Stephen Arnell

Ten sports films to watch during the winter Olympics

Ten sports films to watch during the winter Olympics
I, Tonya (Image: Alamy)
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'There’s no such thing as bad snow, just bad skiers'

(Popular skiing saying)

The 2022 Olympics have to an extent been overshadowed by diplomatic boycotts over host nation China’s alleged human rights abuses.

The US, UK, Canada, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark, and Estonia will not be sending any ministers or officials. Other countries (New Zealand, Austria, Slovenia, Sweden, and the Netherlands) cite Covid concerns for the lack of official representation.

Whether boycotting the event will have any discernible effect is debatable. France’s President Macron certainly doesn’t think so: 'I don't think we should politicise these topics, especially if it is to take steps that are insignificant and symbolic.'

On a less serious note, I felt a pang of childlike disappointment when I learned that the competition will be using fake snow for the vast majority of the event (presuming real snow does not fall from the heavens).

Of course, it is not the first time that that Winter Olympics have had recourse to ersatz stuff – Innsbruck (1964), Lake Placid (1980), Sochi (2014) and PyeongChang (2018) all had to rely on ever-increasing amounts of imitation snow.

But this is the first time it’s close to 100 per cent. I suppose the Tibetan Himalayas are too controversial/inaccessible to function as the main hub for the Games.

Fake snow aside, here's a look at ten of the best motion pictures to feature the Winter Olympics and your favourite cold weather sports.

Eddie the Eagle (2016) Amazon Rent/Buy

No round-up of films about the Winter Olympics would be complete without Eddie the Eagle. Michael Edwards aka Eddie the Eagle has successfully parlayed a goofily endearing persona and a slim talent for ski jumping into a decades-long career in the public eye.

Only last year Eddie was back on our television screens in ITV’s The Masked Dancer. To some, this plucky loser with a ‘never say die’ attitude is an archetypally British character. To others he is simply a publicity-seeking bore.

Whatever your opinion on Eddie, the success of Dexter Fletcher's (Sunshine on Leith) heavily fictionalised 2016 biopic is testament to the continuing interest in him.

Aided by a game cast that includes Hollywood stars Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken, Fletcher creates a watchable (if clichéd) underdog story with a life-affirming ending.

The picture was the highest grossing British movie of the year and confirmed the growing popularity of Taron Egerton, who played the titular hero. Egerton went onto work with Fletcher in another biopic, this time as Elton John in an even bigger hit, 2019's Rocketman.

In the years before Eddie the Eagle was produced, both Steve Coogan and Rupert (Ron Weasley) Grint were both hotly tipped for the title role

Downhill Racer (1969) Amazon Rent/Buy

Industry word of mouth about the likely popularity of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969) helped Robert Redford get his pet project into production, where he plays selfish, aloof Olympic skier David Chappellet, the character supposedly an amalgam of three actual champions – ‘Spider’ Sabich, Billy Kidd and Buddy Werner.

After Roman Polanski left the project Michael Ritchie took the director’s chair for his first (superb) feature.

Redford teamed up with Ritchie again for the equally excellent political satire The Candidate (1972).

Although the director was an early fan of Britain’s Ken Loach (hiring camera operator Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton from Loach's Poor Cow for Racer) Ritchie spent the latter part of his career directing inferior fare such as The Golden Child (1986), Fletch Lives (1989) and Cops & Robbersons (1994).

Which was akin to Loach ending up helming Fat Slags (2004), Kill Keith (2011) or, even worse Keith Lemon – The Film (2012).

Kind of.

Olympic Dreams (2019) Amazon Buy Only

Sweet-natured indie rom-com Olympic Dreams attracted positive reviews but next to zero box office, which is why you haven’t heard of it.

If you need a reference, the Detroit News said that Olympic Dreams 'plays like Lost in Translation at the Winter Games.'

The first movie ever to be filmed inside an Olympic Village (PyeongChang in this case), star/co-writer Alexi Pappas represented Greece at the 2016 Summer Olympics, setting the national record for 10k.  Despite this, little or no action from the contest is shown.

Co-star comedian Nick Kroll is the best-known member of the company, possibly familiar to readers from TV shows Big Mouth (Netflix) and What We Do in the Shadows (BBC2).

Real-life free-style skiers Gus Kenworthy and Morgan Schild round out the main cast, combining acting in the picture with their participation in the 2018 Winter Games.

Miracle (2004) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Another film you are unlikely to have seen, Miracle depicts the events of the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the US men's amateur ice hockey team under crusty head coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) won the gold medal against the heavily favoured professional Soviet squad.

The US victory was described by Americans in typically hyperbolic terms as the 'Miracle on Ice'.

Director Gavin O'Connor also helmed muscular Ben Affleck thriller The Accountant (2016) and 2020’s basketball drama The Way Back, which also starred Affleck.

The events of the movie were the subject of a quick-turnaround TV movie in 1981, when Karl (Streets of San Francisco) Malden took the role of coach Brooks.

The late Jessica Walter (Archer, Arrested Development) played Brooks’ wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson in the 2004 picture).

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain (2017) Amazon Prime, Pluto TV, Amazon Rent/Buy

This is the little-seen true-life story of French-American professional hockey player Eric LeMarque (Josh Harnett) who competed in the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics as part of the French national team.

Almost exactly 10 years later, LeMarque is trapped by a snowstorm in the peaks of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. He survived for eight long days by taking refuge in a rudimentary igloo and subsisting on cedar bark and pine nuts.

As the weather began to clear, LeMarque trekked in sub-freezing temperatures and deep snow to the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.

Unfortunately, he lost both legs due to severe frostbite, despite the best efforts of the resort’s medical team.

LeMarque later revealed that he was addicted to crystal meth at the time of the incident – in his own words: 'I was addicted to the two powders — the one that fell from the sky and the one I sniffed up my nose.

Slap Shot (1977) Amazon Rent/Buy

Paul Newman’s finest comedic performance was when he teamed up again with his Butch Cassidy/Sting director George Roy Hill for this raucous ice hockey movie.

Newman is player/coach Reggie Dunlop, forced by the economic realities and a losing season to rejuvenate the Charlestown Chiefs by a new stratagem – overt violence on the rink. Dunlop recruits the three thuggish (but simple) Hanson Brothers to unleash their particular brand of bone-crunching havoc on opposing teams, succeeding beyond his wildest dreams.

Slap Shot also gave a leading role to Canadian actor Michael Ontkean, who eagle-eyed viewers will remember as Sheriff Harry S. Truman in Twin Peaks (1990-1).

As Ontkean attended the University of New Hampshire on a hockey scholarship he was ideally suited to essaying star player Ned Braden. Although as virtually every Canadian plays ice hockey, it may not be that unique an asset, at least in his home country.

I, Tonya (2017) Amazon Rent/Buy

Margot Robbie (Bombshell) earned critical praise for her nuanced performance as ice skater (and later hate-figure) Tonya Harding who was banned for life from the sport due to her purported involvement in the notorious 1994 attack on her Winter Olympics rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Craig Gillespie (Cruella) employs mockumentary techniques, ‘unreliable’ narratives and fourth-wall breaking to weave a story sympathetic to Harding.

The picture proved a box office hit, taking in $53.9m on a $11m budget.

Along with Robbie, Allison Janney – who plays Harding's controlling mother – picked up admiring reviews for her work in the movie.

Gillespie has reunited with I, Tonya’s Sebastian Stan (who plays ex-husband Jeff Gillooly) for the new Disney+ mini-series Pam & Tommy; Stan plays Tommy.

In the show comedian Jason Mantzoukas (The Good Place) voices Tommy's (animatronic) manhood.

Which, to coin a phrase, isn’t something you see (or hear) every day.

Force Majeure (2014) BFI Player, Amazon Rent/Buy

Ruben Östlund’s film presents the viewer with a difficult moral conundrum; on a luxury skiing holiday you are enjoying a warming mug of hot chocolate with the family in the resort restaurant. As your seat faces the mountainside, you are the first of the group to spot what looks like a deadly avalanche approaching at breakneck speed.

Do you:

a) Gather the family and seek shelter, whilst attempting to shield them from the threat

b) Make a run for it – common sense surely dictates that it is everyone for themselves

All joking aside, Tomas’ (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) choice to be on his toes when the harmless ‘controlled avalanche’ passes over them opens the gates to the eventual recognition of his duplicitous, cowardly nature which he must confront in order to improve as both a husband and father.

Östlund’s decidedly uncomfortable black comedy is vastly superior to 2020’s Downhill, the pointless US remake starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Blades of Glory (2007) Amazon Rent/Buy

The third of Will Farrell’s quartet of 2000s sports comedies (the others being Kicking & Screaming, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Semi-Pro), Blades of Glory takes us back to the milieu of professional ice-skating, in this case the ‘World Winter Sport Games’.

Forced to team up with effete rival Jimmy MacElroy (Jon Heder) as the first same-sex pair to compete, (straight) sex-addicted tearaway Chazz Michael Michaels faces off in the final with incestuous siblings Stranz (Will Arnett) and Fairchild (Amy Poehler) Van Waldenberg.

While same-sex couples now participate in the likes of Dancing on Ice and Strictly, the central conceit is hardly shocking, and the distasteful antics of TV entertainer John Barrowman show that Chazz’s misbehaviour rings all too true.

Despite being overtaken by subsequent events, Blades of Glory remains a fun watch, especially when a down-on-his-luck, booze-sodden Farrell is reduced to performing as The Evil Wizard in kids show Grublets on Ice.

Cool Runnings (1993) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Like Eddie the Eagle, Cool Runnings fashions a feel-good story which uses real life as a starting point for a more fanciful version of events.

This time it’s the unlikely participation of the first Jamaica national bobsleigh team in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. As with Eddie the Eagle, the message of the movie is essentially: ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that really counts'.

 Jamaica returned to the Winter Olympics in the two-man bobsleigh in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2014, with a women's team debuting in 2018.