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 charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence