The Program (and five other sporting stories that deserve their own movie)
Whether you're a hardcore cycling fan, a sports fan in general or just a casual observer, it's almost certain that you will already be familiar with the story of Lance Armstrong. Between 1999 and 2005, Armstrong won the Tour de France on an unprecedented seven consecutive occasions, a feat which not only made Armstrong a household name across the world but also raised the profile of cycling as a whole, and one which was made all the more incredible by the additional fact that, less than three years prior to that first win in 1999, Armstrong had been diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer.
Armstrong's miraculous recovery and subsequent success was the stuff of dreams for sports journalists, who devoted thousands of column inches to Armstrong's achievements in the saddle. For others though, the story was too good to be true and, as it later and very publicly transpired, it wasn't. One of the sceptics in question was Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, who would eventually become one of the key players in exposing the widespread use of performance-enhancing drug EPO by Armstrong, the rest of the US Postal Service cycling team and their trainer and team doctor, Michele Ferrari. The revelations would eventually see Armstrong stripped of his titles and handed a lifetime ban preventing him from competing professionally in any sport, but even this came only after more than a decade of denials and counter-accusations from Armstrong himself.
It is Walsh's battle to prove Armstrong's guilt that forms the basis of Stephen Frears' film The Program, which arrives in stores on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday (February 15th). Armstrong's misdeeds have already been covered at some length in Alex Gibney's 2013 documentary The Armstrong Lie, but the story told here is based on Walsh's book, detailing his account of events that date back to the journalist's first interview with a young Armstrong about to compete on his debut Tour de France in 1993. Back in those days, Armstrong was a promising young rider who had performed well in races in his native America, but whose initial rides in the Tour de France were comparatively unremarkable; before his cancer diagnosis, Armstrong had won only two stages in the Tour – one in 1993, the other in 1995 – and both of these were on flat terrain.
Walsh was one of many journalists assembled in the press room at the 1999 Tour de France who watched in disbelief as Armstrong surged past the heavyweights in the mountain stages and onward to take his first Tour de France title. As the rest of the back pages heralded the era of a new champion, Walsh was one of the minority of voices calling for an enquiry into Armstrong's miraculous victory. It would be the beginning of a long-running battle in the media and the law courts that would culminate in the exposure of what the United States Anti-Doping Authority would describe as “the most devious, sustained deception ever perpetrated in world sporting history.”
Ben Foster puts in a terrific performance in the role of Armstrong, while Chris O'Dowd in the role of Walsh proves that there is plenty more than comedy in his locker and Frears' film succeeds as much on the strength of its casting as it does on its storytelling. Even if you're a cycling fan who is ready to move past this whole shady era for the sport, this is still compelling viewing.
Armstrong's is by no means the only sporting story to make it to the big screen and not all of them have such grisly repercussions for their respective sports – in fact in usually quite the opposite. From the Jamaican bobsleigh team's first foray at the Winter Olympics (Cool Runnings) through the American Hockey team's victory over an unbeaten Russian side (Miracle) to an unlikely tale about statistics in baseball (Moneyball), most sports films follow the underdog-made-good narrative, but there are plenty more weird and wonderful stories from the world of sports that deserve an outing on the big screen. Beneath the trailer for The Program below, we've picked five of them...
Andre Escobar's story has already been the subject of a documentary detailing the bizarre, intertwined tales of the former captain of the Colombian national football team and his namesake, the notorious drug baron Pablo Escobar. In a country ravished by poverty and subjugated by Pablo Escobar's influence thanks to his reputation as a narcotics kingpin and one of the most dangerous men in the country, football was a source of national pride. But when the team exited the 1994 World Cup, largely thanks to an unfortunate own goal by their captain, it ended up costing Andre Escobar his life - his murderer was reportedly working for one of the cartels, whose leader had reportedly lost a significant amount of money betting on Colombia to win the game.
Perhaps one of the most unlikely stars in the history of Major League Baseball, Mexican-born Fernando Valenzuela didn't look like your average pitcher. When he made his debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 after their first-choice pitcher was injured just 24 hours before the opening game, Valenzuela was a chubby 19-year-old who didn't speak English. By the end of that season, the Dodgers had won the World Series and the young man from the Sonoran desert had inspired a following widely described as 'Fernandomania'. Over the next decade, Valenzuela would become one of the MLB's most effective players, but his success on the pitch was matched by his significance off it.
The construction of Dodgers stadium in the Chavez Ravine had been a controversial one, destroying the local – mainly Spanish-speaking – community when many of the houses in the former residential were bought via compulsory purchase orders, often for much less than they were worth. Valenzuela became a hero and united the local community for the first time since the stadium's completion, earning the nickname 'El Toro' and becoming one of the biggest Latino stars in the game's history.
There have been plenty of films about football and those who play the game, but there can few players in history with a story like that of Dutch footballer Willem Hesselink. At the age of just 14 he became one of the co-founders of Dutch football club Vitesse Arnhem, which is some achievement in itself, but Hesselink's story doesn't stop there. Nicknamed 'The Cannon' thanks to a fearsome shot that was once (falsely) rumoured to have killed a goalkeeper when the ball struck his chest, Hesselink's football career saw him take part in the first ever official game for the Netherlands national team before moving to Germany and winding up as player, manager and president of Bayern Munich. Franz Beckenbauer is the only other player to have held all three positions at the club, but Hesselink held them all at the same time.
As if that wasn't enough, he set national records in the 1500m and long jump events, as well as winning the national tug-of-war championships. But it doesn't end there either; he held doctorates in both chemistry and philosophy, wrote a thesis on winemaking and became one of the earliest pioneers in the field of forensic science, serving as an expert witness in a series of high-profile murder trials and writing several books on the subject.
Sporting stories can be inspirational, heartbreaking, or sometimes just downright weird. Manti T'eo falls into the latter category. Plying his trade these days as a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, the Hawaiian T'eo is perhaps less famous for his skills in American Football than he is for a bizarre sequence of events earlier in his career while he was still playing college football for Notre Dame. T'eo made the headlines after leading his team to glory despite the death of both his grandma and his girlfriend – both of whom, it was reported, died on the same day. It was a heartbreaking and inspirational story that had gripped the back pages and sporting journals. There was just one problem; it wasn't true.
The story of his girlfriend Lennay Kekua was tragic – she had recovered from a near-fatal car accident only to be diagnosed with Leukaemia, but soon after her 'death' the story began to unravel when a girl from Torrance, California appeared and claimed that the profile photo that appeared on Lennay's Twitter account was actually of her. It later transpired that Lennay had never existed and that T'eo had been the victim of an elaborate hoax conducted through social media by an old family acquaintance. It's a bizarre story and one that really deserves to be told in full.
You've probably never heard of Katherine Switzer. She has never been a sporting star or even a professional sportswoman, but her exploits led to a huge breakthrough for women and sparked the events that led to the inclusion of women in marathon running for the first time. A resident of Boston in the 1960s, Switzer was a keen amateur distance runner, but in those days women were not allowed to register for the Boston marathon. Having been inspired by a female runner named Bobby Gibb a couple of years earlier – who had run alongside the male entrants, albeit without a number – Switzer managed to get herself on the official list of entrants by listing her name on the application form as 'K.V. Switzer', disguising her sex.
It wasn't until half way through the race that one of the organisers spotted her and ran into the field, attempting to remove her number and drag her out of the race. A photographer for the local newspaper captured the moment and the photos caused outrage when they were published the following morning. Within three years, momentum for equality in the sport led to the inclusion of women in the Boston marathon for the first time, and a decade later the women's marathon had been added to the programme at the Olympic Games.