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 show enough.
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 demographic.
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.