Harry Hayes (Michael Crawford) is a milkman who one morning is delivering his rounds when he catches sight of a runner in training, so for a laugh he runs after and past him, putting his efforts to shame. As the man gets his breath back, he suggests Harry should do something with his talent for speeding about, and before he knows it the young chap has joined an athletics meet, demonstrating that he is the fastest sprinter there. He is told to speak to a professional coach in the shape of Bill Oliver (Stanley Baker), who does him the courtesy of throwing away his specially bought stopwatch; Bill sees something in Harry if he could buck up his ideas. How does an Olympic marathon sound?
The Games was not created to cash in on any particular Olympics - once the characters reach it, it's in Rome whereas the previous Games had been held in Mexico City (the one with the Black Power salute) and the following ones would be held in Munich (the one with the terrorist attack). What this was actually based on was a bestselling novel by Hugh Atkinson who seemed to have drawn from the 1960 Olympics in, yes, Rome for his plot, which is more obvious when you know who won the marathon event that year, but in case you don't, there are a selection of four men who you can choose to support that the movie cuts between, eventually bringing them together for the race at the end.
Along with Crawford, there were Ryan O'Neal as student Scott Reynolds, introduced to us downing ten pints of beer in a drinking competition (maybe he should have taken up darts?), Athol Compton as Sunny Pintubi, an Aborigine who is encouraged to run in Australia by his mentor Jeremy Kemp, a man who treats him more like a pet dog than a human being, and Charles Aznavour as the Czech world record holder Pavel Vendek who at forty-one years of age is probably past it but is just too talented not to give it another try. Early on Harry breaks Pavel's record meaning the authorities behind the Iron Curtain encourage (i.e. order) him to try and take it back, although Pavel admits in private he hates running no matter how good he is at it, offering him a little depth.
Unfortunately a little depth is all you're able to get with this quartet since in the space of about ninety minutes there was only so much director Michael Winner could do with them as to fleshing out their personalities, so they tended towards light caricature instead: stoic Eastern European, cheery and polite Aborigine, brash and go-getting American and a slightly gormless but plucky Brit. As far as keeping this engaging went, Winner did a fair job, not dwelling on any one plotline to make it appear more varied than it was when it was more or less the same story told four times with variations, but with Erich Segal penning the script, he of Love Story fame (the blockbusting movie of which had starred O'Neal the same year), didn't veer too far away from soap opera.
Granted it was soap opera on a notable scale, as Winner took his cast and crew to various corners of the globe, location shooting for that extra authenticity, even in the Australian Outback. In fact, with the theme of Sunny overcoming a mindset ranging from patronising to outright racist (he has a segregated changing room) by far the most captivating, you almost wish the production had been about him rather than flitting from one athlete to the other. If you hoped for a spot of the trademark Winner bad taste, this was arriving at the end of a bright nineteen-sixties for him and though his harder edged seventies were dawning, the most you would get was to hear Baker spit out "You filthy bitch!" to Elaine Taylor who was playing Crawford's girlfriend and had bedded him before a big race, which is a no-no in Bill's training regime. To his credit, Winner aimed for accuracy throughout, even to the extent of casting actual sports reporters such as Ron Pickering, thereby making viewers of a certain age wonder what his We Are the Champions movie would be like. Music by Francis Lai.