It's not the taking part but the winning

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

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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