled with incredible talent, with Sam Rockwell, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, and Kathy Bates joining Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell, and these performances are easily the highlight of the film. The portrayal of the media, however, received extensive backlash, with Eastwood being accused of, “[reinforcing] misinformed beliefs about professional reporting” by Kevin Riley, former editor-in-chief of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to the point that his paper and its parent company, Cox Enterprises, formally asked the filmmakers to remove the movie’s “based on a true story” label.

Data reporting by Luke Hicks. Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. Photo selection by Michael Flocker.

This story originally appeared on Casino Bonus CA and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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