Sports movies: One of the most stirring film genres. They tap into that primal part of our collective subconscious that loves sports, but with the added benefit of a handcrafted narrative and all the shine of editing, beautiful actors, and a jumping soundtrack. Sports are already emotional enough; add in the guiding hand of an actual writer and a director aiming to hit as many emotional highs and lows as possible within two hours, and it’s easy to understand why people get attached. The best sports movies tend to be the ones where the sport itself is almost incidental; the focus is on the athlete, or the team, and their struggles as real people trying to overcome a challenge.
But the vast majority of movies about sports are about men. What are the truly great women’s sports movies?
If your first thought was A League of Their Own, you’re likely in the majority. There’s also Million Dollar Baby, based on short stories by F.X. Toole, female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald played to brawny perfection by Hilary Swank. And there’s the seminal Bend It Like Beckham, released at a time when the United States was only on its first pro women’s soccer league.
But we need more. Not just fictional films – although more of those would be nice as well – but stories that reveal the rich yet largely ignored history of women in sports. Women have always participated in sports, but popular media would have you believe they all sprang fully-formed from Billie Jean King’s forehead.
So producers, feel free to credit me for the inspiration when these get made. History has ignored these women for far too long, yet they have genuinely dramatic, interesting stories that would make for great movies.
Kathrine Switzer runs the 1967 Boston Marathon
Weird patriarchal ideas about what the female body can and can’t handle permeated attitudes and kept women from officially running the prestigious Boston Marathon. Men thought women just weren’t capable of running long distances (or short distances for that matter – a woman fell over after the 800-meter race at the 1928 Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee banned that distance for women until 1960, saying it was clearly too much strain for women’s bodies), and Switzer’s own running coach told her she couldn’t do it. So she ran a practice marathon with him a couple of weeks before the race, then ran another five miles just to be sure.
Her own boyfriend at the time, Tom Miller, got mad at her for dragging him into a politically fraught situation, while race official Jack Semple actually tried to physically remove her from the course. She finished the race in spite of them and helped flip the script for female runners.
The United States wins the 1999 Women’s World Cup
They are perhaps the most lauded women’s sports team in history, so where the heck is their movie? Not even a Mia Hamm biopic? After beating China to secure a second American World Cup victory, the team was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, gracing the covers of magazines across the country. Names like Mia, Brandi, and Julie became overnight household names. Youth participation in soccer, especially among girls, skyrocketed.
Any movie could mine plenty of personal and professional drama too, from Mia Hamm’s crippling performance anxiety, to Michelle Akers playing through chronic fatigue, to that fateful penalty shootout – how on earth has some Hollywood screenwriter not looked at this situation and smelled piles and piles of cash?
Alice Coachman becomes the first black woman to win Olympic gold
The history of the United States is rife with stories of individuals who performed in its name, only to have that name turn its back on them. Born in 1923, Alice Coachman competed in track and field in the Olympics in 1948, when segregation was still in full swing. She didn’t have access to the same training or gear as her white peers and literally ran barefoot along dirt roads to practice sprinting.
Coachman broke a 16-year record with her Olympic qualifying high jump, then broke that record at the Olympics. There were parades in her honor when she returned home, she met President Harry Truman, and she signed an endorsement with Coca-Cola.
But she was still a black woman in America facing the oncoming turmoil of the civil rights movement, and at the congratulatory ceremony in her hometown of Albany, Georgia, the mayor wouldn’t even shake her hand – nor was she permitted to leave through the front door.
Cathy Freeman flies the flag for Aboriginal Australians
Australia doesn’t have a great track record in its treatment of its indigenous population (see also: United States and Canada), which resulted in Cathy Freeman being born in a family that had to work hard to make ends meet, and competing in country that told her she didn’t count. Once in her youth she won five events at a meet, but was disqualified because she was Aboriginal .
The joke was on them, though, because Freeman ended up representing Australia in the ’92, ’96, and ’00 Olympic games, and she won gold in the 400 meter dash in 2000.
She lit the Olympic flame in Sydney, in front of an Australian prime minister who had rejected Aboriginal land rights and endorsed a “One Australia” policy that disregarded the cultural history and identity of Aboriginal people. Freeman defied the Olympic policy on making political gestures by taking her victory lap with the Aboriginal flag, which is not recognized by the IOC. She had already taken a lap with the Aboriginal flag in 1994 at the Commonwealth Games, for which she was threatened with expulsion from the team. The flag was just part of Freeman’s refusal to hide any part of her Aboriginal identity or conform to ideas of how an Australian athlete should behave or what she should look like.
Surya Bonaly defies figure skating’s conformist aesthetics
Have you ever seen a figure skater do a backflip and land on only one blade? No? That’s probably because the move is illegal in Olympic-eligible competition and only Surya Bonaly has ever attempted it at the Olympics. But Surya Bonaly has done a lot of things that aren’t often seen at the Olympics, including being a black figure skater.
Bonaly is a French national and has never medaled at the Olympics, though she absolutely dominated the French scene from the late eighties through the mid-nineties and won the European Championships five years in a row from 1991-95, among other honorifics. But Bonaly also contended with a judging system that credited “grace” over pure athleticism and insisted female figure skaters conform to a certain aesthetic – shorthand for a more white aesthetic.
She was upfront about her blackness impacting her ability to get sponsorships and the way it influenced judges’ treatment of her. So at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, Bonaly went for a full-on brush off to the judges by performing her backflip, which they retroactively ruled illegal and used to deduct from her score. Talk about a great movie ending.