While Invictus isn't the most typical sports film—it follows the political leader, Nelson Mandela, more closely than it does the team he is championing—it still falls in line with the legacy of the traditional sports film. It is inspiring and sentimental in just the ways that sports movies traditionally are, sending a message of hope, triumph over adversity, and the unifying and compelling dynamics of athletic achievement. The definition of the sports film on Filmreference.com states, "The Hollywood sports film in particular has two more important conventions: a utopian view of the world which assumes that anyone who works hard, is determined, and plays by the rules will succeed; and a need for plausibility based on resemblance to the actual sports world that qualifies its utopian outlook with the complexities of social difference. Put more simply, in their attempt to portray plausible athletes and sporting events, Hollywood films often include historical forces that complicate their narratives, which are otherwise focused on individual characters as causal agents."
Sports films have been in existence since the beginning of cinema. Perhaps the most controversial and earliest instance of sports in cinema is Leni Reifenstahl's documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Olympia. This piece of Nazi propaganda celebrates the beauty of the human body and its athleticism, drawing a parallel between the Berlin games and the original Greek Olympics. Olympia uses the inspirational format of the sports film to promote a fascist regime.
Other sports films are less explicitly politically aligned, films such as 1961's The Hustler, which stars Paul Newman as a pool shark, Martin Scorsese's boxing film, Raging Bull, from 1974, Bull Durham, Ron Shelton's 1988 baseball film, Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone, A League of Their Own directed by Penny Marshall, Million Dollar Baby, Jerry Maguire, Seabiscuit, and others. In all these films, sports become a metaphor for the difficulties of life, a frame through which to imagine how people can overcome unthinkable obstacles and maintain their integrity in the face of adversity and competition.