"SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue"

By Leah Rozen

Hollywood has long carried an Olympic torch for the Games and their charismatic champions

Before he wore a loincloth as Tarzan and yodeled while swinging across movie screens on a vine, Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimming champ.

The strapping Weissmuller -- 6-foot-5, 190 pounds -- power-splashed his way to five gold medals in the 1924 and ‘28 Olympic Games. Recognizing a marketable hunk when it saw one, Hollywood snapped him up.

"It was like stealing," Weissmuller (1904-1984) once said of his Tarzan career, which included a dozen films between 1932 and ‘48. "There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say. How can a guy climb trees, say ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane,’ and make a million?"

I was a sucker for Weismuller’s Tarzan films -- as a kid, I used to watch the scratchy prints that repeatedly aired on Saturday afternoon TV.

In fact, I’m a sucker for any film with even the dimmest connection to the Olympics. Each one offers the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, to borrow a phrase popularized by ABC’s "Wide World of Sports". And there are plenty of movies to choose from.

Hollywood has long considered both the Summer and Winter Olympics as a prime hunting ground for both plots and stars. You can bet that, along with the rest of us, show business insiders will be closely watching the 2012 Games, which kick off July 27 in London.

(MORE: The Thrill of Defeat, the Agony of Victory)

Olympic movies (not including documentaries) fall into three categories: retellings of actual Olympic stories; fictional dramas that appropriate the Olympics as a setting; and showcases for Olympic competitors deemed pulchritudinous enough to be worthy of a shot at a screen career. Here’s a quick look at each category:

Based on a True Story

Easily the single most memorable movie in this genre is the Oscar-winning "Chariots of Fire" (1981). The British period drama tells the true tale of runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams -- a devout Christian and a Jew -- who competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. To this day, just hearing the first few notes of Vangelis’ synthesizer-heavy score brings goose bumps. (The movie was adapted as a stage play last spring: "Fire" is currently packing a theater on London’s West End.)

Other worthy films that recreate real stories of Olympic glory are "Miracle" (2004), about the gold-winning 1980 U.S. hockey squad; "Prefontaine" (1997) and "Without Limits" (1998), two bio pics about American runner Steve Prefontaine, who was edged out for a medal in the 1972 games; and "Jim Thorpe: All-American" (1951), starring a brawny Burt Lancaster as the Native American who won both the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 games -- only to have his medals yanked when it was ruled that an earlier payday for playing semi-pro baseball meant Thorpe didn't qualify as an amateur athlete. (Director Steven Spielberg used the hostage-taking and killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich as the starting point for his movie "Munich", which mostly focuses on the subsequent covert efforts by Israeli agents to retaliate against those who had planned and carried out the operation.)

Olympic Inspiration

Movies that use the Olympics merely as a backdrop for fictional stories are a more varied lot. A few are keepers, notably "Million Dollar Legs" (1932) starring W.C. Fields, a wacky comedy about a made-up country competing in the Olympics in Los Angeles.

Qualifying as guilty pleasures are "The Cutting Edge" (1992), a romantic drama about a couple (D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly) who fall in love when paired as a figure-skating team; "Running" (1979), a drama about a marathoner (Michael Douglas) hoping to win back his wife by finishing the race; and "Cool Runnings" (1993), an amusing comedy very loosely based on the first entry of a Jamaican team in the bobsled competition at the 1988 Winter Games.

From Champion to Movie Star

This is my favorite slot. These athlete-turned-actor films were especially popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, long before the dawn of blanket TV coverage of the Olympics. In addition to Weissmuller, Hollywood glorified Sonja Henie, who thrice won gold for Norway as a figure skater in the 1928, ‘32 and ‘36 Games before gliding through 11 fluffy films.

Others on the list include:

Buster Crabbe The Olympic swimmer won a bronze medal in '28 and gold four years later. He made a single Tarzan movie, but is best remembered as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in old-time Saturday matinee serials.

Esther Williams Her shot at Olympic glory was cut short when the 1940 Summer Games were canceled because of the outbreak of World War II. But she went on to star in numerous aquatic screen extravaganzas of the 1940s and ‘50s. (For those who always wanted to give synchronized swimming a try, we tell you how to get started here.)

Bob Mathias The two-time decathalon champion (1948 and '52) later served as a U.S. Congressman. He also played himself in "The Bob Mathias Story" (1954).

In recent decades, several Olympic athletes have tried for Hollywood gold, with scant success. Gymnast Mitchell Gaylord took the leap with "American Anthem" (1986), a gymnastics-themed turkey. Bruce Jenner, now best known as the Kardashian sisters’ put-upon stepfather, appeared in the disco disaster "Can’t Stop the Music" (1980) as well as various TV movies and shows. And diver Greg Louganis had a short run as a TV actor. (Read more about them here.) Never did Brad Pitt or Harrison Ford have reason to worry.

Somewhere in here there’s an excellent doctoral thesis. What does the cross-pollination between the Olympics and Hollywood really mean? How are athletes and movie stars alike? How do they differ?

I’ll leave all that for someone else to pursue. I’ll be too busy watching the Games and trying to spot the next potential Johnny Weissmuller.

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.

Read More On Next Avenue:
Games Changers: Olympic Stars of Yesterday
Olympic Sports Fiftysomethings Should Try: Handball
The Triathlon Challenge: It's Not Just for the Young

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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  • Equestrian: Karen O'Connor, 54

    This is <a href="http://www.thebarrygroup.com/ocet2012/OCETPeople.asp" target="_hplink">O'Connor's fifth appearance at the Olympics</a>. She has been named U.S. Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year 10 times and, in 1993, was the number one ranked female rider in the world. She received the Team Silver Medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the Team Bronze Medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. In 2007, Karen and her pony Theodore O'Connor won the Individual Gold Medal in addition to leading the U.S. to the Team Gold Medal at the Pan Am Games in Brazil.

  • Equestrian: Karen O'Connor, 54

    Karen has been married to equestrian David O'Connor since 1993; they operate the O'Connor Event Team in The Plains, VA, where they train new horses and promising riders. They became the second husband and wife to stand on the same podium in the same event at the Olympics in 1996. However this <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=karen-oconnor/index.html?etx=bio" target="_hplink">may be Karen's last competition</a>, as David will be taking over as coach of the U.S. team next year, resulting in a conflict of interest, NBC reported.

  • Shooting: Emil Milev, 44

    Although this year will be <a href="http://www2.tbo.com/news/news/2012/jun/12/memeto1-teacher-sets-sights-on-olympic-medal-ar-414880/" target="_hplink">Milev's fifth appearance</a> at the Olympic Games, it will be his first time competing for the U.S. Olympic team. The physical education teacher first competed for Bulgaria in 1992 and won a silver medal in the 1996 Games. Milev will be competing in the 25-meter rapid fire pistol event.

  • Shooting: Emil Milev, 44

    "I was thinking after 2007, I will stop [shooting] and this will be it -- I was heading in another direction, teaching," said<a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/king/news-blogs/shooting/spokane-shooter-amanda-furrer-headed-to-london.html" target="_hplink"> Milev in an interview with NBC</a>. "But I like shooting and I kept coming to Nationals and kept practicing from time to time and slowly my results improved and it all just happened." <a href="http://www.usashooting.org/12-the-team/usashootingteam/nationalteam/nationalpistolteam/milev" target="_hplink">Milev began practicing shooting</a> in 1984 in Bulgaria. After <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=emil-milev/index.html" target="_hplink">competing for Bulgaria four times</a> in the Olympics, Milev -- along with his wife of over 20 years and children, moved to Florida in 2004.

  • Shooting: Daryl Lee Szarenski, 44

    <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=daryl-szarenski/index.html" target="_hplink">Sergeant First Class Daryl Szarenski</a> is heading to the Olympics for the fourth time. The Saginaw, MI native will be competing in the 10m air pistol and 50m free pistol categories. The <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/story/2011-10-17/Pan-Am-Games/50805116/1" target="_hplink">three time Olympian</a> has never won a medal in the Games, but <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/17/us-games-panam-idUSTRE79G0LQ20111017" target="_hplink">won his third Pan-Am gold medal</a> in 2011 in the 10m air pistol event.

  • Shooting: Daryl Lee Szarenski, 44

    Though Szarenski already earned a spot in the Olympic Games for the 10m air pistol event, he <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/news-blogs/shooting/szarenski-mowrer-qualify-in-50m-free-pistol.html" target="_hplink">qualified first for the men's 50m free pistol event</a> in June. Szarenski has been involved in shooting since 1979. The Olympian is also part of the <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=daryl-szarenski/index.html" target="_hplink">U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program</a>.

  • Shooting: Eric Uptagrafft, 46

    For the first time since 1996, <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=eric-uptagrafft/index.html" target="_hplink">Sergeant First Class Eric Uptagrafft</a> (center) is returning to the Olympic Games. The rifle instructor for the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit will be competing for the U.S. along with his wife Sandra, who will also be competing in the pistol shooting event. Uptagrafft who has been <a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/olympics/player/eric-uptagrafft/1351689" target="_hplink">shooting since 1977</a>. He failed to qualify for the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Games, but will be competing in this year's <a href="http://sports.yahoo.com/news/meet-2012-olympian-eric-uptagrafft-50-meter-prone-163100641--oly.html" target="_hplink">50m rifle prone</a> event. <em><span class='searchmatch'>Eric</span> <span class='searchmatch'>Uptagrafft</span> (center)</em>

  • Equestrian: Phillip Dutton, 48

    Dutton has competed in the Olympics for two countries. He won team eventing gold medals for Australia in 1996 and 2000, helping the nation to its record third-straight team eventing gold medal. Dutton <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=phillip-dutton/index.html?etx=bio" target="_hplink">moved to Pennsylvania</a> in 1991 to train and began competing for the U.S. in 2006. London is his fifth-straight Olympics and second as a U.S. competitor.

  • Equestrian: Phillip Dutton, 48

    Dutton grew up riding horses on his family's sheep and wheat farm in the small town of Nyngan in New South Wales, Australia; when he wasn't on the farm, he spent his time at pony club rallies and horse trials, according to <a href="http://www.phillipdutton.com/bio.php" target="_hplink">his website</a>. His family wondered when he'd <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=phillip-dutton/index.html?etx=bio" target="_hplink">"give up the pony club,"</a> until he won gold in 1996, NBC reports. Here he is pictured riding his horse Kheops Du Quesnay at True Prospect Farm, the Pennsylvania farm he owns with his wife Evie.

  • Equestrian: Rich Fellers, 52

    "In our sport, it's a bit difficult, because you just have to have the right horse at the right stage in their career," said Rich Fellers in a June 2012 <a href="http://www.opb.org/thinkoutloud/shows/rich-fellers/" target="_hplink">interview</a> on Oregon Public Radio. The West Coast native will bring his 16-year-old show horse, Flexible, to London this month. Fellers has been an athlete and "an animal lover" since childhood, but he did not plan to pursue riding and training horses as a career. But that all changed during his junior year of college, when his father told him that he would be more successful as an equestrian than building houses as a contractor, as he'd planned.

  • Equestrian: Rich Fellers, 52

    Fellers and his horse Flexible are quite the pair: In 2012 Fellers became the first American in 25 years to win the World Cup Jumping Final. The two were <a href="http://www.oregonlive.com/wilsonville/index.ssf/2012/04/wilsonville_equestrian_rich_fe.html" target="_hplink">the oldest pair in the competition</a>.

  • Equestrian: Steffen Peters, 47

    This will be Peters' third time at the Games. He rode with the U.S. Olympic dressage team and won a team bronze in the 1996 Games in Atlanta, and competed again in 2008 in Beijing, placing fourth individually. He was also an alternate in 2004. Dressage has been called "horse ballet," because the horse moves in small steps to music. A native of Germany, Peters became an American citizen four years before his first Olympic competition. He has been riding since he was 7, but only became interested in dressage when he was 15 and inherited his sister's dressage pony, he said in an <a href="http://www.dressage-news.com/?p=15042" target="_hplink">interview</a> with the French equestrian magazine "Grand Prix." Forty years later, "the idea of retirement has not yet crossed my mind," he says.

  • Equestrian: Tina Konyot, 50

    It's no surprise that <a href="http://usefnetwork.com/athletes/30/tina_konyot.aspx" target="_hplink">Tina Konyot</a> pursued a career based entirely on horseback -- as a <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=tina-konyot/index.html" target="_hplink">fifth generation horse trainer</a> with family members in the Circus Hall of Fame, there was probably no turning back.

  • Equestrian: Tina Konyot, 50

    <a href="http://www.worlddressagemasters.com/archives/rider/tina-konyot" target="_hplink">Konyot was shortlisted for the 2000 and 2004 Olympics </a>but never made it past the trials. She earned a place in the 2012 games by coming in a close second to defending champ Steffan Peters at Trials in June.<a href="http://usefnetwork.com/athletes/30/tina_konyot.aspx" target="_hplink"> Konyot and her horse Calecto V have been a winning team since 2007</a>, coming in first in eight Grand Prix in 2010 (seven of those back to back) and taking top honors in a number of events in 2011 and 2012.

  • Equestrian: Beezie Madden, 48

    <a href="http://usefnetwork.com/athletes/54/beezie_madden.aspx" target="_hplink">Elizabeth "Beezie" Madden</a> has been riding ever since she was 3 years old. Madden made her grand prix show jumping debut in 1985 and was named the United States Olympic Committee's Female Equestrian of the Year four years later.

  • Equestrian: Beezie Madden, 48

    Madden's wins set the stage for a seemingly nonstop stream of awards, including gold medals in team jumping in the <a href="http://www.teamusa.org/Athletes/MA/Elizabeth-Beezie-Madden.aspx#profile" target="_hplink">2004 and 2008 Olympic Games</a> and bronze for individual jumping in the 2008 Games.

  • Equestrian: Beezie Madden, 48

    Madden has also had the distinction of being the <a href="http://usefnetwork.com/athletes/54/beezie_madden.aspx" target="_hplink">first woman to meet a few equestrian milestones</a> -- she was the first women to earn more than $1 million for jumping and the first to reach the top three in the Gandini Show Jumping World Ranking List in 2004.

  • Equestrian: Jan Ebeling, 53

    Janel "Jan" Ebeling, 53, <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=jan-ebeling/index.html" target="_hplink">rides the mare Rafalca and competes in dressage</a>. Ebeling has garnered media attention because <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/22/nation/la-na-ann-romney-dressage-20120522" target="_hplink">Rafalca and Ebeling's ranch/training facility are both part-owned by Ann Romney</a>, wife of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, according to the L.A. Times. She began riding again a decade ago after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, according to the L.A. Times. When Romney won silver and gold medals in 2005 and 2006 from the U.S. Dressage Federation, she credited Ebeling for helping her reach the top of the amateur ranks.

  • Colbert Report On Romney's Horse

    Ebeling's connection with Romney brought dressage to the attention of Stephen Colbert, who launched his own dressage tradition (check out the video). In an interview with NBC, <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/equestrian/jan-ebeling-colbert-video-is-hilarious.html" target="_hplink">Ebeling called the Colbert video "hilarious."</a>

  • Equestrian: Jan Ebeling, 53

    At the 2011 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final, Ebeling and Rafalca were the <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=jan-ebeling/index.html" target="_hplink">top-placing Americans in both the Grand Prix Test and the Freestyle</a>, according to NBCOlympics.com. The site also notes that <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=jan-ebeling/index.html" target="_hplink">Ebeling and Rafalca won the Grand Prix Special at Dressage Getaway Inc.</a> and at the Mid-Winter Dressage Festival. They placed first in the Freestyle and second in the Grand Prix test. Ebeling credits his recent success to a long partnership between horse and rider. "We are like a couple - like an old, married couple, so we know each other well," <a href="http://www.nbcolympics.com/athletes/athlete=jan-ebeling/index.html" target="_hplink">Ebeling told NBCOlympics.com</a>.