Sports movies where heroes unexpectedly lose

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Joe Ellison

Winning, or at least our perceived notion of winning, thanks largely to Hollywood film, is everything.

So long as a backstory is touching enough or an opponent’s douchbaggery annoying enough, we’re eventually taught that anyone can win and silver medals are for fools who didn't dream big enough.

With this in mind, it’s all the more head-scratching when, on those rarest of occasions, the good guys lose. For proof, we’ve picked the finest examples of when sporting drama becomes a bit too real for our taste.

Note: Herein lie spoilers (obviously)


Tin Cup

Happy Gilmore with the volume turned down, Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy is a washed-up former golf prodigy who tries his luck qualifying for the US Open and soon finds himself competing in a three-way final day battle for the trophy. He might have snatched it too, jeopardised only by his childishly stubborn ways: faced with a water hazard between himself and the 12th hole, he goes for it – again, again and again - only managing not to fluff it with his final ball. Cue over-the-top celebrations. God loves a trier.


Friday Night Lights

The Godfather of melancholic and emotionally unfulfilling sports drama – right down to parent pressure - Friday Night Lights hammers home the importance of a high school football team (The Permian High Panthers) for a small Texas town, making it all the more disbelieving when the last play of the state championship final unfolds: the man on the ball evades challenge after challenge in slow motion before he’s floored by a scum, leaving a breathless few seconds before you know whether or not it crossed the goal line. Needless to say, if it did you wouldn’t be reading this right now.


Million Dollar Baby

Boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) loses big in this film: she loses her balance, her conciseness, with it the big fight she's up in, and, finally, the ability to walk. Bleak? Yes. Powerful? Undoubtedly; Clint Eastwood’s film, following a female fighter who fights her way from obscurity to a $1m prizefight in Las Vegas only for a shocking tragedy to occur, delivers some unrelenting gut punches that few Hollywood dramas are capable of.



Groin-defying disco moves, flowing locks and a bowling arm like no other – Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) has the world at his feet when we’re introduced to him in the opening of Kingpin. Fast-forward 17 years, a paunch, bad comb-over and a rubber hand later, he’s itching for one final shot at the man who cost him his trusty digits, ‘Big’ Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray). The Farrelly Brothers being the Farrelly Brothers, of course, and humiliation their raison d'être, the camera stays on Munson while he’s forced to sit and watch his old foe hit three strikes to come from behind and scoop the $1m prize



You’ve really got to hand it to the Rocky series. After all, where else would you find a breed of boxers who downright refuse to block, allowing every single punch to connect? Which, we guess, goes some way to explain how a backstreet slugger gets a shot against the world champion and almost wins it. But so proud are The Italian Stallion's indecipherable yelps in the aftermath of this epic rumble, peering for from his pulverised eyes to cradle his woman, the trumpet-laden coming to a halt, it's easy to think Apollo Creed lost as the trumpet-laden score slows down, when he actually won by split decision.


Any Given Sunday

“We heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals,” rasps Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) towards the end of Any Given Sunday's rabble-rousing halftime locker room speech. The sporting sermon must have been echoed in many a dressing room since the copyright-swerving ‘Miami Sharks’, but for all that verbal muster, for the game they go on to win, they still up being roundly beaten 32-13 by San Francisco in the Pantheon Cup Championship, off-screen no less, just adding to the underwhelming end factor. So, by way of amendment, above is the big speech.


Coach Carter

Samuel L Jackson generally doesn’t play characters whose opinion you take lightly. There's no change here, where, playing out like Dangerous Minds meets Space Jam (apologies, we couldn’t think of any other basketball films), his titular coach benches an all-star high school team on account of bad grades and ill-discipline. But by the time he gets results on the court, leading until the dying seconds in a major semi-final, the tie is lost on the buzzer. Makes you wonder why they bothered in the first place, really.


A League Of Their Own

Is there anything Tom Hanks can’t do? Well yes, as it happens, there is. Hanks fails to lead Madonna, Gena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and many other actresses who were big in the nineties, to glory at the female World Series during WW2. Charting the ups and downs of the real-life Roxford Peaches, A League Of Their Own is an immensely likeable sports flick, only let down by the sour taste in the mouth it provides as victory is snatched away at the death.


Cool Runnings

Given that proceedings were based on real-life counterparts, victory always looked slim for the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Still, this was a Disney film gosh-darn-it and there was a morale-boosting world record to break, which looked ever probable halfway through the final day’s run. Then fate reared its ugly head, snapping a blade from the rickety sled to send the tropical underdogs tumbling a few agonising metres from the finish line. Even a custom Hollywood slow clap failed to hide their true disappointment.



Adapted from the 2003 non-fiction book of the same name, this Oscar-magnet lays bare the business of baseball like no other, telling the tale of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a former MLS star who went against the scouting system in favour of cold, hard, fool-proof statistics, in turn taking California’s ailing Oakland Athletics team on a historical 20 game winning run. The feat is fittingly capped off with a slugger knocking the ball into the car park, which you would imagine is a perfect note to end proceedings on, right? Clearly not according to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, instead surmising the following season’s plummet in fortunes when Beane meets with Boston Red Sox owner John Henry in, let's say, less than a happy mood.


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Joe Ellison

Joe is a writer and editor. Specialising in film, food, sport, current affairs, travel writing and adept at pilfering David Brent quotes, Joe describes himself as ‘basically a chilled out entertainer’. Follow Joe on Twitter: @Chevychased 

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