5 Transformative Sports Films Based on True Stories

Gael García Bernal portrays the titular role in “Cassandro,” a biographical drama about the “Liberace of lucha libre.” 

By Shahnaz Mahmud

Major moments in sports history remain long in the memories of fans. But, often it’s the off-the-field narratives — the behind-the-scenes stories of how those major moments came to be — that are transformative, with the power to change how we live our lives for the better. 

Enter the sports film based on a true story. 

When we follow the lives of athletes and their true personal stories as told through the narrative lens, their resonance is amplified. These are deeply human stories, ones that reach into our everyday lives.

Consider the original Brian’s Song from 1971. Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers were the first interracial roommates in the National Football League; the beloved TV movie reflects the friendship that developed between the two. 

And what about Chariots of Fire? The 1981 film won four Oscars, including the award for Best Picture. The film follows two British athletes who won gold medals at the 1924 Paris Olympics, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Liddell, a devout Christian, famously refused to run the qualifying heats for the 100-meter race — his preferred event —because they were being held on a Sunday.

Sports films — particularly those grounded in true stories — are so special because they are transcendental, reaching our core humanity. And in some instances, they inspire us to be courageous in our very own pursuits. Here are five sports films based on real stories that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival throughout the years.

Hoosiers (1987 Sundance Film Festival)

In honoring the film’s 35th anniversary back in 2021, news outlet Today declared that Hoosiers is still the best sports film ever made: “[Hoosiers] remains the gold standard in sports cinema, the quintessential story of an underdog, redemption, overcoming adversity and putting the team ahead of the individual.”

Set in 1951, the film was inspired by the 1954 Milan High School basketball team, the unlikely winners of the Indiana High School Boys Basketball Tournament. The story centers on a coach with a checkered past (Gene Hackman) who, with some help from one player’s alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper), trains a small-town high school basketball team to become top contenders for the championship. 

The film gives due focus to Hackman’s complex coach Norman Dale. The story doesn’t simply follow his growth as a coach, but gives us insight into the difficult events from his past that brought him to the small town in Indiana. 

Hoosiers garnered two Academy Award nominations, one for Dennis Hopper for Best Supporting Actor and one for Jerry Goldsmith for Best Original Score. Check here for viewing options.

Eddie the Eagle (2016 Sundance Film Festival)

Eddie the Eagle is an inspirational story centered on the “can-do spirit” — even if you aren’t actually a gifted athlete. In real life, Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards won the hearts of people all over the world with his unlikely ski jumping run at the 1988 Winter Olympics. 

So the story goes, Edwards, although never a star athlete from his youth, was determined to become an Olympian. As the sole British entrant in the men’s ski jumping event at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships 1987, ranking 55th was enough to earn him a place to compete at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Though he finished last in both of his events at the Games, Edwards is remembered for his unfailing determination. 

Producer Matthew Vaughn was inspired to make the film after he and his children watched Cool Runnings, a comedy about a Jamaican bobsleigh team that also had an unlikely journey to the 1988 Winter Olympics. Vaughn saw his children’s joyful reaction to it and started questioning why movies like that weren’t made anymore. He is quoted as saying: “I wanted to make a movie that you could watch and just come out feeling inspired. And I wanted to do a film I could show my kids!” 

Eddie the Eagle took the “surprise screening” slot at the 2016 Festival. It is directed by Dexter Fletcher and stars Taron Egerton as Edwards and Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken in supporting roles. Check here for viewing options.

Brittany Runs a Marathon (2019 Sundance Film Festival, supported by Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program)

Deeply personal stories find their resonance in the best of ways when translated to the big screen. In the case of Brittany Runs a Marathon, the story is personal for both the writer-director, Paul Downs Colaizzo, and the real Brittany — his friend Brittany O’Neill. Colaizzo, who made his directorial debut with the film, used deep conversations he’d shared with his friend as inspiration to pen the story. 

The narrative follows Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell), a 27-year-old woman living the fast life in New York City — irresponsibly so. When she tries to convince a doctor to give her Adderall, Brittany finds herself with a long list of diagnoses, among them an elevated heart rate and high blood pressure. She slowly starts to take control of her life by beginning to run city blocks. But the story is about more than living a healthy lifestyle. Brittany is on a journey to self-worth.

Brittany Runs a Marathon was part of Sundance Institute’s 2018 Editing Intensive and won the Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic at the 2019 Festival. Check here for viewing options.

Dream Horse (2020 Sundance Film Festival)

The true events that inspired Dream Horse as a narrative feature had previously been depicted in the documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award. It’s astonishing to read the documentary’s description and not view it as a narrative film. In a small community nestled in one of the poorest mining valleys in Wales, Jan Vokes, the barmaid at the village men’s club, decides to breed a racehorse. She gathers a group of locals who each agree to contribute 10 pounds a week. They raise a foal to maturity, name him Dream Alliance, and watch him become a champion. 

For Dream Horse, Welsh director Euros Lyn deepens the drama of this true-to-life story, both on and off the racetrack. Lyn got involved in the project because he knew the story well, and he focused a great deal of the narrative on the community of people surrounding Dream Alliance. 

But, Lyn also says he wanted to make the film in response to certain world events at the time, like the U.K.’s departure from the European Union and Donald Trump winning the 2016 U.S. presidential election — the film’s underpinnings would become a sense of community and togetherness. Lyn notes screenwriter Neil McKay’s efforts to spend quality time with the real people who comprised the horse syndicate. 

Toni Collette stars as the determined Jan Vokes, and Damian Lewis takes on the role of Howard Davies, the local accountant who inspires and helps her along the way. Check here for viewing options.

Cassandro (2023 Sundance Film Festival, supported by Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program)

Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams made his narrative feature debut with Cassandro. As director and co-writer, Williams tells the real-life story of Saúl Armendáriz (portrayed by Gael García Bernal), an American-born luchador, or professional wrestler, dubbed the “Liberace of lucha libre” in Mexico. The origin story follows Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso, Texas, who starts out as “El Topo,” a rudo — a bad guy who always loses to the more honorable técnico wrestlers. However, Armendáriz decides he wants to win. Not only does he start winning matches, he does so as an exótico, a stereotypically effeminate character historically cast solely to gather laughs, not to win. But, once Armendáriz becomes Cassandro, through self-belief he transforms into something larger than life. Cassandro defied the odds — in the face of significant obstacles like homophobia — to become a beloved international superstar. 

Williams first met Armendáriz when he was working on a short documentary about the luchador’s life, The Man Without a Mask, for The New Yorkers series on Amazon Prime Video back in 2016. “The first day I met him, it just hit me,” says Williams of the meeting. “This is it. Your story is so inspiring to me. It’s my story. It’s such a powerful story.” Cassandro will screen in select theaters starting September 15 before streaming on Amazon Prime Video on September 22.

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