While world-uniting spectacles is usually the job of blockbuster movies, every two years Hollywood takes a back seat to the Olympic games.
Bringing together the best athletes from around the world in a competition founded on a spirit of good will and cooperation, the Olympics - much like movies - can be an incredibly inspirational event. It's easy to forget just how intertwined the worlds of cinema and sport are - the Olympics are the stuff of movies. Films have inspired great athletes and athletes have inspired great films.
With the 2012 London Olympics just around the corner, here are some movies that have been influenced by Summer Olympic sports and in turn influenced legitimate and potential Olympians.
"The Hunger Games" - Archery: The hugely popular young adult series by author Suzanne Collins is now an even more successful movie franchise. The first "Hunger Games" film recently crossed the $672 million mark at the box office, and that success is having some unintended consequences in the world of sports. Though hunting teenagers with a bow and arrow is not an official Olympic event (yet), archery is one of the sports featured at the games. According to NBC Sports and Forbes, sales of bows have noticeably increased in the United States since the film's release in March, and in turn, enrollment in archery programs amongst kids of both sexes has also gone up.
Jennifer Lawrence's "Hunger Games" character Katniss Everdeen first uses her archery skills to hunt for food outside the walls of her impoverished district. Once she becomes a competitor in the 74th Hunger Games though, her skill with the bow and arrow saves her life on many occasions - ending the lives of other competitors in the process. Four-time US Olympian and archery instructor Khatuna Lorig actually trained and coached Lawrence in the ways of the bow. Lawrence will need all the practice she can get as her character Katniss continues to use her bow in subsequent films, so it's a good thing that Lawrence has learned from one of the world's best.
But "Hunger Games" can't take all the credit here. Two other blockbusters released this year have also prominently featured the age old weapon and hunting tool - "The Avengers" and Pixar's "Brave." Who ever said Hollywood entertainment was shallow and without merit? These films could very well be inspiring the next generation of Olympians. Can Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" claim the same thing?
"300"/"Troy" - Javelin Throw: This classic Olympic track & field sport has been part of the modern Olympic games since their inception, but the throwing sport dates back to the original Ancient Greek Olympics and hasn't really changed much since then. An athlete must hurl an ultra-light spear - a javelin - as far down a field as they can, and the winner is the person who can throw it the furthest.
But the seemingly simple nature of the sport belies the deadly purpose for which it was developed. As sword & sandal movies like "Troy" and "300" brutally demonstrated, the javelin's original usage was in warfare, as a light spear that could be thrown at enemies from a distance. Units called Peltasts wielded the weapons, providing ranged support for the hoplites (soldiers of Ancient Greece) and calvary who were in the thick of battle.
On film, warriors like Gerard Butler's King Leonidas in "300" and Brad Pitt's Achilles in "Troy" used the javelin to deadly effect, taking out opposing forces at a distance with pinpoint accuracy. Has the javelin throw benefitted from these movies like archery has from "The Hunger Games?" While no Olympians have admitted that they were directly inspired to throw javelins by big screen ancient Greeks yet, there's a good chance that "300" and "Troy" have helped popularize the sport to some degree.
"Rocky" - Boxing: Very few movies can say that they have done as much for a sport as Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" series has done for boxing. Though it focuses on the glamourous world of professional boxing - complete with big mouthed promoters, genuinely evil competitors, and talking robots - "Rocky" is a universal underdog story about a person who sacrifices a great deal and overcomes the odds to become the best in their particular field. If that doesn't scream Olympic spirit, what does?
Stallone's fictional Philadelphia pugilist, Rocky Balboa, was as much inspired by real-life Olympians as he was an influence on future Olympic athletes. The late boxing champ Joe Frazier, who was best known for his many matches against legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, was also the heavyweight boxing gold medalist at the 1964 games in Tokyo. Some of the most memorable scenes in "Rocky" took direct inspiration from Frazier. The sequence in which Balboa pummels a rack of meat in a slaughterhouse to harden his punches was modelled on Frazier's own training. The Olympic heavyweight worked in a slaughterhouse as a young man and supposedly used frozen beef in much the same way. Similarly, Frazier trained by running up and down the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art - steps that are now unofficially known as the "Rocky Steps."
There were even fictional Olympians featured in the Rocky films. Balboa's "Rocky IV" rival and Apollo Creed-slayer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) was said to be an Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union. Drago's especially brutal behaviour is decidedly against the spirit of the games however, as competitors are never encouraged to kill their opponents!
Commentators at the Olympic games often compare feisty underdog athletes in all sports to Philadelphia's most famous fictional son. Many real-life Olympic boxers from around the world have cited Stallone's crowd-pleasing films as one of the many reasons they took up the sport in the first place.
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