The World's Greatest Athlete is a 1973 live-action Disney film about two college coaches, Sam Archer (John Amos) and his assistant Milo Jackson (Tim Conway). A series of coincidences sends the pair to Africa, where they catch sight of the Tarzan-like Nanu (Jan-Michael Vincent), a man who can outrun a cheetah in full bound.
Seeing this, the men quickly attempt to recruit the young man for their college team, but are confronted by Nanu's godfather, Gazenga (Roscoe Lee Browne). Gazenga believes that allowing Nanu into the world of competitive United States college athletics might be too much for the young and impressionable man. Disappointed but persistent, Sam and Milo learn that among Nanu and Gazenga's people, when one man saves the life of another, he has to become that man's protectorate for the rest of their lives and must follow the man he saved wherever he goes. After a few failed attempts, Sam and Milo are able to trick Nanu into saving him, from a stomachache. With the deed done, all three men (plus one stowed away tiger) get on a plane and head back to the U.S.
Nanu then discovers how much he genuinely enjoys the sports Sam has him train in and tries to make history by winning every event at the NCAA Track & Field Championship.
This film provides examples of:
- Accidental Athlete: Nanu grew up in the wild, which was the perfect setting for training. He doesn't consider athletics until Sam discovers him.
- Book-Ends: The film begins and ends with Sam and Milo discovering a promising young athlete in an exotic local, first Africa then China.
- Butt-Monkey: Leopold Maxwell
- Chekhov's Gun: The voodoo doll Milo comes across.
- Chekhov's Skill: While going about his daily life in the jungle, Nanu becomes very skilled at just about every kind of acrobatics.
- Cool Old Guy: Chief Gazenga
- Extreme Doormat: Nanu can be like this at times.
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Exit Pursued By A Tiger: Leopold is eventually chased down by Harry.
- Expy: Nanu shares a few obvious traits with Tarzan.
- Fish out of Water: Sam and Milo in Africa, later Nanu in America.
- Friend to All Living Things: Nanu
- Gentle Giant: Nanu, and his pet tiger Harry.
- Hidden Depths: While Sam initially tricked Nanu into coming to America in order to finally coach an athlete who can win at something. He seems to genuinely care for the young man when Gazenga keeps interfering.
- Hollywood Voodoo: Gazenga's chief weapon, anything from the standard dolls (which he uses to hurt Nanu at points and make him fall behind on his run) to shrinking potions. Also backfires on him at one point, when Milo makes a Gazenga doll and doesn't think it's working. He doesn't notice that as he's shaking the doll around, he's flinging Gazenga several feet into the air.
- Hulk Speak: Nanu, no doubt played for laughs.
- Incredible Shrinking Man: Poor Milo gets shrinked by Gazenga at one point.
- I Owe You My Life: An interesting twist, apparently in Nanu's tribe if one man saves the life of another he is then bond to that man for life, basically the rescuer goes wherever the rescue-y goes.
- Jerkass: Leopold
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Sam Archer turns out to be one.
- Mighty Whitey: Nanu
- Misplaced Wildlife: Tigers like Harry don't usually live in Africa.
- Nature Hero: Nanu, his best friend happens to be a tiger.
- Newscaster Cameo: Frank Gifford interviews Gazenga and Howard Cosell commentates on the NCAA Track & Field Championship.
- Nosy Neighbor: While she's technically the landlady, Ms. Peterson qualifies. First time we see her she keeps glaring at Sam, Milo and Nanu like a scientist examining a petri dish. Admittedly she does have poor eyesight, but that doesn't excuse her creepy stalker-like demeanor as they walk by.
- Not So Above It All: When Gazenga is greeted by Maxwell and doctor Bellamy at the airport, Dr. Bellamy says something like "We're looking forward to meeting a real witch doctor" or something to that effect. Instead of getting upset Gazenga smiles turns around for a moment and once he turns back to face the group again...he has a bone sticking out of his nose.
- Overprotective Dad: Nanu's godfather Chief Gazenga is a bit protective of his godson, not without reason either.
- Papa Wolf: Nanu may not be his biological son, but that doesn't stop Gazenga from trying his best to protect him.
- Raised by Natives: Nanu (the son of missionaries) was raised by Gazenga and his tribe.
- Rule of Funny: Why does Nanu own a pet tiger, when tigers aren't native to Africa? Because it's funny! Nanu does explain that the tiger emigrated from India to Africa as a cub.
- Shout-Out: The UBC network from The Barefoot Executive makes a reappearance, covering Nanu's story.
- Spoiled Brat: Leopold Maxwell
- Surrounded by Idiots: Seems no matter what team he coached, Archer always got stuck with the most incompetent athletes possible.
- Undying Loyalty: Milo is so dedicated to his head coach Archer that the moment Archer resigned as Merrivale College coach, Milo was more than happy to follow suit.
- Witch Doctor: Chief Gazenga
- Weirdness Censor: Everyone except the main characters are often oblivious to the fact that a tiger in a coat and hat happens to be sitting next to them.
- Zany Scheme: Archer and Jackson's elaborate plans to force Nanu into saving Archer's life. In the end they only pull it off by the skin of their teeth.