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Why Sports Documentaries Are Always Better Than Sports Fiction

We're gearing up for the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival by looking into why one writer will always prefer a sports doc.

Yesterday, we announced the nine films that will be screening in the 7th Annual Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival. Nine compelling stories, nine world-premiere documentaries, chronicling everything from boxing to women's basketball, ice hockey to figure skating. I have to confess: I LOVE sports documentaries. They're such a natural source of human drama and the perfect way to capture why sports captures us. In general, I think the documentary format is far more preferable to delivering a sports story than a narrative feature is. This is a generality, and there are certainly exceptions, but I do believe that on a fundamental level, the sports doc has a few natural advantages over fiction. Here are a few.

The Athleticism Is Real One of the biggest reasons why sports stories are so compelling is because these are people performing feats of physicality that normal people can't do. At least not at the highest levels. And no matter what the commitment to verisimilitude is, narrative films are still only presenting a facsimile of that. Will Smith can get jacked as hell for Ali, but it's not the same as watching Ali actually do the thing in When We Were Kings. We're so used to watching superhumans in fiction, it's watching them in their unvarnished reality that makes on-screen athletic feats really stand out.

The Stories Aren't Goosed How many times have we seen it? The positively true story of this Olympic athlete or that inspirational coach, and every time, there's this side story about romance against all odds. Not saying that it's wrong to give sports stories multiple dimensions, but very often, it feels like the real story goes through the filmmaking process and emerges with all these storylines pinned onto it. You're not always going to end up with Bull Durham (and I'd argue that Bull Durham is a romantic comedy in a sports setting anyway).

They're Not Locked into a Formula When was the last time you saw a sports movie end on a down note? Everything's a triumph. Everything's a win. Even when the on-field result is a loss -- like, say, in Moneyball, when the Oakland A's fall short of the championship -- the movies all tend to end with some uplift. Sports docs tend to feel freer to deal in ambiguity and disappointment. It's hard to imagine Kevin Connolly's Big Shot, about the fraud behind the purchase of the New York Islanders, ending on a completely happy note. How many 30 for 30 docs have ended with a figurative ellipsis? Again, happy endings aren't bad, but with the docs so willing to opt for other emotions, there's a satisfying unpredictability to the result.

More from Tribeca:

A Tearful Afternoon With Oscar's Best Documentary Shorts


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