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As the world's eyes turn to Rio De Janeiro for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, it's a good time to think about some of the greatest and most memorable explorations of sport on film.
The values of the Olympic movement - including community, teamwork, personal attainment and identity - can all be found in many great films. Going beyond the traditional triumph-over-adversity underdog narrative, many sports films can highlight how sporting drama can serve as a microcosm of society, and demonstrate how both sport and film can bring people from all backgrounds together, to powerful and often inspirational effect. With that in mind, here are our film programming team's favourite sporting films, all of which are available to order today.
Football might not be the first sport that comes to mind when you think of the Olympics, but the drive to be the best is an essential quality for all sportsmen and women and Believe is a really touching story about one boy's dream to be just that. Based on true events and set in Manchester in the 1980's, this film charts the misadventures of 11 year old Georgie and the life changing transformation that a chance encounter with legendary ex-Manchester United coach Matt Busby has on his future. Reminding us all of the value of nurturing talent wherever it's found and in whatever field, Believe makes us believe that you really can turn dreams into reality.
You can't put an Olympic film list together without even a nod to this silly (but still brilliant!) comedy about how Jamaica came to enter a bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics. A great underdog story loosely based on true events, it follows a group of Jamaican sprinters who have failed to qualify for the Olympic team looking for another sport to compete in. Despite having never seen snow before they settle on bobsleigh and rope in a curmudgeonly ex-bobsleigh coach to train them. Lots of comedy ensues as we watch a group of men used to sunnier climates tackle the icy conditions of the Canadian bobsleigh slopes. The references and stereotyping may feel a little dated but are nonetheless heartwarming, and the film is chock full of sporting spirit and huge fun to watch.
Proving the inter-generational appeal of sport, this charming documentary proves age is just a number. Following competitors of the 'over 80' category of the world ping pong championships, this is a celebration of the extraordinary lengths they go to to stay active and involved in the sport. From Terry (81) who had only been given a week to live, to the legendary 100 year old Dorothy, each one reveals the secrets to their limitless determination to compete. Fascinating and life-affirming, as the films tagline states "you're never too old for gold".
The seemingly dry world of statistics is used here to produce a compelling account of modern sporting practices. It tells the true-story of the Oakland A's baseball team and their charismatic talent scout Billy Beane. His innovative techniques - making the most of a limited budget by methodically driving a group of undervalued players to achieve the exceptional - not only transformed the fortunes of his own team beyond all recognition, but influenced organisations around the world, in sport and beyond. From the writer of The Social Network, this is a brilliantly entertaining film - honest and direct, but devoid of cynicism - that demonstrates how sporting lessons can be applied to other areas of life, both personal and professional.
This characteristically flamboyant debut from Australian director Baz Lurhmann uses the backdrop of the national ballroom dancing championships to challenge stereotypes and present a fabulous story of love, life and laughter. Bursting with energy, ideas and outrageousness, the film explores an eccentric and unique world, having tremendous fun with its hero's efforts to stifle the lumbering bureaucracy imposed by the sport's authorities, emerging with something heartfelt and defiant. Although its basic storyline is familiar, the film ingrained itself into people's imaginations, making the logical flying leap into the world of the stage musical in 2016.
Ryan Coogler introduces a fresh face to both the Rocky franchise and to the well-trodden boxing gyms of Philadelphia with Apollo Creed's son Adonis. Keen to make the transition into professional boxing, Adonis decides to look up his late father's best friend, Rocky Balboa, and appeals to him to become his coach. As Adonis starts to make a name for himself, a great opportunity arises that sees him struggle with using the legacy of his father's name. Creed examines the training and self-motivation required to reach professional level, engaging with the media circus that accompanies the boxing racket. An uplifting film that doesn't shy away from the dangers inherit in the sport as well as the potential for glory.
A very frank documentary that follows a group of athletes and gives an insight into their preparations for the 2012 Olympic games. Filmed over a number of years, this documentary charts the dedication, motivation and long-term vision needed for athletes to build up to compete at Olympic level. Despite struggling against setbacks such personal clashes with their trainers, injury, the need for financial support and sponsorship, this film reveals the positive change that sport creates, making all the challenges along the way part of an incredibly worthwhile and rewarding experience
A film not about wrestling but rather loneliness and isolation, with a stellar performance by Mickey Rourke. For an actor who has come back from the wilderness himself, he portrays a character of great depth. It is a compelling performance which is both macho and posturing, whilst also showing tenderness and desperation. A true tour de force.
An exceptionally brilliant documentary that uses archive footage of one the most formidable talents in motor racing. Director Asif Kapadia manages to create a thrilling ride from start to finish. The audience is engulfed in the driver's all-consuming passion with such intensity it is hard to look away. With fascinating exclusive interviews voiced over gritty racing images, this film defines the soul of motor racing.
This brilliant documentary perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the Olympics, reminding us that the journey is more important than the end result. Next Goal Wins follows the misfortunes of American Samoa who, in 2001, suffered a world record 31-0 defeat to Australia. Over a decade later, with the memories far from forgotten, they embark on the seemingly impossible quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup... or even just to score a goal. As well as serving as a brilliant underdog story, the film sensitively explores tougher issues, including loss, gender identity and cultural norms. Next Goal Wins is one of those wonderful, rare titles that has you weeping one moment and jumping for joy the next.
With widespread allegations over doping clouding the build-up to Rio 2016, Alex Gibney's fascinating portrait of controversial cyclist Lance Armstrong is an intimate, mesmerising and particularly timely documentary to watch. The construction of the piece - which jumps back and forth in time to contrast the cyclist's competing hero and villain personas - came about directly due to the star's own shocking confession. Footage was initially recorded to make a straightforward bio-doc before the film took on a whole new angle after revelations confirming Armstrong's use of illegal substances when competing. The Armstrong Lie deftly explores truth and legacy, seeking to understand one of the most complex figures in modern sport.
If that wasn't enough, be sure to explore our dedicated Sport on Film list, which is packed with further titles you might want to seek out, and have a listen to our Sports podcast, which discusses the likes of Creed, When We Were Kings and Looking For Eric.
A selection of titles looking at the relationship between sport and film, taking in community, politics, teamwork and personal attainment.
Suitable forAll ages
No. of films25
A podcast for film club leaders. Film programmers Joe and Elinor discuss how film can be good for engaging with sports and sports stories.
Viewing time 13 mins
With the release of new Jesse Owens biopic Race, we take a look at how sports movies are often about much more than a simple race to the finish line.
Reading time 8 mins
A film guide that looks at Creed (2015), exploring its key topics and themes through informal discussion.
A film guide that looks at Believe (2013), exploring its key topics and themes through informal discussion.
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