Making a champion: sports movies and shows to inspire

By Gen Terblanche8 June 2023

Making a champion: sports movies and shows to inspire

Boost your winning spirit! We’ve stacked the podium with an unbeatable team of movies and series focussed on the fire it takes to forge raw talent into dazzling gold. 

The grand slam begins this June with Will Smith acing his Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning role as Venus and Serena Williams’ dad in King Richard, just in time for fans who are hooked on the action from Roland Garros in the run-up to the French Open finals on Sunday, 11 June (streaming live on Showmax Pro in certain African countries excluding South Africa, Lesotho and Mauritius). Down: A Comrades Story will get you in peak condition for this year’s race on Sunday, 11 June (which you can live stream on Showmax, too – find out more about Showmax Pro here). And drama series All American: Homecoming returns for its second season this Youth Day, Friday, 16 June. There’s so much more already waiting to inspire you. Give these shows a sporting chance and uncover just what goes into making a champion.  

King Richard 

Will Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard on Showmax

Tennis champion sisters Venus and Serena Williams were executive producers on this award-winning biopic that places their father, Richard Williams (Will Smith, who won the Best Actor Oscar for the role), in centre court. The underdog story explores how Richard laid out a path for his kids’ success in a 78-page plan before they were even born, and navigated the invisible hurdles of financial privilege, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and the business deals that could make or break his daughters’ careers, regardless of their talent.

It also spotlights the role of the girls’ mother, Nurse Oracene “Brandy” Price (Aunjanue Ellis) in balancing out the emotional demands within the family, and how the family’s laser focus impacted Brandy’s other three daughters. King Richard uncovers the hardcore business acumen needed for the off-court game, as you plan your path to victory.  

Tennis fans, also watch: 

Unraveling Athena: Director Francis Amat’s documentary interviews some of the greatest champions in women’s tennis, including the pioneering Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Martina Navratilova, about career sacrifices and finding new direction after their sporting prime.  

Federer’s Laver Cup Swansong: Tennis champ Roger Federer takes viewers on an emotional journey through his career, comments on the new generation, and reflects on how he’s come to terms with leaving the game. PS: look out for Roger Federer, a brand-new documentary on his career following his 1998 Wimbledon win when he was just 17 years old, on Sunday, 18 June.  

Down: A Comrades Story 

Down: A Comrades Story is on Showmax

South Africa’s most famous road race is now in its 102nd year, making it the world’s biggest and oldest ultramarathon. As runners line up under the starter’s gun on Sunday, 11 June, this documentary film celebrates the stories and champions that have united South Africa in the Comrades spirit for the past 100 years. Comrades runner Jack Davis and SAFTA nominee Gareth Whitaker (co-director of Chasing the Sun) travel with 13 000 runners from Pietermaritzburg to Durban and bond with them over their Comrades family legacies, traditions and inspirations.

Along the way it explores the race’s superstars and most famous victories, including Bruce Fordyce’s dominance during the 1980s, and Sam Tshabalala and Frith Van Der Merwe’s epic 1989 wins. The Comrades has a written constitution, which states that its goal is to “celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity”. And anyone who’s watched the race knows that you don’t have to win a medal to win the Comrades. The true champions have always been the ones crawling across the line with one second on (or gone from) the clock, or missing their medal to help a stranger to finish the race. 

NB! Live stream the 2023 Comrades women’s race between 05:15 and 11:30, the main feed from 05:00 to 18:00, or join us at the finish line between 10:00 and 18:00 on Sunday, 11 June on Showmax.  

All American: Homecoming

All American Homecoming is on Showmax

With Season 2 arriving on Friday, 16 June, it’s time to catch up on sports drama series All American: Homecoming. The series centres on All American original character Simone Hicks (Geffri Maya), a teen mom whose baby was adopted during high school, as she chases her dreams of becoming a pro tennis player while studying at an all-Black university in Atlanta. There she develops a close relationship with baseball hopeful Damon Sims (Peyton Alex Smith), who uncovers the twisted story behind the university’s interim baseball head coach Jessie (Joe Holt) being his biological father.

The show digs down into what it takes to focus on career dreams despite the emotional rollercoasters of early adulthood. And in Damon, it explores the consequences of colleges and universities using sports as an income stream, as Simone’s aunt, journalism professor Amara Petterson (Kelly Jenrette) exposes an academic cheating scheme in Season 1. All American: Homecoming highlights how much sporting stars must sacrifice to even step into the ring. Becoming a champion takes a gambler’s heart, grit and luck. 

American Underdog 

American Underdog is on Showmax

Even if you only know American Football as rugby’s deformed cousin, there’s plenty to love in this feel-good, family friendly story of NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion, and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi). Nobody wanted Kurt on their team, and at one point he had to scrape a living as a supermarket shelf packer. When he did manage to get back in the game thanks to Rams coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) taking a chance on him, Kurt had such a stellar season that it prompted Sports Illustrated magazine to make him their October 2019 cover with the caption “Who Is This Guy?” 

The film is adapted from Kurt’s autobiography of the same name and centres on the factors that gave him the resilience to keep his dreams alive during his wilderness years – especially his wife Brenda’s (Anna Paquin) financial and emotional support, and his religious faith. It takes a lot of love to uplift a champion. 

American football fans, also watch:  

The Blind Side: Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, foster and then adoptive mother of American football star Michael “Big Mike” Oher (Quinton Aaron). Leigh’s focus on Michael’s mental and emotional health and education helped him to overcome the damage and deprivation he’d suffered thanks to his circumstances, and become a star. 

Ride Like A Girl

Ride Like A Girl is on Showmax

Aussie actress Rachel Griffiths directs this biopic based on the life of Michelle Payne (Teresa Palmer, with Summer North as the younger Michelle), who became the first female jockey to win Australia’s Melbourne Cup in 2015. Her widowed father Paddy (Sam Neill), and her big sisters, raised 10 children, but Michelle was the champion. From the age of seven, she had her eyes on the prize – the Melbourne Cup. By the time she was 11 years old, Paddy was telling journalists that Michelle was likely to be the best of his seven kids who wanted to ride professionally. And at 15 she’d left school to be a professional jockey.

While she struggled, no amount of sexism and harassment (or the isolation, stress and depression they caused), near-fatal accidents or family tragedies could keep her from getting back in the saddle. She and her father had iron-clad faith that she could do what really mattered in the sport – be patient and connect with the horse.  

Riding fans, also watch: 

Frankie Dettori: A series of interviews sheds light on how champion jockey Frankie Dettori – who racked up seven wins at Ascot in 1996 – became the comeback king, with a rollercoaster career of ups and downs including a plane crash, drug scandals, family strife, rejection and despair.  

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty 

Winning Time is on Showmax

This 10-part HBO sports docu-drama series (based on Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s) brings visual razzle-dazzle and larger-than-life storytelling to its tale of basketball showmanship and talent. The series starts in 1979 when the LA Lakers Basketball team are playing to empty seats – until the LA Lakers’ narcissistic new owner Jerry Buss (John C Reilly), head coaches Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) and Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), and players like “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Kareen Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) challenge the game’s technical experts with unpredictable improvisation and crowd-pleasing antics and charm.

As well as being a visually creative delight to watch with loads of cheeky graphics, retro flair, archive footage of incredible plays, and a banging soundtrack, this series exposes the financial nuts and bolts that go into maintaining and promoting and venue, building a team of champions and managing their egos, drug scandals, and personal meltdowns. The real game of champions happens off-court.  

Vula Vala 

Vula Vala is on Showmax

Retired soccer-player-turned club-owner Bra Rex Kwena (Sello Maake ka-Ncube) turns his ruthless business instincts to reviving his and his wife Thembi’s (Tina Jaxa) family-owned soccer team The Warriors in this single-season drama series created by Mandla N (Lockdown and Diep City) and Mpumi Nhlapo of Black Brain Pictures.

Rex thinks he might have found his star player in Mzi (Khanyisani Kheswa), who’s just arrived in Johannesburg from a quiet life in Ladismith. Mzi is in no way prepared for the violence, backstabbing and crime playing out behind the scenes between the sport’s secret major players – those who stand to win or lose a fortune based on what he does on the field. In this series, the beautiful game has an ugly side, and a champion is a business asset to be nurtured, groomed, traded, manipulated or intimidated in a tug-of-war between the big money boys. Making a champion is a high-stakes business.  

Soccer fans also watch:  

Pepeta: This Kenyan crime drama series based on the life of real-life soccer star Harun “Rio” Wathari is set in Kibera, home of some of the country’s greatest breakout football stars. Coach Biki (Lwanda Jawar) is desperate to get talented players like 17-year-old Junior (Brahim Ouma) off the street and away from the glamour of gangs and the easy money, and into chasing goals that don’t have death waiting on the sidelines in the form of cop and self-appointed executioner Khepha (George Mo). Who could resist the allure of becoming a champion? 

First Eleven: This British single-season sports comedy from Damon Beesley and Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners) follows the misadventures of players in a fictional Premier League football team, as they get yellow carded by their own outrageous behaviour and attempts to shore up their manliness. On the field they’re champions, in the locker room, losers.  

Chasing the Sun 

Chasing The Sun is on Showmax

Rugby documentary series Chasing The Sun explores what it is within us as South Africans that allows us to not only survive the worst, but to do our best. Thanks to inspired storytelling and its incredible footage from inside the locker rooms and boardrooms throughout the World Cup season, this doccie can rival the most stirring sports dramas out there.

The series starts with Siya Kolisi, the first Black captain of the Springboks, lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. Then it takes us inside the strategising, political manoeuvring and the efforts to take a team of hopefuls, and give them winning strategies to become champions of the mental game on the world stage.  

Rugby fans also watch:  

Life Lessons from Rassie Erasmus: Want to feel what the players experienced when Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus lit a fire inside them? In this 18-minute Chasing The Sun documentary special, Rassie talks about leadership, teamwork, dealing with negativity and finding hope. PS: Rassie’s own journey to becoming a champion coach is explored in the documentary film Rassie.  

Rise: The Siya Kolisi Story: This documentary film takes us deeper into the life Springbok and Cell C Sharks captain Siya Kolisi, exploring his journey from poverty in rural Zwide in the Eastern Cape, and his struggles with alcohol, to leading the Springboks to Rugby World Cup victory in Japan. In it, Siya cheers on the people who made him a champion – his wife, Rachel, and the community of Zwide who believed in him and supported him from the start.  

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