It's not the taking part but the winning

4.00

Documentary-makers are showing other directors how to cover sport – and landing big prizes, at last, too – says Kaleem Aftab

It was a sight that no one expected to see, musician Sean Coombs – aka P Diddy or Puff Daddy, depending on what generation one is from – on stage at the Academy Awards to pick up an Oscar for the documentary Undefeated. The surprise was that a sports film had taken home the top documentary prize. The American Academy has a patchy record when it comes to awarding gongs to documentaries about sports. The only two previous sporting winners were The Horse With the Flying Tail in 1960, about a palomino horse that won an equestrian team gold medal, and When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's fascinating 1996 documentary about the events surrounding the "Rumble in the Jungle".

In 1996 the voting procedure on documentaries was changed when Hoop Dreams, considered by many to be one of the greatest documentaries ever made, did not even feature on the nominations list. It followed an investigation ordered by the Academy's Executive Director, Bruce Davis, into why the doc about two underprivileged black basketball proteges did not make it into the top five films..

Undefeated chronicles the 2009 season of the Manassas Tigers of North Memphis, Tennessee, a school American football team, who in their 110-year history had never won a play-off game. Film-makers Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin originally set out to make a documentary about Manassas's offensive lineman OC Brown, a talented black footballer, who was, at the time that the film-makers became interested, living part-time with an upper-class white family as he chased his dream of playing college football.

Once they started shooting, the film-makers soon realised that they had a greater story to tell if they simply followed the ups and downs of the whole team over the course of a season, concentrating on three players – Brown, who needed to improve his grades if he was to make it to college and pursue his football dream; the team's most gifted athlete, Chavis Daniels, beset by anger management issues; and Montrail Brown, nicknamed "Money", an over-achiever on the offensive line.

But the star of the story is coach Bill Courtney. A white businessman, Courtney spent six years turning the football team around as a volunteer head coach. A caring and charismatic figure, Courtney dedicates more hours than he probably should to taking charge of the team. By tying up the coach with three black players, Lindsay and Martin were able to use class, race and teamwork to show the power of sports in the fabric of American life.

In recent years there have been riveting portraits of sporting superstars far from the staid chronological biopics usually found on specialist sports channels. These include Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait by artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno; James Toback's remarkable Tyson; Substitute, a remarkable self-made video by footballer Vikash Dorasoo about being an unused substitute in the 2006 World Cup; and Senna, Asif Kapadia's remarkable film on the Brazilian F1 driver.

And for the most part it's documentaries about unsung sporting heroes that have the most impact: Murderball, which followed quadriplegics on the US rugby team as they prepared for the 2004 Paralympic Games; Riding Giants, Stacey Peralta's overview on the origins of surfing; Kevin MacDonald's Touching the Void about mountain climbers in trouble; and Pumping Iron, the film that introduced the world to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One of the greatest and most controversial documentaries of all time was Olympia, the Nazi propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl in 1938 about the Berlin Olympics of 1936. The film was released in two parts and won many awards for the groundbreaking film techniques that have become a regular staple of sports movies since.

It's no surprise there will be several sporting documentaries playing on our cinema screens as distributors try to take advantage of Olympic fever. Town of Runners follows young athletes who hail from Bekoji, a remote town in the southern Highlands of the Arsi region in Ethiopia. Olympic and World Champions Tirunesh Dibaba, Deratu Tulu and Kenenisa Bekele come from the town. In the Beijing Olympics the runners won all four gold medals in the long distance track events.

The film follows three young athletes over three years as they train to follow in the footsteps of their heroes and become professional athletes in a country long associated with poverty, famine and war. The film highlights both the social and physical battles that the young athletes must overcome to make the grade. From the other end of the spectrum is Ping Pong. The stars are the 3,500 pensioners from all over the world who compete in the Over-80s Table Tennis championships in Inner Mongolia, including Les Darcy, 89, and Terry Dolan, 84, from the UK. The world of veteran sports is rarely featured in documentaries, but director Hugh Hartford manages to strike the fine balance between sporting endeavour and a look at the aging process.

The Tribeca Film Festival, in addition to playing Town of Runners, will see a couple of sports documentaries' world premieres. Knuckleball, from the directors of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, is about baseball's equivalent to reverse swing in cricket. The documentary looks at two of the greatest exponents of the art. On the Mat follows a high-school wrestling team.

Documentary film-makers have, in recent years, seemingly mastered the art of recounting tales of athletic prowess by concentrating on personal tales, rather than team victories. Fiction film-makers have by and large failed to make the grade, as all too often there is no doubt protagonists will be on the winning team, and long odds will be overcome by the underdog.

The London Cultural Olympiad decided to go down the fictional route when it commissioned four short films to tie in with the Olympics – from Mike Leigh, Lynn Ramsay, and StreetDance 2 directors Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini, with a fourth film to be unveiled today. These shorts will have to go some way to challenge the supremacy documentary-makers have established.

'Town of Runners' is out on 20 April. 'Undefeated' and 'Ping Pong' are released later this year

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there