Sports films: When the losers are in a different league

As a new motorcycle movie shows, sports films are more entertaining when the hero doesn't come first. By Kaleem Aftab
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The Independent Culture

Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing". So runs the famous American sports quotation first spouted on screen in the 1953 movie Trouble Along the Way. While that may be true in real life, it is definitely not the case in sports movies, where it's the stories about losers that have always proved far more gripping.

The latest film to recognise the allure of the nearly man is TT3D: Closer to the Edge. The documentary takes as its subject the famous motorcycle meet that takes place on the Isle of Man in which boy racers risk life and limb whizzing around on superbikes on the island roads. Narrated by Jared Leto, the action follows the series of races in 2010 when Ian Hutchinson became the first man to win all five solo races at a single Isle of Man TT meet.

Yet director Richard De Aragues chose not to concentrate on the record-breaking achievement of Hutchinson, but on Guy Martin, a rider who has won no races but through his tenacity and force of personality has become the so-called "people's champion". The director says, "I knew that I wanted to get into the psychology of the racers. Most importantly I did not want it to be a bike movie, it had to be a human story, and it had to be about someone trying really hard to get somewhere and not necessarily getting there."

As such Martin joins a list of intriguing cinematic sporting losers. Hoop Dreams, the 1994 documentary about aspiring basketball players, is considered by Spike Lee to be "one of the best films ever made". Director Steve James followed two Chicago-based basketball protégés as they set about trying to fulfil their dreams of becoming professional athletes.

The sporting scenes are fascinating, but it's the tales of their family life and how they have to come to terms with disappointment that really grip. The film becomes a cautionary tale rather than a parade of champions.

It's not just documentaries that are better when they peek at the sporty also-rans. Raging Bull is considered to be Martin Scorsese's masterpiece. What the director does so expertly is to show that the very traits that make Jake LaMotta a star in the ring are also the failings that make his life outside the ring such a misery.

Take the Rocky series of films, too. The only two worth watching are the first film and the final one, Rocky Balboa. The common aspect is that neither ends with Rocky winning the title. One of the many problems with the other Rocky films, and it's an issue that afflicts nearly all films about sporting winners, is that they usually end with a big game where the protagonist is triumphant.

That's why David O Russell's The Fighter disappointed. The Mickey Ward story is only so much a tale about a boxer becoming a world champion against the odds. In choosing to end the film with Ward winning the title, the director failed to recognise how Ward actually helped to change the face of modern boxing. Ward's most iconic fights were his three battles against Arturo Gatti, a fighter who doesn't feature in the film. What's important about them is that they marked the moment when it became clear that boxing was no longer about holding titles but about which fighters audiences were willing to pay to watch on television.

Even when films are about sporting legends, they're better when the legends fail. Take Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait: cameras followed the Real Madrid star at work on the pitch, but the highlight of the movie was watching frustrations get the better of the World Cup winner and seeing him implode and get a red card.

I for one have a great deal of anticipation for the long-mooted Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards film. It's a rare beast, like Chariots of Fire, where victory makes successful spectacle. For the most part, it's the hard knocks and losses that make many sporting movies great.

'TT3D: Closer to the Edge' is on general release