Culture08 Feb 2020

Ten of the most successful athletics movies of all time


Athletics films at a movie theatre

It may be a niche genre, but athletics movies tend to perform pretty well during awards season.

No such films have made it among the nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, but here are some of the most successful athletics-related flicks of all time.


Chariots of Fire

Not just the best athletics movie ever made, but one of the greatest films, period. This 1981 film tells the story of two British athletes at the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew.

Awards: it cleaned up at the 54th Academy Awards, winning the gongs for best picture, best original screenplay, best costume design and best original score. It also scooped awards at the Grammys, Golden Globes, Baftas and Cannes Film Festival.


Forrest Gump

Although not strictly a film solely about athletics, running is a key theme in this 1994 film. The eponymous character, played by Tom Hanks, is a slow-witted but kind-hearted man who witnesses and unwittingly influences several defining historical events in the 20th century United States. A talented runner, Forrest embarks on a relentless three-year run across the USA which attracts the attention of the national press. In one memorable scene, Forrest is swarmed by a pack of journalists who all ask him why he is doing it. He replies: “I just felt like running”.

Awards: it dominated the 67th Academy Awards, picking up six Oscars, including best picture. It also won three Golden Globes, a Bafta, and a Screen Actors Guild Award.


Children of Heaven

This 1997 Iranian family drama focuses on a brother and sister and their adventures over a lost pair of shoes. After Ali loses his Zahra’s pair of shoes, he goes on a series of adventures in order to find them. When he can't, he tries a new way to ‘win’ a new pair: a local 4km race.

Awards: the film won four accolades at the 1997 Montreal World Film Festival, as well as numerous other awards at various other international ceremonies. It was also nominated for best foreign language film at the 1999 Academy Awards.


Marathon Man

This 1976 suspense thriller stars Dustin Hoffmann as grad student and running obsessive Thomas 'Babe' Levy, who is pursued by Nazi war criminal Dr Christian Szell over a briefcase of missing diamonds. A particularly sadistic dentistry scene provides one of the more memorable moments of the film, which neatly draws upon Levy’s memories of the heroic feats of two-time Olympic marathon champion Abeba Bikila to help him escape from the bad guys.

Awards: Laurence Olivier won the best actor in a supporting role award at the 1977 Golden Globes. Olivier was also nominated in the same category at the Academy Awards that same year.



This 2017 US documentary originally set out to be an exploration of doping in amateur cycling, but filmmaker Bryan Fogel happened upon a major international doping scandal after meeting with Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory.

Awards: the film won best documentary feature at the 90th Academy Awards. It also won the 2017 Critics Choice Documentary Award as well as the award for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.


Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

This 2013 Indian biographical sports drama, which translates to ‘Run Milkha Run’, is based on the life of legendary Indian athlete Milkha Singh. Known as ‘The Flying Sikh’, the sprinter was the first Indian athlete to win an individual athletics gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, taking the 440 yards title in 1958. He became a national sporting icon after finishing fourth in the 400m at the 1960 Olympic Games, which is where the film starts.

Awards: the film won dozens of domestic honours, including National Film Awards, IIFA Awards, Star Guild Awards and Screen Awards.


The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

In its first 25 years, only 10 people have finished The Barkley Marathons. Based on a historic prison escape, this cult-like race tempts people from around the world to test their limits of physical and mental endurance in this documentary that contemplates the value of pain.

Awards: the film scooped prizes for best documentary at the 2014 Austin Film Festival and the 2015 Kansas City FilmFest.



Produced and directed by Angelina Jolie, this 2014 US war film is based on the 2010 non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand. It tells the tale of army officer Louis Zamperini, who survived in a raft for 47 days after his bomber crash-landed in the ocean during the Second World War, before being captured by the Japanese and being sent to a series of prisoner of war camps.

Awards: the film scooped a Screen Actors Guild Award along with numerous other honours from various international ceremonies.


The Terry Fox Story

The true story about Terry Fox, the cancer amputee hero who decided to run across Canada on only one leg to raise money for cancer research.

Awards: the film bagged six gongs at the 1984 Genie Awards and two honours at the 1983 CableACE Awards.


Saint Ralph

This 2004 film is the unlikely story of Ralph Walker, a ninth grader who outran everyone's expectations except his own in his bold quest of trying to win the 1954 Boston Marathon.

Awards: it picked up two awards from the Directors Guild of Canada in 2005 along with a few other international honours.