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10 Fascinating Sports Documentaries

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AFP/Getty Images

ESPN’s riveting new documentary, O.J.: Made in America, has captivated audiences with its powerful—and revealing—story about one of the most polarizing figures in sports history. And like many other documentaries, it uses sports to tap into deeper questions about race and gender, media and celebrity, and even about politics and American identity. But sports documentaries can do more than just reflect our culture back to us. They can entertain and inspire us, and make us laugh or cheer. Here are 10 great sports documentaries that scratch deep beneath the surface.

1. OLYMPIA, PART II (1938)

Although Olympia, Part II filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl has come under scrutiny for her involvement in the Nazi Party, there is no denying the visual power of her depiction of the athletes from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Riefenstahl pioneered dozens of motion picture techniques that have become staples of both cinematic storytelling and sports coverage. Her use of editing during the diving montage is utterly breathtaking, capturing the agility and grace of the athletes from almost every angle imaginable.

2. THE ENDLESS SUMMER (1966)

It’s the ultimate fantasy: Director Bruce Brown followed a group of young surfers as they traveled the world looking for the “perfect wave.” Brown’s cinematography helped to romanticize surfer culture and to introduce the sport to millions of viewers. The Endless Summer famously followed its subjects along the west coast of Africa and the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, before settling in Durban, South Africa, where they find what they are looking for: four-foot waves that could carry them for 15 minutes at a time. It’s a film that captures not just the joy of surfing, but the beauty of it as well.

3. PUMPING IRON (1977)

The subject of hundreds of gender studies theses, Pumping Iron depicts the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competitions from the 1970s. The film helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger as a national celebrity, while also portraying him as shallow and self-absorbed. Throughout the film, Schwarzenegger blissfully describes “the pump”—the rush of blood into the muscles during a workout—as a form of sexual pleasure and candidly admits to deceiving his opponents.

4. HOOP DREAMS (1994)

Roger Ebert once called Hoop Dreams the best film of the 1990s. Following two teenage basketball stars, Arthur Agee and William Gates, throughout their high school careers, Hoop Dreams captures the raw emotions of competing on the court and struggling to survive in inner city Chicago. Though both players have their share of successes and setbacks while playing basketball, many of the film’s most touching moments take place off the court, including one profound moment of triumph for Agee’s mother as she achieves her own modest form of success. Hoop Dreams also offers a trenchant critique of the sports recruiting industry through a powerful cameo by filmmaker Spike Lee.

5. BASEBALL (1994)

Ken Burns’s sweeping, nine-part series documents the history of baseball from its rugged origins to the home run-obsessed (and steroid-inflated) 1990s. Burns provides much more than a nostalgic portrait of a pastoral sport. Instead he demonstrates baseball’s importance to the Civil Rights movement and an extended discussion of Curt Flood’s courageous battle against Major League Baseball’s unethical labor policies that prevented players from negotiating with multiple teams, which paved the way for the modern free agency system.

6. WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)

Leon Gast’s energetic documentary portrays one of the most famous heavyweight bouts of all time, the “Rumble in the Jungle,” featuring Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Gast captures Ali as a youthful and charismatic underdog during the peak years of the Black Power movement in both the U.S. and Africa. Interviews with public figures ranging from Spike Lee and James Brown to George Plimpton and Norman Mailer weigh in on everything from Ali’s cultural significance to his skill as a poet. But the real strength of When We Were Kings is the archival footage of Ali walking the streets of Kinshasa while adoring fans chant, “Ali, bomaye” (kill him), while a petulant Foreman mopes off in the distance.

7. DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS (2001)

Filmmaker Stacy Peralta uses archival footage and contemporary interviews to portray the birth of the punk/skater subculture in the 1970s. Peralta, along with the rest of the Zephyr team, brought surfing moves to skateboarding and helped to develop new moves that differed radically from other skateboarders during that era. One of the most fascinating tidbits from the film: the Z-Boys pioneered their flashy aerial techniques during a drought in the mid-1970s, when they developed their moves in empty swimming pools. Added bonus: The documentary is narrated by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn.

8. TOUCHING THE VOID (2003)

Touching the Void is a dramatic retelling of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson’s efforts to climb Siula Grande in Peru. After reaching the summit, Simpson slipped and broke his leg, and when Yates attempted to lower Simpson into a crevasse, he inadvertently lowered him off a cliff, making it impossible for them to communicate and forcing Yates to make the difficult decision to leave his friend behind. Miraculously, both men managed to survive the ordeal and even went back to the original location to reenact some of the documentary’s key scenes. Touching the Void, with its liberal use of reenactments, pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, while also offering viewers a thrilling story of survival.

9. MURDERBALL (2005)

Murderball is an engaging documentary that introduces audiences to a relatively unknown sport, “quad rugby,” a modified form of rugby in which all of the participants are quadriplegics. The action cinematography of the film is captivating, depicting the violent collisions and quick movements that characterize the sport with cinematography that puts the viewer at eye-level with the players. Like Pumping Iron, Murderball serves as an exploration of codes of masculinity and how they intersect with definitions of disability. It’s a fascinating, heartfelt, and fun little film.

10. ONCE IN A LIFETIME: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF THE NEW YORK COSMOS (2006).

While soccer has steadily risen in popularity here in the United States, many fans will have forgotten the old New York Cosmos team, from the original North American Soccer League (NASL), and their captivating stars, Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia. Many of the team’s players were fixtures in the city’s nightlife—frequenting clubs like Studio 54—and the documentary captures how Cosmos matches were festive events that featured everything from cheerleaders to Bugs Bunny mascots. Once in a Lifetime also helps to contextualize the role of the old NASL in popularizing youth soccer programs in the U.S., paving the way for the sport’s current popularity.

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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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