With a history spanning more than 2,000 years, the Olympic Games have been a beacon of athletic achievement since their origin in the days of ancient Greece. Born as a means for worshipping the gods of art and sport, the games continue today as a tradition that brings the world together.
In 1894, French educator Barron Pierre de Coubertin gave rise to the return of this ancient tradition, gaining support from the International Congress in Paris. The first modern iteration of the Games were held in Athens, Greece two years later, in 1886. Coubertin is also credited with the design of the familiar five-ring emblem still used to represent the Olympics today.
From the Olympic Games stems the term known as “Olympism”, defined as: “The elevation of the mind and soul, overcoming differences between nationalities and cultures, embracing friendship, a sense of solidarity, and fair play; ultimately leading to the contribution towards world peace and the betterment of the world.”
The most recent Olympic Games were slated to occur in Tokyo, during the summer of 2020. Public health concerns amid the COVID-19 crisis saw the games rescheduled for 2021, where concerns continue in the face of a significant spike in COVID cases across Japan. As events continue to unfold, fans of the games may look to these five documentaries for in-depth studies of the Olympics from virtually every angle.
Produced in 1965 and directed by Kon Ichikawa, Tokyo Olympiad documents the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and was considered to be a landmark achievement for the documentary industry. It is one of only a few sports documentaries to be featured in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by Jay Schneider.
The film follows Japan’s inaugural edition of the games, highlighting the importance of the event as a way for Japan to rally in the aftermath of World War 2. Ichikawa was commissioned by the Japanese government to head the film after the previous director Akira Kurosawa was dismissed due to disagreements over style and production.
Although the government financiers pushed for a clean-cut historical representation of the event, Ichikawa’s film portrays the Olympics in a much more cinematic and artful light. The film focuses on the energy of athletes and onlookers, and the Japanese Olympic Committee ultimately forced Ichikawa to trim the film from 165 minutes down to a runtime of around an hour and a half. Tokyo Olympiad was released in Japanese theatres on March 20th, 1965, and hit US theatres in October of the same year. As of 2020, a full, unedited version of Ichikawa’s film is available for viewing on the Olympic Channel’s official website.
16 Days of Glory
Directed by Bud Greenspan, 16 Days of Glory is a 1985 documentary film portraying the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California. Director Bud Greenspan would produce a total of nine Olympic documentaries throughout his career, striving with each film to focus on the goals and personal depth of individual athletes. Among those studied in 16 Days is gymnast Mary Lou Retton, diver Gregory Louganis, and competitive swimmer Michael Gross.
Several versions of the film exist for viewing, including the theatrical release of nearly 2.5 hours, and a television special aired by PBS as a six-part miniseries. 16 Days of Glory premiered at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on July 29th, 1985. The film is currently available for streaming on HBO Max.
My Way to Olympia
Produced by German director Niko von Glasgow, My Way to Olympia highlights the long journey towards the Paralympic Games: an international event held for athletes with physical and mental disabilities. The subject matter is close to Glasgow’s own heart. Considered the world’s most well-known disabled filmmaker, Glasgow was born with shortened arms as a result of prenatal exposure to thalidomide. Surprisingly, the director harbours a decided distaste for sports—born of childhood frustration. Even so, his approach to the Paralympics and the athletes who participate is hailed as heartfelt and sincere.
My Way to Olympia portrays the Paralympics to be very much the same as any other competition: fueled by driven professionals who aim to be the best. Rather than disability, the film strives to focus on strength and the ability to overcome.
“So many people, myself included, live in denial of their weaknesses,” remarked Glasgow, in an interview with PBS. “These athletes are confronting their disabilities head-on, striving to conquer them. A man with no arms doesn’t have to take up archery, and his life would be much easier if he hadn’t. The more time I spent with these athletes, the more I understood that they aren’t just trying to be ‘as good as’ non-disabled athletes.”
My Way to Olympia is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
More Than Gold: Jessie Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics
In its mere one-hour runtime More Than Gold sets out to narrate the vast history of Jesse Owens: Olympic gold medalist and an American legend of the track and field. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film takes viewers on a journey through the struggles of Owens as a pioneering athlete: one who faced racial discrimination both at home and abroad. More Than Gold features insider interviews with teammates Adolph Kiefer, Iris Cummings Critchell and John Lysak, as well as Owens’ three daughters.
More Than Gold was produced by the NBC Sports Group, premiering on the NBC network in early 2016. Mark Levy, Senior Vice President of Original Productions at NBC, hailed the film’s firsthand accounts of Owens’ legacy, in a statement promoting the film.
“Viewers will experience the Games through the compelling memories of Jesse’s surviving Olympic teammates, who were eye-witnesses to those events.”
More Than Gold is currently available for streaming on NBC’s streaming platform, Peacock.
The Weight of Gold
While the Olympics are a symbol of victory and personal achievement, it is not without its darker side, as well. It is the most recent film on today’s list, produced amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in the wake of the first postponement in Olympic history. The Weight of Gold is directed by Brett Rapkin, executive-produced by Michael Phelps and HBO.
With a runtime of one hour, the film strives to spark discussion about issues of mental health, particularly in regards to Olympic athletes. The film features interviews with athletes such as Apolo Ohno, Lolo Jones, David Boudia and Sasha Cohen as they openly discuss their battles with mental health.
Unlike most Olympic docu-films which showcase the glory of the games, The Weight of Gold never shies away from uncovering the detrimental effects of such enormous pressure on competitors. The film stands as a call to action for athletes and enthusiasts alike: to hold the Games accountable in the years ahead, making the health of their athletes a top priority.
Which films are you most excited to see? Let us know in the comments!