Philip Barker

They are Olympians at opposite ends of the spectrum but the stories of Jesse Owens and Eddie "The Eagle"  Edwards will both hit cinema screens later this year.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise. Movie mogul David Wolper was the mastermind behind Hollywood-style Opening and closing ceremonies at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Zhang Ximou had a similar role in Beijing for 2008 before Danny Boyle brought his unique vision to London 2012

Race recalls the events of 80 years ago when Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin's Olympic Stadium. Owens was originally to have been portrayed by John Boyega but he left to star in the latest Star Wars adventure The Force Awakens. The role of Owens eventually went to Canadian Actor Stephan James. Two other films covering the same period are also in production and likely to be released later in the year.

Eddie the Eagle is the tale of one time plasterer and British ski jumper Eddie Edwards,. He launched himself at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. Such was the pandemonium which attended his performances that many remember him better than some of those who won gold at those Games. “The Eagle has landed," cried BBC television commentator Ron Pickering and a legend was born, even though Edwards finished last.

The cast includes A-lister Hugh Jackman and the role of Eddie is taken by Taron Egerton. The real life Eddie Edwards -whose real name is Michael - remains a folk hero in Canada and was invited to join the Olympic Torch Relay for the Winter Games were held in Vancouver in 2010.

There was clearly something in the air at Calgary 1988.  A bobsleigh team from of all places Jamaica became unlikely heroes. Like Edwards, they finished last but Disney saw the potential and a 1994 film called Cool Runnings was the result. John Candy starred as the fictional disgraced gold medallist who takes up the challenge of coaching them. In the film he explained very succinctly what bobsleigh was all about.

“Basically what you are looking to do is get your sorry rear ends from the top of an icy shoot to the bottom.Its the biggest coldest rollercoaster you have ever been on," he said. 

Hollywood had long realised that the Olympic Games and its stars were box office .Back in the 1930s  swimming champions Johnny Weissmuller and .Clarence "Buster" Crabbe were among the first to convert gold medals into silver screen stardom though neither took part in Olympic related films. Much later , Harold Sakata made a big impression as Odd Job in the James Bond movie Goldfinger, even though he only won light heavyweight weightlifting silver at the 1948 Olympics in London. 

Movie mogul Darryl F Zanuck persuaded Olympic figure Skating gold medallist Sonja Henie to put her sporting expertise to use on film in One in a million. She played the story of Greta Muller a hotelier’s daughter training to compete at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

“I’ve just seen the greatest ice skater in the world - I’m going to sign her up, I’m going to put on the greatest skating ballet the world has ever seen, a hundred Fred Astaires , a hundred Pavlovas on skates and Greta will be the star,” exclaims Adolf Menjou as theatrical troupe manager Tad Spencer

Reporter Don Ameche )discovers that Greta’s father Heinrich was unjustly stripped of his gold medal in 1908 for professionalism. He saves Greta from the same fate and disqualification from the Olympics after she unknowingly skates with a professional troupe and of course she wins the gold medal.

In the early 1950s, a biopic told the story of one famous athlete who did fall foul of the regulations around amateurism. Jim Thorpe was The man of Bronze who became the greatest athlete of all time. In 1913 he had been stripped of the Olympic gold medals won in pentathlon and decathlon at the previous year's Games in Stockholm because he had received money for playing small time baseball. Even so 40 years after his heyday he remained a hero in the United States.

“The cheers that thundered his name into the hearts of all Americans ring out again for the fighting courage, the adventuresome spirit, the inspiring story of...Jim Thorpe”

Film publicists claimed it would be the "greatest role" for Burt Lancaster who played the title role. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, acclaimed for Casablanca and a string of other box office successes, the score was by Max Steiner best known for Gone with the Wind.

Sadly, Thorpe died within a few months and it was was another 30  years before his gold medals were finally restored to his family by the International Olympic Committee.

The American middle-distance runner Steve Prefontaine embodied the all American hero in the early 1970s. A cover star at 19, he finished fourth in the 1972 Olympics in Munich but was expected to challenge for gold at Montreal four years later but was killed in a car crash aged only 24. His story was put on the screen with Jared Leto in the title role in 1997. The following year Billy Crudup played the runner they called "Pre" in Without Limits which also starred Donald Sutherland as coach Bill Bowerman.

Few sporting movies have achieved the acclaim of Chariots of Fire, the story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

“I literally stumbled across the story,” recalled Producer David Puttnam. He had read of Liddell’s refusal to run on a Sunday. Liddell’s family gave their cooperation to the filmmakers and movingly told Puttnam: "You gave Eric a voice."

Abrahams, the 100 metres gold medallist,  had agreed to help the producers but died within a few weeks of production beginning. "At our third meeting we met the coffin,” recalls Puttnam. “That is why the film starts with the memorial service. Colin Welland went and that is where he had the idea of starting the film in that way.”

An open audition was held in London’s Regents Park to find actors who could run. This supervised by athletics coach Tom McNab.

Lord Burghley gave his blessing to the project, though asked that his name was not used so Nigel Havers appears as Lord Lindsay in the film. He practices over the hurdles on which champagne glasses are perched. In reality the drill was done with matchboxes.

The film might well have had a very different look The filmmakers had planned to include 800m champion Douglas Lowe, in later life a judge.

“In our first draft, Lowe was quite an important figure,” said Puttnam. “We wrote to him and got a letter back saying how much do we pay? I wrote him what I thought was a very nice letter saying we were going to make an honorarium of 500 guineas to all involved. He wrote back to say he wanted nothing to do with it.”

The story instead focussed on Abrahams, played by Ben Cross, and Liddell by the late Ian Charleson. The memorable soundtrack was added by Vangelis late in the day and proved a hit. The following year, the film collected Best Picture and best score at the Oscars.

Chariots of Fire focussed on the story of British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell ©Getty Images
Chariots of Fire focussed on the story of British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell ©Getty Images

The 1988 Olympics were a triumph for the French rider Pierre Durand and his famous horse Jappeloup and almost 25 years later, their story was recreated for the big screen..

"The film is a sort of 'Rocky' set in the equestrian world, a sporting adventure based on a powerful human story,"said screenwriter Guillaume Canet who also played the part of Durand

The Seoul Olympic Stadium was recreated on a trotting track in Mallorca with some clever computer generated special effects, even down to reproducing the designs of the fences. The celebrations of the gold medal which make an emotional climax to the film actually came later because there were still others to jump. In France, 1.7 million people went to see Jappeloup in its first month.

‘’Discover the story behind the greatest moment in sports history,’ ’said the trail for the 2004 release Miracle. It tells the story of the 1980 American Olympic ice hockey team which upset the odds by beating the mighty Soviet Union.

They were coached by Herb Brooks who had been left out of the 1960 gold medal winning USA team at the very last minute.

Brooks moulded a team of college players into a gold medal winning outfit which memorably beat the apparently invincible USSR, known as the "Red Machine". In the movie, Brooks was played by Kurt Russell who tells officials, ‘I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones."

The 2009 release Berlin ‘36 tells the story of an athlete who did not make it to the Olympics. High jumper Gretel Bergmann was denied a place in Germany’s team for the 1936 Games because she was Jewish.

In Berlin 36, Karoline Herfurth plays the role of Bergmann and Sebastian Urzendowsky is Marie Ketteler, a character based on Heinrich or Hermann Raetjen a man who competed as a woman, Dora Raetjen, in the competition.The film ends with a moving interview with Bergmann who was by then 97 years old.

“There is real poignancy here that mad passionate movie love stories often fail to achieve," said The Hollywood Reporter.

The fictional German film Reitet for Deutschland was not released until after the outbreak of war but its story of an war hero Ernst Von Brenken and his horse Harro. It clearly drew inspiration from the 1936 Games. Von Brenken rides Harro to victory and the film ends with the entire stadium on their feet for the German national anthem. After the war, in common with many films of the era, it was initially banned partly because of the anti-Semitic portrayal of the dealers who sell the horse in the early stages of the story. The star Willy Birgel was honoured by Josef Goebbels and blacklisted after the Second World War.

The Berlin Games also provided a backdrop for the detective film Charlie Chan at the Olympics starring the Scandinavian-born Warner Oland and released in 1938.

Charlie Chan at the Olympics is one of several movies made by Hollywood set against the backdrop of Berlin 1936 ©20th Century Fox
Charlie Chan at the Olympics is one of several movies made by Hollywood set against the backdrop of Berlin 1936 ©20th Century Fox

Even Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe travelled on a boat full of Olympic athletes in the fifties comedy Gentlemen prefer Blondes.

Rank Film studios were equally impressed by the physique of 1952 wrestling bronze medallist Ken Richmond They hired him to strike the gong for the studio’s opening sequence, seen on many films

Footage from the 1948 Olympics was intercut with the fictional story line of Geordie (known in the US as Wee Geordie), the story of Scottish shepherd Geordie McTavish played by Bill Travers (later one of the human stars of Born Free).  He demonstrates his strength tossing the caber and is recruited for the British Olympic team.

The stuffy stereotype of Olympic officials is portrayed to perfection by popular 1950s stars Raymond Huntley and Miles Malleson. McTavish shown marching in a traditional Scottish kilt at the Opening Ceremony against the express instructions of the British team management but all is forgiven when he wins the gold medal. When he embraces a Danish competitor, his girlfriend listening back home in Scotland is very upset but eventually the pair of reconciled in the fairytale happy ending when Geordie returns to the highlands.

The Games released in 1970 was directed by Michael Winner. It cost $6 million to make and was shot on location in five countries. The centrepiece was a fictional Olympic marathon. The actors included Ryan O’Neal ,Charles Aznavour , Michael Crawford and Stanley Baker. They were put through its paces by Olympic runner Gordon Pirie. Many Olympic stars appeared either in cameo roles or as consultants. Rome 1960 decathlon champion Rafer Johnson was a television commentator and marathon runner Jim Peters supervised the scene when Crawford’s character collapsed in the closing stages of the race.

"It was a bit eerie," said Peters. "It looked so right it brought back memories." He had failed to finish the Olympic marathon at Helsinki 1952 and, even more famously, he staggered into the stadium at the 1954 Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, destined never to cross the line.

Downhill Racer was a project which had the personal stamp of one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Robert Redford. Despite a snowmobile accident a few days before filming, he did much of his own skiing action for the film in which he played an unpopular skier called David Chappellet who joins the American team for the Grenoble Olympics in 1968 and wins redemption with victory. The film ends with the playing of the Olympic Anthem.

In a review for the the influential magazine Life, Richard Schickel described it as “a small tense expertly made (an on occasion surprisingly funny ) film about a newly chic form of athletic competition. Alpine skiing.”

Redford hoped to follow up the movie with others exploring American attitudes to success but they were never made. There was a silver lining, however. Redford’s discouraging experience as an independent film maker prompted him to establish the Sundance Film festival to encourage independent movies.