Philip Barker

April is normally the height of the marathon season, but this year thousands of mass runners will have to wait and hope their races can be rescheduled for later in 2020.

Fifty years ago, there was nothing like the same mass enthusiasm for running when Twentieth Century Fox released The Games, a blockbuster about a fictitious Olympic marathon.

Promotional posters proclaimed "Once every four years, the world goes to war and they call it The Games".

The director was Michael Winner, later to enjoy a successful Hollywood career.

"What attracted me to the film was the simple gesture these people are trying to make," Winner said.

"I mean to run 26 miles? It is insane really, you could go by bus."

At one stage executives were uncertain even about continuing production. 

It eventually lost millions and reviews were mixed.

Winner described it as "a monster of a movie.”

Entertainment newspaper Variety declared it "long on production values and nothing else."

Based on a best-selling novel by Australian author Hugh Atkinson, it was adapted for the screen by Erich Segal. 

It received the green light from movie mogul Richard Zanuck, a keen runner himself. He was full of enthusiasm after attending the Mexico Olympics.

According to World Sports magazine it was "a series of colourful set pieces culminating in the magnificently simulated pain and anguish of the marathon which contains one superb coup de cinema."

Winner had directed The Jokers, a comedy co-starring Michael Crawford who was subsequently contracted to Twentieth Century Fox

He was cast as milkman Harry Hayes. In an early scene, he outpaces the local running club captain in Windsor Great Park, all whilst carrying a crate of milk.

Fifty years ago Twentieth Century Fox released the film The Games about a fictitious Olympic marathon ©IMDB
Fifty years ago Twentieth Century Fox released the film The Games about a fictitious Olympic marathon ©IMDB

When asked "Who do you run for?" he replies "the customers."

As Hayes improves, embittered former athlete Bill Oliver appears as his coach played by Stanley Baker. Winner described the character as "maniacal."

In real life, the actors were conditioned by three time Olympian and 5000m silver medallist Gordon Pirie, who was noted for his high mileage in training.

Crawford gave up smoking and spent five month training.

"He became convinced he was one of the great runners of history," wrote Winner.

French singer Charles Aznavour played ageing champion Pavel Vendek, based on the legendary Czech runner Emil Zatopek.

The producers were only to be convinced of Aznavour’s suitability when he supplied a photograph showing his legs.

It was essential that the film had an American star.

Ryan O’Neal was a familiar face in television soap opera Peyton Place and cast as Scott Reynolds “fun-loving American college kid” with a secret heart problem. 

The character later took drugs to improve his chances and ends the movie in an ambulance. 

For O’Neal himself, the performance earned him the lead in the hit film Love Story.

The other leading "athlete" was indigenous Australian runner Sunny Pintubi, played by Sydney postman Athol Compton.

He had previously auditioned for a small television part and impressed onlookers. He had run at high school, but admitted "I was never very good at running. Sometimes I came first in my heat, but usually only second or third in the finals."

Executives had approached world bantamweight boxing champion Lionel Rose who was Australia’s most celebrated indigenous sportsman but he turned down the role.

Michael Crawford and Ryan O'Neal were among the stars of The Games, released in April 1970 ©IMDB
Michael Crawford and Ryan O'Neal were among the stars of The Games, released in April 1970 ©IMDB

Meanwhile, Compton flew to Los Angeles to audition.

“The producer shook my hand and said 'how would you like to do a motion picture Sunny?'" Compton recalled.

It was a time of civil rights protest and Compton took part in a march held in Sydney to promote Aboriginal education.

In the film, his character is approached by activists in a clear reference to  Black Power protests at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

The movie had a budget of over $5million (£4million/€4.6million), equivalent to $200million (£160million/€184million) in today’s terms with location shoots in five nations.

In the wake of the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1968, it proved impossible to film in Czechoslovakia so they shot scenes in Vienna.

In Tokyo, production staff were chased by police as they held up traffic.

In Australia, they filmed in the Queensland outback at Aramac, {a settlement previously known as Marathon} despite a severe drought, but the majority of the film was shot in Italy and England.

Producers had chosen Rome, hoping footage of the genuine 1960 Olympic marathon could be intercut.

This proved impossible and producers had to start from scratch.

The finale of the movie was actually shot first.

In the early days the film unit also headed for the 1969 Southern Area Cross-Country Championships at Prospect Park in Reading. 

The local Evening Post newspaper announced: "Athletes will have an opportunity to test their ability against a film star next week.

"Although cinema goers will see Crawford win the race, he won’t complete the whole course, but he has been getting in racing trim this week."

Crawford was filmed as the real race unfolded behind him and was shown crossing the line as the "winner" of the race.

Filming of the fictitious marathon in The Games took place in Rome's Stadio Olimpico ©IMDB
Filming of the fictitious marathon in The Games took place in Rome's Stadio Olimpico ©IMDB

The record books show the real victor was Tim Johnston from Portsmouth, an Olympic marathoner the previous year in Mexico.

Johnston finished 22 seconds clear of Bob Holt from Hercules-Wimbledon.

The respected athletics statistician Mel Watman, then editor of Athletics Weekly magazine received an angry letter from Holt which read: "Crawford, together with Bruce Tulloh, joined Johnston and myself at the head of the field after three miles and furthermore ran at a faster pace than we were running at. 

"Had their activities ceased here I probably would not have put pen to paper, but I feel that the participation of Crawford at the end of the race should not pass without comment.

"This final 'take' should never have been allowed and I would be interested to know if the organisers were aware beforehand that this was to take place."

The Daily Mirrors veteran columnist Peter Wilson thundered: "I am somewhat opposed to introducing a note of ‘hippodroming’ into serious sport" before giving some advice to the "invading" film-makers to "get the hell out of our sports.”

Terry Dooris, a leading figure in running and orienteering wrote: "The organisers were consulted by the director with regard to every scene and it is a known fact that the finish would not have been filmed had there been a battle going on for first place and any intrusion might have affected the result."

The main stadium sequences were filmed at London’s White City Stadium and Rome’s Olympic Stadium.

"We had two stadiums that had to be full of people, you can do it on a computer today, but this was 1969," Winner told the British Film Institute in 2012.

Instead fibreglass mannequins were made to populate the stands alongside film "extras."

Although shot in winter, the climatic race in Rome was supposed to be at the height of summer. 

There were disputes with extras unions. Those not hired wore full winter clothing and tried to appear "in shot" to disrupt filming.

"Agreement" was reached for roads to be closed, but the word had not filtered through to every section of the Roman police who tried to arrest production staff as they held back crowds.

Winner described the whole process as "anarchy".

In The Games, the main character Harry Hayes is set the target of running a marathon in under two hours - a feat achieved for the first time by Eliud Kipchoge in October 2019 ©Getty Images
In The Games, the main character Harry Hayes is set the target of running a marathon in under two hours - a feat achieved for the first time by Eliud Kipchoge in October 2019 ©Getty Images 

The International Olympic Committee threatened legal action over the use of the Olympic rings in the film, but filming continued after Winner produced a written contract from the Italian Olympic Committee who had even provided Olympic flags for the shoot.

Shortly before the climactic race is about to begin, there is an intriguing piece of dialogue as Baker’s coach sets Crawford’s disbelieving character a target.

"The two hour marathon. In a hundred years they will be telling their children about it."

Strange to think it was filmed almost half a century before Eliud Kipchoge’s successful record attempt.

Australian running stars Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke and Derek Clayton were amongst the running extras. 

Television commentators filmed describing the action included 1960 decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, BBC Television’s Ron Pickering, also an athletics coach and Adrian Metcalfe, Olympic 4x400m relay silver medallist.

The New York Times described the race as "a photographic knockout."

Crawford’s Hayes runs himself to exhaustion after his coach harangues him one final time.

The actor’s performance at the finish echoed the marathon ordeal of Jim Peters who staggered and fell just short of the finish at the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games.

"I remember the pictures so well they didn’t have to show them to me again,” Crawford told his international fan club.

Peters had been present to help ensure the scene was accurate and said "It was a bit eerie.

"It looked so right that it brought back memories."