What to watch if you are really missing the Olympics

The Tokyo Olympics would have started today. Watch these historic films and highlights instead.

The Olympic torch.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Screenshot/YouTube)

Since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, only war has stopped the international competition from being held. In a sense, it has again — only this time, it is a war on mankind's tiniest and oldest enemy, the virus.

Friday was supposed to have marked the opening of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo; due to the pandemic, fans will have to wait until 2021 to root for their nation's athletes (and perhaps even longer than that). Luckily, the 124 years of the games have been not just a history of physical prowess, but a history of film as well. Here are the best movies, recaps, and clips to watch to satisfy your Olympic yearnings until the torch can be lit again.

The running of the torch in Tokyo Olympiad

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Tokyo, 1964

The last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo was in 1964, an event that was spectacularly captured in Kon Ichikawa's masterpiece, Tokyo Olympiad. Described as "one of the greatest films ever made about sports," the documentary begins with stunning footage of the Olympic flame traveling "through many countries it had never visited before" as it made its way to the first Asian host in the competition's history.

The movie's 25-minute lead-up to the lighting of the torch also includes the Parade of Nations — a far more dignified ceremony compared to the celebratory fashion it's conducted in now — and includes the United States appearing in our traditional dress of, uh, cowboy hats.

Tokyo Olympiad is easily one of the most gorgeously-photographed existing records of the Olympic Games, and well worth its cumulative 168 minute run-time. Stick around for the evening pole vaulting shots, the balletic gymnastics floor routines, and Japanese officiants diligently preparing sponges, juices, and tea for marathon runners. Stream it on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max; rent it on Google Play and iTunes.

Jesse Owens' long jump in Olympia

Berlin, 1936

It's an ironic twist of fate that some of the best footage of Jesse Owens' legendary 1936 Olympic appearance was shot by a Nazi propagandist. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl recorded the games for her epic documentary Olympia, which aimed to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan athlete. Jesse Owens, however, has been described as "single-handedly crushing Hitler's myth" by winning four gold medals, in the 100 meters, long jump, 200 meters, and 4x100-meter relay, at those games.

The long jump, though, is the one to watch (though the sprints are good too, if only to see Owens pull so far ahead that he steals Riefenstahl's frame all to himself). Owens, 21, actually nearly failed to qualify for the final, though, when he mistook an official attempt at the jump as another warm-up round; with only one more chance to avoid elimination, he was encouraged by fellow competitor, the German Luz Long, who was "tall, blond, and blue-eyed" — basically "Adolf Hitler's dream Aryan athlete," Olympic.org writes. Long assured Owens he could make the required 7.15 meter jump "in his sleep," and coached him to move his take-off mark back further.

Owens advanced, eventually heading into the final — where he faced Long. Olympia captures the pair's back-and-forth battle for gold, although to Owens, Long's friendship was the real reward. "You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment," he later wrote. Stream it on The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime; rent it on Google Play and iTunes.

The bonkers marathon in The Games of the V Olympiad Stockholm, 1912

Stockholm, 1912

Some of the earliest known footage of the Olympic games comes from Stockholm in 1912. The film has been pristinely restored — and is included as part of the Criterion Channel's invaluable box set 100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912–2012 — and offers many strange delights, including footage of the arrival of the U.S. team after their 16-day journey by boat from New York, as well as early diving events, pageantry around the royal family, equestrian events, and even Olympic tug-o-war.

But the best event of all is the marathon. Like many marathons of the early modern Olympic era, it was a deeply bizarre event. It started out inauspiciously enough, with the race taking place on an extremely hot day (by some accounts, it was nearly 90 degrees). South Africans Ken McArthur and Christian Grisham led the pack, running together before Grisham took a healthy lead. Believing he'd all but won the race, Grisham stopped outside the stadium for water, only to be passed by McArthur, who took the gold.

Also among the contestants was Shizo Kanakuri, one of the first two Japanese Olympians and known as the "father of the marathon" in his homeland. He'd had a rough journey to reach Stockholm, though, needing to take the entirety of the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia, and was weak and ill when he started the race. Somewhere around the 16-mile mark he lost consciousness and was rescued by a local family.

Kanakuri, though, was embarrassed at failing to complete the marathon and decided to leave the country without telling the authorities, who officially noted him as "missing." During the same marathon, the Portuguese runner Francisco Lázaro became the first modern Olympic athlete to die during competition, so it was assumed by some that Kanakuri had simply expired somewhere along the course. Fifty years later, Sweden learned that Kanakuri had in fact returned to Japan without telling anyone; they invited him back to finish the race, which he did, with a time of 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds. Stream it on The Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

Ester Ledecká's lightning-fast super-G

Pyeongchang, 2018

For many athletes, it's enough to just be at the Olympics. That was the case for snowboarder Ester Ledecká, who decided to compete in super-G in alpine skiing in 2018, despite crossover between the two sports being basically unheard of. While Ledecká was a talented snowboarder, she was ranked 52nd going into the super-G, and had never medaled in skiing at an international level.

The women's super-G seemed to already be over. A big mistake by favorite Lindsey Vonn put her off the podium, and defending champion Anna Veith seemed to have locked in the gold. But then up stepped Ledecká, who subsequently made two errors on her way down the course.

But when she crossed the finish line, she was somehow 0.01 ahead of Veith. Ledecká looked as stunned as everyone else, staring disbelievingly at the clock. "I was wondering what just happened," Ledecká said later. "Is this a kind of mistake? I was thinking, 'Okay, they're going to change the time. I'm going to wait for a little bit and they're going to switch and put some seconds on. I was just staring at the board and nothing was happening and everybody was screaming. I started to think, 'Ok, this is weird.'"

Even more remarkable, Ledecká went on to win a second gold later in parallel giant slalom in snowboarding, making her the first athlete to win in both skiing and snowboarding at the same Olympic games.

Florence Griffith Joyner's unbelievable sprints

Seoul, 1989

When it comes to surprising victories, Florence Griffith Joyner is one of the greatest Olympic stories. But her surprises didn't start at the Olympic games — they began back in Indiana, during the U.S. trials.

Griffith Joyner didn't have a reputation for being an extraordinary runner; she worked as a bank clerk and hair stylist, and was out of shape when she began training in April 1987. Additionally, her long nails and flamboyant outfits kept many in track and field from taking her seriously. Going into the 100 meter trials — a race she'd never competed in at the top level of competition — her personal best was a fast but not exceptional 10.96 seconds from five years prior.

In the first round, she ran a wind-assisted 10.60 followed by 10.49 in the quarter-final, obliterating the standing 10.76 world record. The next day, in the semi-final, she won with 10.70, followed by winning with a 10.61 in the final. "In 24 hours she had run the three fastest legal women's 100 meter races in history, and before the trials finished she smashed the U.S. 200 meter record as well," The Guardian writes.

Griffith Joyner continued to stun when she got to South Korea: She broke the Olympic record twice, including a 100 meter final win with a time of 10.54, and shattering the world record in the 200 meter with 21.34. Because of her mind-boggling improvement, her legacy has been plagued by rumors that she was using steroids — although she took and passed 11 tests for performance-enhancing drugs, and when she died during an epileptic seizure at the age of 38, her husband requested the autopsy include even further tests for evidence of steroid use to clear her name. Nothing has ever turned up, even as speculation has persisted, and Griffith Joyner's records have never been beat.

Eric "The Eel" Moussambani's endearing finish

Sydney, 2000

The swimming competitions at the 2000 Sydney Olympic games are probably best remembered for being record-shattering; a whole 14 world records and 38 Olympic records were broken during the course of the games. (Additionally, they saw the debut of 15-year-old Michael Phelps). But one of the best moments came from a competitor who had never even seen an Olympic-sized pool before, and only learned to swim eight months prior.

Due to a wild card process intended to promote athletes from underrepresented and underfunded countries, 22-year-old Eric Moussambani ended up in Australia in 2000 representing Equatorial Guinea. He'd taught himself to swim in a 13-meter hotel pool in his hometown, without a coach (though local fishermen would offer him advice when he practiced in the river). Unfortunately, he arrived in Sydney believing he'd be competing in the 50-meter only to find out he'd actually been entered in the 100-meter. During his qualifying heat against Niger's Karim Bare and Tajikistan's Farkhod Oripov, he was the only one of the three to resist a false start. The other two were eliminated, and it was determined that a terrified Moussambani would have to compete alone against the clock, in front of thousands spectators and the world, for a qualifying time of 1 minute and 10 seconds.

The first 50 meters went okay, but Moussambani believes he must have "used all my energy" on them, because after turning off the wall "I was so tired, I couldn't feel my legs … I felt like I was in the same place, not moving." Looking at moments like he might actually require a lifeguard to assist him, Moussambani ultimately finished 43 seconds outside of the qualifying time with a personal best and Olympic worst of 1 minute and 52.72 seconds.

In the process, though, he won the hearts of viewers around the world for his determination and effort. "The Olympic spirit is all about taking part, and I think it's that strength and spirit that made me famous," he told Olympic.org.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.