I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time watching the Olympics. As I expected, I publicly root for American victories when appropriate and English victories, in deference to my wife’s native land, on the rare occasion when we are not in contention.
But the truth is there is part of me that celebrates when neither team wins. I rejoice a little when someone emerges from the back of the field to teach the big boys, and girls, a little humility. The truth is that as proud as I am of our nation’s champions – I’m looking at you, Michael Phelps – I’m a little happier when an underdog wins.
So, in honor of those true Olympians, those who succeed despite expectations otherwise, I’d like to offer a few favorite underdog stories. Enjoy.
BRAVEHEART (1995): There might have been more humbling beginnings for an empire-crushing rebellion than a primitive hut made of sod and straw, but not many. Of course, part of the power of Mel Gibson’s historical epic is that it is, in fact, fairly factual. And while some liberties were taken in the interest of artistic license, the theme of grand schemes stemming from humble beginnings is true.
THE KING OF KONG (2007): This unusual, and oddly affecting, documentary tells the true story of a rivalry between two men seeking to become the undisputed Donkey Kong champion. While the mastery of a game that had its heyday some 25 years before this film was made might seem an odd field of battle, it is because the goal seems slightly silly that the rivalry and the need to be recognized becomes all the more poignant.
BABE (1995): There are lots of reasons competitors are told they can’t succeed. Physical impairments. Lack of training. Lack of heart.
The wrong species.
The latter is not an issue for Babe. This quiet story of a pig that shows a natural talent for herding sheep is smart, timeless and truly beautiful. Sure, there might be some conflicted feelings when a tear is shed over sheep and pigs, but that’s a small price to pay.
THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003): If the playground teaches us one thing, it’s that the short guy who likes to sit in the shade and eat sandwiches is rarely the first picked for any team. That’s part of the pleasure of all the Lord of the Rings novels as well as the masterful film adaptations. Not only are those guys picked for the team, they are given the most challenging task imaginable – save the world. As a former short kid with a predilection for shade tree sitting, I appreciate those hobbits taking one for the team.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960): It’s a tale so classic it is told time and time again. This Western, in fact, is an unapologetic version of the classic samurai story The Seven Samurai. The appeal, of course, is seeing a small but earnest posse of underdogs and antiheroes step up and succeed despite some truly lopsided odds. It’s worth watching for the spectacle of Steve McQueen and James Coburn trying to outcool each other.