Cram course on the Winter Games

With movies and books, you can learn enough to hold up your end of Olympics conversation

February 09, 2010|By Candus Thomson | Baltimore Sun reporter

No, you're not an Olympian. And you don't even play one on TV.

Still, you can fake your way to respectability with just a few teaching aids.

Here are the movies
"Downhill Racer," starring Robert Redford and Gene Hackman, was one of the first movies to use a helmet-mounted camera to give viewers the sense of speed and thrills in the sport of skiing. Redford is the self-centered skier who derides the concept of team. Hackman is the coach who tries to make him conform. The hairdos and clothing speak of a different time, say, 1969. But Redford and Hackman are great on screen together, and there's a young Dabney Coleman as a ski team member.

•Any comedy with John Candy starts with an advantage. So it's no wonder that 1993's "Cool Runnings" is probably the funniest and most endearing Olympic movie. Shot in Calgary, Alberta, site of the 1988 Olympics, it's the story of the four Jamaicans who competed as their country's first bobsled team. They crashed that year and did not finish, but the story line and acting keeps the movie from the same fate. This being a Disney film, it has a happy ending. It should be noted that the team also did poorly in 1992, but stunned the sport in 1994, when it finished 14th, ahead of the Americans.

•Yes, those of a certain age remember the taped-delayed broadcast of the legendary 1980 hockey game between U.S. amateurs and the mighty Soviet professionals. "Miracle on Ice," rushed to television a year after the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., helped solidify those memories. It stars Karl Malden as the late coach Herb Brooks and Steve Guttenberg as goalie Jim Craig. Its saving grace is that it uses actual game footage and the play-by-play of Al Michaels.

"Miracle," the Disney version of that hockey game, is better. In a pitch-perfect performance, Kurt Russell channels Brooks in this 2004 release. The actors who play the athletes nail their parts, and camerawork is exceptional. And, yes - 30 years later - we still believe in miracles.

•It's hard to believe there's anything funnier than real-life figure-skating competition, with its prima donnas, poufy costumes and daily melodrama. And that's just the guys. "Blades of Glory" explores this question: What would happen if a loophole in skating rules allowed two men to compete together? Will Ferrell and Jon Heder are two disgraced singles skaters who team up with the help of a retired coach, played by Craig T. Nelson.

"The Thin Line" is a 90-minute cult classic released in 2007 that intersperses interviews with some of the world's greatest downhill skiers with footage of their exploits. It was produced by Pierre Jalbert, a Canadian standout skier and stand-in for Redford in "Downhill Racer." It's all there - competitors rocketing down 50 percent slopes at 80 mph and the spectacular crashes - in high definition. You may not be able to ski like the legends, but you can talk like them.

•It could be the worst skiing flick ever, but "Hot Dog: The Movie" costs only $7 new and $4 used from online vendors. And it beats watching Bob Costas. It's not an Olympic movie, but it was shot in Squaw Valley, Calif., site of the 1960 Winter Games. One of the best lines of the movie, spoken by a race official, could apply to ski cross, which will debut in Vancouver - "And now for the rules of the International Chinese Downhill: There are none." I suspect there's a lot of used copies available.

Here are the books
•No library would be complete without "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics," by David Wallechinsky, vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. Updated every four years, it includes a primer on each sport and discipline, yearly results from 1924 to 2006, and tidbits you can use to win bar trivia games. If you need to know the fastest, slowest, oldest, youngest of any sport, it's here. After he won gold in the 1980 slalom, Sweden's great alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark said, "History is not important." Maybe, but just in case, we'll keep this book around. A bonus: The winter edition, like the Games themselves, is much thinner than the warm-weather version.

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