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Countdown to Tokyo
Creative Sensemaker

Countdown to Tokyo

Thursday 15 July 2021

Ahead of the Olympic opening ceremony next week, get in the mood with the ten best films that have dramatised or documented the Games over the years

Even as we continue to absorb the full impact of Sunday’s Euros Final, the patriotic pride it has inspired, and its politically intense aftermath, the time has come to prepare for another momentous international sporting event. Next week, the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics – the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, delayed from last year – will be held behind closed doors, as Japan’s capital reels from a severe Covid spike and spectators are largely barred from the 339 events, contested by 206 nations in 30 sports.

Here, then, to whet your appetite and get you in the mood for perhaps the strangest gathering in the history of the modern Olympic movement, is a selection of movies dramatising or documenting the greatest sporting show on earth:

1. Race (2016, VOD)

An under-rated gem, Stephen Hopkins’ biopic about Jesse Owens and his conquest of the 1936 Berlin Olympics – at which he won four gold medals – is anchored by Stephen James’ fine lead performance. Jeremy Irons is also excellent as Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee member who must act as middle-man between the athlete and the outraged Nazi leadership.

2. I Am Bolt (2016, VOD)

One of the greatest sporting documentaries ever made, Benjamin and Gabe Turner’s film unpeels the layers of legend that have accrued around Usain Bolt to reveal the intensely likeable, sometimes mercurial but always committed human being within. His eight Olympic gold medals may be notionally dwarfed by Michael Phelps’s 23. But – as the only sprinter to win the 100m and 200m at three successive Games (Beijing, London, Rio) – Bolt surely deserves to be hailed as the greatest Olympian of all time. His absence from the Games, for the the first time since Sydney in 2000, will be felt by all – though it is entirely in character that, aged 34, he has been enjoying himself running 800m races for fun.

3. Tokyo Olympiad (1965, Olympic website)

When the Japanese authorities commissioned the acclaimed director Kon Ichikawa to make a film about the 1964 Games, they had no idea that he would produce an exquisite arthouse documentary that strips away all the propaganda, hoopla and cliché, and captures instead the aesthetic majesty and psychological drama of world-class sport. Ichikawa studied Leni Riefienstahl’s notorious Olympia (1938) on the Berlin Games, but his film is a much more sophisticated and humane piece of work, relying less upon commentary than technical brilliance and a shrewd focus upon a number of key stories within the Games: notably the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s world record beating victory in the marathon, the first time an Olympic athlete had successfully defended that title (which Abebe had first won in Rome in 1960).

4. Chariots of Fire (1981, VOD) 

Forty years after its release, Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning account of the 1924 Paris Olympics, and the respective struggles of athletes Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, has held up well. And not just for the legendary Vangelis-scored run on the beach. It is, as it happens, Joe Biden’s favourite film. Movie trivia: Stephen Fry, making his screen debut, was an extra, playing, in his own words, “a tall gangly and weird-looking young Englishman.”

5. One Day in September (1999, VOD)

Kevin Macdonald – who is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger and has proceeded to make a series of superb movies ranging from The Last King of Scotland (2006) to Whitney (2018) – scooped the Academy Award for Best Documentary with this modern masterpiece. In unflinching detail, Macdonald shows the terrible sequence of events that ended with 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics, being massacred. (The aftermath is dramatised in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, released in 2005.)

6. Salute (2008, VOD)

One of the most unforgettable images in Olympic history shows the US 200m athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, giving the Black Power salute from the medallists’ podium at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Matt Norman’s film is a fascinating analysis of a moment of great daring that triggered a global controversy. To this day, IOC rules bar all acts that are categorised as political protests, which means that taking the knee may become an issue of contention in Tokyo (the IOC appears to have offered some scope for athletes to do so at the starting blocks – though the rules remain strict concerning medal ceremonies).

7. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013, Bluray)

Hard to get hold of, but definitely worth the effort, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s epic tells the extraordinary story of Milkha Singh, the “Flying Sikh”, who represented India at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Games as a 400m competitor. His life story was embroiled with the 1947 Partition of India, which left him orphaned, and the entanglement of sport and politics that it bequeathed. Singh died last month aged 91 in Chandigarh, after contracting Covid.

8. Foxcatcher (2014, VOD)

Few films capture so well the immense human cost – in this case, disastrous – of the competitive spirit that underpins the Olympics. In his best screen performance to date, Steve Carrell as John du Pont recruits Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), gold-medal winning wrestlers at the 1984 Games to prepare American competitors for Seoul in 1988. Based on a true story, Bennett Millers’s movie is as compelling as it is dark.

9. My Way to Olympia (2013, Vimeo)

“I think sports suck and the Paralympics is a stupid idea”: so says director Niko von Glasow in the opening minutes of this excellent documentary about the preparation of disabled athletes for 2012 London Games. A disciple of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Glasow (who is himself disabled due to the side-effects of thalidomide) approaches his subject with admirable detachment and wit, and the film is all the stronger for that.

10. Without Limits (1998, Prime Video)

A forgotten curio, Without Limits merits inclusion because of the fine performances of Billy Cruddup as Steve Prefontaine, the US distance runner, who competed at the 1972 Games and was tipped for glory in Montreal in 1976 before his untimely death, and Donald Sutherland as his coach Bill Bowerman, who went on to co-found Nike, Inc. It is also one of only four films directed by Robert Towne, who, now aged 86, is widely regarded as one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, responsible not only for Bonnie and Clyde, The Last Detail and Chinatown but (at Francis Ford Coppola’s urgent request) the pivotal garden scene in The Godfather, in which Marlon Brando unforgettably expresses his regrets and fears to Al Pacino.

….also, thanks to Tortoise Executive Editor, Peter Hoskin, who recommends this lavish, 32-disc Criterion Blu-ray collection of 53 Olympic documentaries, covering the Games from 1912 to 2012. As ever with Criterion, the completism is matched by tremendous attention to detail, 4K restorations and extras including a 216-page hardback book.

Here are this week’s other recommendations:


Baptiste (18 July, BBC One)

Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo) was introduced to the world in 2014 in The Missing – and now returns in the second season of his own spin-off series. As ever, tragedy stalks the detective, who is now, it seems, operating on an entirely freelance basis to help those who have lost their loved ones (“I find people… because I can”). In this case, that is Fiona Shaw as Emma Chambers, the British ambassador to Hungary, whose family goes missing in the mountains. The chronology flips back and forth across a 14-month span in which, we quickly gather, terrible things have happened to Baptiste and Chambers alike. Karyo has come a long way since he played the suave spymaster “Uncle Bob” in Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990). His craggy features now resemble a rock face which time and experience have pitilessly weathered. This, the first of six episodes, will make you want to stay the course.

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) (16 July, selected cinemas)

In 1969, concert promoter Tony Lawrence persuaded the New York City parks department to allow him to stage a series of gigs in Harlem’s Mount Morris Parks. The resulting three-day Harlem Culture Festival had an astonishing line-up: Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, and many others. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s first-class documentary restores this remarkable but largely-forgotten event to its rightful place in cultural history but also declines to go along with its billing (even at the time) as the “Black Woodstock”: the festival had its own identity, musical styles and traditions to celebrate. 

Secrets of an Isis Smartphone (15 July, BBC One, then iPlayer)

“It’s just silly. It’s completely farcical. It’s so British.” Thus does journalist Mobeen Azhar identify the sheer strangeness of what he uncovers in a smartphone, depicting the final days of three young Britons who died fighting for Isis in Syria. At no point does he seek to acquit them of the terrible choice that they made in leaving this country to join a murderous death cult. But he is absolutely right that – as the extraordinary video clips on the phone show – their preparations and antics with weapons are “so Four Lions!” (a reference to Chris Morris’s 2010 comedy movie, in which four ludicrous Sheffield jihadis plan a terrorist attack on the London Marathon). The documentary shows the extent to which these young men – at least one of whom had special educational needs – were ruthlessly groomed by their recruiters and drawn in by Isis propaganda which (ironically) made heavy use of Hollywood imagery and tropes. “It’s just marketing,” says Azhar, and he is right – marketing that led to utterly meaningless bloodshed.


Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency  – Michael Wolff (The Bridge Street Press)

Wolff’s Fire and Fury (2018) and Siege (2019) were indispensable, real-time guides to the Trump presidency, and now he completes the trilogy with a final instalment that is the best yet. No journalist has had comparable access during this saga of destruction and derangement, and the quality of his sources – including the former president himself – sings from the pages. From election night to Joe Biden’s inauguration, via the incredible events of 6 January and the invasion of the Capitol, we are right in the thick of the action, alongside a president without principle, expertise or an interest in reality. It is utterly riveting. And – Wolff makes clear – it is not, at least in Trump’s mind, by any means the end of the story.

Mountain Tales: Love and Loss in the Municipality of Castaway Belongings – Saumya Roy (Profile Books)

The Deonar garbage mountains are, as Saumya Roy writes in this wonderful book, Mumbai’s “sprawling necropolis.” It is a place where the city’s indigent live, work and scavenge what everyone else discards: “You could say they brought an afterlife to this place by stalking the waste, making their lives off of it and believing it could lift their fortunes. It made for a world that was a mirror image of ours.” This is a love story and a work of compassionate anthropology that draws the reader in compellingly. Highly recommended.

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination – Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang (The Bridge Street Press)

The ugly truth that defines Facebook, according to the authors of this comprehensive and readable book, is that “the algorithm that serves as Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them.” As often as Mark Zuckerberg vows to do better – over fake news, electoral intervention by Russia, cyberstalking, and a thousand other problems great and small – he cannot escape the dichotomy that he created when he invented the platform. There is much engrossing detail here about what drives Zuckerberg and his (very different) chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. But neither seems minded to, or able to, control the beast they notionally command. In the end, neither emerges as the victor of the story. It is Facebook itself that bestrides the planet: simultaneously dumb and brilliant, committed only to expanding and making ever more money.


All Over The Place – KSI (16 July)

Whether or not you have heard of him, Olajide Olayinka Williams “JJ” Olatunji – better known as KSI – is one of the most influential people in the UK (and beyond). Building a huge following on YouTube and by commenting on video games, the rapper has also entered the ring for hugely-hyped amateur and professional fights. And the music? Well: All Over The Place is only KSI’s second album, and the tracks released so far, including ‘Patience’ (featuring Yungblud and Polo G) and ‘Holiday’, bear the amiable stamp of summertime and imminent liberation. The question remains, however: is the music just the merch for the image, or vice versa?

Summertime – Isata Kanneh-Mason

In her second studio album, Kanneh-Mason – one of seven musically-gifted siblings raised in Nottingham – explores the music of 20th-century America. The centrepiece is Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in E-Flat Minor, nestling amongst interpretations of Gershwin and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (English by birth but highly influential in the US). The performances are both creative and rigorous, embellishing Kanneh-Mason’s reputation as a front-rank pianist.

Monsters – Tom Odell

The voice of the 2014 John Lewis Christmas ad he may have been, but Tom Odell has gone to a darker place in this, his fourth studio album. Mental health, break-ups, drugs, solitude: all feature here in this compelling collection of lockdown-influenced tracks. Everything is questioned, including his vocation as a singer-songwriter. “I tell my secrets to stay employed,” he sings. “It’s only noise” The candour is admirable and will speak to many. But this is much more than “noise”.

…and finally – a warm welcome to Perspectiva Press, an intriguing new publishing venture launched by the chess grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson, with assistance from musician, journalist and activist Pat Kane. Assembling a fine initial slate of writers – Indra Adnan, Anthea Lawson, Hanno Burmeister, Liam Kavanagh – Perspectiva is asking interesting questions about “wokeness”, ideology, the Enlightenment, and activism. Do take a look at what they’re up to: definitely worth your time.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Have a great week.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images, Solofilms, Doyen Global, 20th Century Fox, Passion Pictures/BBC, Rich Clarkson & Associates/Getty Images, ROMP Pictures, Sony Pictures, Palladio Film, Warner Bros, Des Willie/Two Brothers/BBC, Searchlight Pictures, Mentorn Media/BBC