On Your Mark, Get Set: Women’s Sports Stories Take the Lead

ESPN's documentary series 'Nine for IX' put the focus on women in sports

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Paul Slaughter / UIG via Getty Images

1984 Olympics, Women'S 3000M - Finals, Zola Budd (Grb) And Mary Decker (Usa).

Something unexpected happened when director Shola Lynch came in to take a meeting at ESPN to discuss making a movie for the sports network. Lynch confessed that she had been a competitive runner in school.

“It turned out, of course, that she was a national champion,” recalls Libby Geist, ESPN Film’s associate director of development, “and she’d always looked up to Mary Decker.”

The connection between Lynch and Decker led to Runner, premiering Aug. 13 on ESPN. Runner tells the story of Mary Decker’s rise to high Olympic expectations and the painful two-woman collision on the track that cost Decker her win.

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Runner is just one of nine films in ESPN and ESPNW’s Nine for IX series of documentaries by women about female athletes, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Which, if you remember your American history, was actually last year. But, says Geist, that’s sort of the point.

“Why don’t we not just celebrate women on anniversaries?” she asks. “What is the storytelling around women’s sports? How can we expand on that?”

ESPN had so much success with the similar documentary series 30 For 30 that the series has far outlived the network anniversary it was meant to commemorate, and Nine for IX aims to replicate that formula: focusing on one emotional moment rather than a broad topic. (There’ll be no “history of basketball” movie, says Geist.) But the series hasn’t been immune to criticism, particularly for the gender balance across the movies. When choosing from the whole history of sports, men’s stories have tended to be chosen for that close documentary focus.

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“As in all worlds, in film and sports and business, it’s not a new topic that women are underrepresented,” Geist acknowledges. It was about a year ago, around the actual Title IX anniversary, that the network began reaching out to filmmakers to pair them up with stories. Runner is one of the results; others have ranged from Let Them Wear Towels (looking at obstacles faced by female sports journalists) to No Limits (about a tragic free-diving accident).

Geist says that one of the most obvious take-aways from the process of putting together Nine for IX is that there were far more than nine stories worth telling. “The real lesson has been, for our group meeting all these women, to really step up our game in terms of interacting with female filmmakers and female athletes,” she says. “That’s very much going to be a part of our business, even more so coming up, which is a good thing.”

Which raises a question: where will network place those additional stories? If the network does continue to take a longer look at female athletes, does Nine for IX go the 30 For 30 route, celebrating women in sports long after the anniversary has passed? Or does the opposite happen, with women’s stories becoming more integrated into 30 For 30 slate, with no need to designate a separate series for women? Is one option better than the other?

“When you look at it as a package you see the progress women have made,” says Geist—and, of course, the progress that has been made in covering those a long overlooked group of athletes.