It seems so often in sport – and in sports movies – that victory is the only thing that matters. Defeat is failure and failure is unacceptable. Well, from underdogs to has-beens, never-weres, and a few no-hopers, these characters never had even an inkling of a chance of victory, but they didn’t let a little thing like that stop them in their tracks.
Some of these films are unbelievable biopics based on the remarkable lives of people who refused to give up. Others are sporting stories which get to the core of what drives an athlete when all hope is lost. And some, despite their heroes having no chance of success, stand among the most inspiring movies ever made. Whether they were the unlikeliest of Olympic heroes, or boxers armed only with an iron chin and a puncher’s chance, these athletes proved there is so much more to sport than winning.
‘The Replacements’ (2000)
Loosely based on the NFL strike of 1987, The Replacements follows a misfit roster of average Joes who are given an unlikely shot at playing pro football when the playing list of the Washington Sentinels go on strike with four games left before the play-offs. The rabble of the replacement team are the epitome of hopeless, but no one can deny they have a ton of heart.
That alone proves to be enough for a while as they win three of their final four games and secure a spot in the play-offs. Unfortunately for the fill-ins, the strike inevitably ends shortly after and their living dream of playing football comes to an abrupt end.
‘Bull Durham’ (1988)
Just because Bull Durham is a rom-com doesn’t mean it can’t also be a great sports movie. With an underrated performance from Kevin Costner, it follows a minor league baseball veteran who is recruited by the struggling Durham Bulls to mentor their young superstar pitcher.
“Crash” Davis (Costner) seems an unlikely sporting hero, a has-been whose career in the major league lasted a mere 21 days. While he proves himself to be a valuable player, he is let go the second his understudy makes it to the major league. It’s not all doom and gloom though, after a record-breaking retirement season he returns to Durham and gets the girl.
When you’re the guy who inspired the making of Rocky, it’s tough to see how you ever had a chance. Chuck tells the story of real-life boxer Chuck Wepner (Liev Schreiber), a heavyweight boxer struggling to make ends meet who becomes the hometown hero of Bayonne, New Jersey when he is given a shot at the title by Muhammad Ali (Pooch Hall) in 1975.
While completely out of his league, Wepner makes a good account of himself, even scoring a knockdown on the champ as the fight goes well into the 15th and final round despite predictions stating “Ali in three”. The film also went into Wepner’s tumultuous life outside the ring, showing how the gritty brawler dealt with his sudden fame in the aftermath of the fight.
There’s being outgunned in size, skill, speed, or strength; then there’s being completely outmatched in terms of salary space, as was the case for the Oakland Athletics in the biographical picture Moneyball. Following club GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), it depicts how the club sought to combat their financial non-competitiveness with a new approach to list management.
By focusing on players’ stats and efficiency, the Athletics assemble an affordable team who prove their worth throughout the season, even winning a then record 20 consecutive games and featuring in the American League Division Series of 2002. While the team’s savvy approach to building a team revolutionized the game, the playing list ultimately lacked the star-power to go all the way, and they were shown up by the bigger teams in the competition.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
After four increasingly ridiculous sequels, the Rocky franchise roared back to life with the most unlikely of hit successes, 2006’s Rocky Balboa. The legacy sequel is as much a high fantasy as it is a sporting drama, featuring a decades past his prime Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) coming out of retirement for one last fight after a simulated CGI bout between his younger self and the current champion generates interest in an exhibition match.
No one, from the commentators to Rocky’s own son to the audience watching on at home, believe Balboa stands a chance of seeing out the first round let alone winning the fight. But, with a perfect serving of nostalgic glory and the trademark heart of the titular character, Rocky Balboa ensured the Italian Stallion went down swinging.
An American classic of heart and undying dedication, Rudy is to American football what Rocky was to boxing. Desperate to play football for Notre Dame but lacking both the academic ability and physical attributes to qualify, Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin) attends the nearby Holy Cross College and works under Notre Dame’s groundskeeper to get closer to his goal.
Given the immense emotional impact the film has had on so many, it’s quite astounding to remember that Rudy only takes to the field for one play. While Rudy never had a chance of pursuing football as a career, his persistence is an inspiration to all who come across him.
‘Whip It’ (2009)
Whip It proved a great many things to be true. It proved Drew Barrymore was a natural behind the camera, roller derby has the greatest nicknames – or “derby names” – of any sport in the world, and, ultimately, it showed that there is a hell of a lot more to sport than winning.
Bliss (Elliott Page) is a typical teenage misfit rebelling against her mother when she discovers the brutal sport of roller derby. Transfixed, she joins the “Hurl Scouts” and, while they don’t win very often, they offer Bliss a sense of belonging and independence. They also prove there’s nothing wrong with coming second, even if there were only two teams competing.
‘Eddie the Eagle’ (2015)
Across all sports there have been few no-hopers as universally inspiring as Eddie the Eagle. A young man from working class England with the simple goal to compete at the Olympics (he doesn’t care what sport), Matthew “Eddie” Edwards (Taron Edgerton) finally finds his calling in the dangerous Winter sport of ski jumping.
At the 1988 games he became the first English athlete in 60 years to represent the nation in the sport after scrapping into qualifying through sheer tenacity. While he never has a chance of beating out his competitors, he breaks British records and wins over the masses through his passion, courage, and his self-belief which went in to inspire millions around the world.
‘Cool Runnings’ (1993)
It turns out the 1988 Winter Olympics had it all. Cool Runnings is another biographical movie from the memorable games following the journey of the Jamaican bobsled team. While the movie won over millions with its hilarity, underdog antics, and irresistible fun, it is best remembered for its poignant ending.
Against the likes of the Swiss and competing with second-hand equipment off the back of a rudimentary and brief training regime, the Jamaicans are a nice novelty, but aren’t considered to be any chance of winning. Through teamwork and determination that very nearly changes, but their sled’s malfunction on their final run delivers a crippling blow to their ambition. Who could forget though, the team carrying their sled across the finish line to the thunderous applause from the crowd and their competitors.
Still viewed as the ultimate underdog story, Rocky follows an old-fashioned bar-room brawler who is given the opportunity of a lifetime when the heavyweight champion of the world offers him a shot at the title. While viewers are under no illusions of how hopeless his chances of winning are, the iconic training montage, Bill Conti’s staggering score, and a whole lot of heart from Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) had everyone believing the impossible could happen.
The fight proves to be a classic, with both men beating the hell out of each other. Rocky, with the sole goal of being the first ever fighter to go the distance with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), may not win the fight, but he wins the night, and proves to himself that he isn’t just another bum from the streets. While Creed wins by split decision, the chanting crowd could not care any less about the result.