Gilbey on Film: 10 unorthodox sports movies

An antidote to Olympic fever.

This week brings two films which remind us that sports movies are never really about sport. Salute focuses on the Black Power salute given on the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics by the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but it also unpicks the complicity of their fellow medal-winner, the white Australian Peter Norman, in the act. Race, class, prejudice and privilege in a different context are also touched on in Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who competed at the 1924 Olympics; the picture returns to cinemas now, 31 years after its original release. Here are some thoughts on it from Lindsay Anderson, who has a few succulent moments on screen opposite John Gielgud. In a letter to Malcolm McDowell in April 1981, Anderson wrote of the film’s premiere:

I’ve no idea what I’m like in the picture. When my first sequence arrived, I closed my eyes. Later I peeked through half-closed lids. All I can say is, I didn’t seem to be much worse than Gielgud. (I don’t know what he thought. He dashed for the exit at the end of the picture, having told us…that he had booked a bacon-and-egg supper for himself at the Garrick.) The picture itself is lush, over-photographed for my taste - [the cinematographer] David Watkin in his usual pictorial form – and directed with that concentration on image that is the mark of directors who’ve been formed in directing commercials. Hugh [Hudson, the director] is a really nice chap: but not much sense of narrative or performance.

I wonder what Anderson would have made of the ten films I offer up for your consideration in the category of The Unorthodox Sports Movie. Consider the list a slight antidote to Olympic fever, reining in the hyperbole without swearing off sporting activity entirely. Sports movie convention, you see, demands traditionally that nothing less than the future of civilisation must appear to hinge on the outcome of the competition in the final reel. Whether it’s a horse race in Seabiscuit, a boxing match in Rocky or a martial arts contest in The Karate Kid, the entire world should be seen to be punching the air and weeping tears of unadulterated joy. The films below offer a slight corrective to that bombast.

Hoop Dreams

Hardly obscure, this painstaking (and often painful) documentary following two young African-American basketball hopefuls remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time. In this clip, the Tigger-like Arthur Agee visits St Joseph school after being spotted by a talent scout, and ponders an education alongside “different kids, different races.”

Ping Pong

A brilliantly lively Japanese comic-book adaptation with a blissfully batty visual style.

All the Marbles  (also known as The California Dolls)

Peter Falk as a female wrestling manager (he’s not female: the wrestlers are).

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

Alan Clarke’s snooker-vampire-musical. Only in 1980s Britain, eh? Here  is Alun Armstrong, as a Ray Reardon-a-like, performing his big number “I Bite Back” (“I may appear bizarre/ With my predatory features …”) And here is some snooker action with Phil Daniels.

Rudo y Cursi

A witty, overlooked (though not by your trusty NS) soccer comedy starring cinema’s conjoined Mexicans, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.


AKA Whip It! for men.


Sassy and soppy in equal measures, this 1980 animated comedy imagines an Olympic Games populated by animals. Here is a scene set to one of Graham (10CC) Gouldman’s songs from the film. You think it’s corny? By the time you’ve endured UK television’s Olympic montages accompanied by Coldplay or Take That, Gouldman’s songs will resemble the Dead Kennedys.

Diggstown (released in the UK as Midnight Sting)

Yes, it’s boxing. But it makes Rocky look like a game of pat-a-cake. 

Breaking Away

A funny, acutely-observed coming-of-age film … on bikes. And here is one of its stars, Daniel Stern, talking now about the movie’s appeal.

The King of Kong

I hear there is a fictional version of this battle-of-the-arcade-champions documentary in the works. Please, let it not be so: this incarnation of the story is note-perfect. And don’t listen to those who tell you that Donkey Kong isn’t a sport: they’ll be saying next that Temple Run doesn’t count as exercise.

"Chariots of Fire" and "Salute" are released 13 July

A still from the 2002 remake of Rollerball (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis