One of the many, many events canceled this year due to the ongoing pandemic was the 2020 Summer Olympics. With 339 events in 33 different sports, the Summer Olympics is easily the biggest sporting event in the world. But since we can't watch the real thing, we thought we could do the next best thing and watch some sports anime to scratch our athletic-viewing itch.
Why anime, you ask? If you've never watched a sports anime before, then you've missed out on some of the best storytelling around. Why should you watch real basketball when you can watch players jump 20 feet in the air in slow-motion while we get a flashback to pivotal moments in their lives? Or waste time watching volleyball without players being able to run and jump at near-supersonic speeds? Sports anime have all the great things you love about sports, while providing the kind of entertainment only the animated medium can offer.
Since we won't be able to experience the real Summer Olympics this month, let's take a look at our semi-official guide to the Sports Anime Summer Olympics.
Swimming - Free!
There is a lot we as an audience don't see when watching swimming competitions at the Olympics. The art of swimming is a subtle, intimate one, as the swimmer is submerged underwater for most of it, unseen by the cameras. Well, that's not the case with Free!, a show about four kids who form a swimming club at their high school, and strong rivalries are formed.
The show originated as a proof-of-concept by Kyoto Animation to showcase their water animation, but it proved so popular that the franchise was grown to include several seasons and feature films. Free! is also refreshing in how it flips the script on anime fan-service by making the male bodies into the focus on the show. If you want to see pretty boys and glitter in beautifully-rendered water, this is the show for you. And if you weren't aware of the over-the-top melodrama of swimming competitions, be prepared to look at Michael Phelps' performances in a different light.
Volleyball - Haikyuu
Arguably the biggest sports anime at the moment, and the show that made volleyball one of the most popular sports in Japan. Haikyuu is a show that will not only teach you way more about volleyball than you ever thought you'd be interested in knowing, but also provides an endearing, inspiring, and thrilling story that is all but guaranteed to put you in a good mood.
Shoyo Hinata has always dreamed of becoming a volleyball champion despite his very short stature. But when he ends up on the same high school volleyball team as his middle school rival, they'll have to learn to work as a team and face increasingly better competition. You don't have to be a volleyball fan or even know what volleyball is to enjoy Haikyuu, as the show manages to bring dimensionality to both teammates, and even the opponents will keep you engaged in the character relationships — both on the thrilling court and off. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will cheer along with the many fantastic team chants.
Archery - Tsurune
While not exactly the kind of archery you see at the Olympics, but a specific Japanese style of archery rooted in martial arts named kyudo, Tsurune is a show that will both teach you about its customs and fortitude, and also entertain you with tons of motivational speeches that will have you get up from your couch and go to your local bow and arrow store.
Tsurune, titled after the sound made by a bowstring when an arrow is released, follows a kid in high school who picks up kyudo years after he quit due to an embarrassing incident. Now he'll rekindle his love for the sport and his rivalry with another archer. Unlike many sports anime, where the antagonist is an external force, Tsurune is all about self-improvement and overcoming feelings of inadequacy. There are also lovely shots of vast and open spaces that perfectly capture the simplicity of archery, and the sound design is fantastic.
Running - Run With the Wind
Running is not the type of sport you'd think would mix well with anime dramatics. For one, you don't really engage directly with your opponents, it's kind of repetitive, and there's no easy way to convey a sense of overcoming challenges as you would with another sport, and yet Run With the Wind is both endearing, funny, relatable and very riveting.
From the studio that brought you Haikyuu, Run With the Wind is a rare anime show that follows college students instead of teenagers, and the show perfectly captures the mundane, day-to-day college life and the bonds that are born between people at this age. The characters are all likable and well-rounded, and the show explores the feeling of being the only person in your group of friends who is very enthusiastic about something, and how it is to convince the rest to give something a try. Of course, this is still a sports anime, and there are plenty of beautifully-rendered scenes of people running.
Shooting - Rifle Is Beautiful
Japan has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, so an anime about rifle shooting is bound to get creative with how they portray the tools of the sport. Enter Rifle Is Beautiful, a show that replaces actual rifles with guns that shoot light beams instead of real bullets — basically Laser Tag.
The show follows a group of high school girls and marksmanship enthusiasts who decide to create their own rifle shooting club. The show is more of a slice-of-life sketch comedy than a sports anime, and expect all sorts of playful situations involving the sport and also normal high school life. That being said the animation still manages to make marksmanship seem like a very skillful and visually stunning affair.
Soccer - Captain Tsubasa
Arguably the biggest soccer show ever made, this franchise has been around since the '80s, with multiple revival series all great for different reasons — you can't really go wrong with the tale of a kid who loved soccer so much he considered the ball his best friend.
Captain Tsubasa is to sports anime what Dragonball is to action anime, a juggernaut of a franchise with a huge legacy that has inspired films like Stephen Chow's film Shaolin Soccer, and even real soccer players. The show follows a middle-schooler in love with soccer as he follows his dream and makes it to the international stage, becoming part of real (and huge) soccer teams across the world, as he hopes to make it to the FIFA World Cup. Captain Tsubasa is famous not just for its characters, but mostly for its gravity-defying techniques and shots, all with incredible visuals and catchy names like the "acrobatic banana shot," the "miracle flying dive shot" and the "drive tiger twin shot."
The show even inspired an urban legend in Latin America, suggesting that it ended with the protagonist waking up at the hospital and realizing the entire show was a dream, as he lies in a bed without his legs (of course, this never happened).
Table Tennis - Ping Pong the Animation
Leave it to Masaaki Yuasa to turn something like ping pong into an ethereal, space-time-breaking show that's as visually stunning and mind-bending as it is heartwarming.
Ping Pong the Animation follows a group of high school ping pong players and friends who, together with their coach, have to encourage their friend to pick the sport back up after growing devastatingly discouraged from playing. More than most other sports anime, this show dives deep into its characters' psyches, but it still manages to be very funny and energetic. Plus its visuals are amongst the most inventive in all of the anime medium, with a mastery for misshapen lines, strange shapes that perfectly convey the fast pace of ping pong.
Rugby - All Out
What do you get when you combine high school drama, a sport as physical as rugby, and the animation studio behind anime sensation One Punch Man? You get All Out.
All Out follows two teenagers who join their school's rugby team with a dream of winning the biggest high school rugby competition. But before they get there they'll have to get a good team together, which proves harder than they expect. The show really showcases the variety of male body types, as it focuses on how rugby is a sport for people of all shapes and sizes. No two players look the same, and you'll get a newfound appreciation for the heavy-hitting action of a rugby game.
Tennis - The Prince of Tennis
If you ever watched a tennis match and thought, "This would be better if they played as if they were powerful warriors doing battle," then The Prince of Tennis is for you.
Unlike most sports anime that follow underdogs as they become superstars, the protagonist in The Prince of Tennis is already a successful player when the show begins. But no matter how many opponents he defeats, he can't surpass his father's expectations. There is a ton of drama and ridiculously over-the-top tennis matches that are played as if this was a battle shonen anime.
Baseball - One Outs
How about we try something different here? If you want a more conventional "kid who loves baseball follows his dream" show, watch Ace of Diamonds, but if you want a psychological thriller of a sports anime following a gambler in way over his head as he joins a professional baseball team to use mind games to win matches (and lots of money) by conning everyone, then One Outs is for you.
One Outs differentiates itself from other shows by focusing on actual professional sports rather than high school games. And instead of superpowers and confidence being the key to win, this show is all about the battle of wits between teams, as they use everything from expert strategies to outright cheating to win. It's a less conventional approach to sports that nevertheless captures the magic of the real thing — with a bit of Christopher Nolan-style mind tricks sprinkled on top.
Cycling - Yowamushi Pedal
Most sports anime shows follow a scrawny kid with a surprising talent for a sport, but Yowamushi Pedal finds the comedy in seeing the greatest talent come from pure chance.
The protagonist of Yowamushi Pedal is a lonely teenage otaku who has biked back and forth every weekend from his hometown to the otaku capital of Japan, Akihabara. This 55-mile bike ride, together with the steep hill he lives on, has given our protagonist incredible endurance and strength. This catches the attention of a determined cyclist from the same school, and so a friendship forms and an incredible bicycle racing career begins. The show does a great job of explaining not only the culture of cycling and those that are a part of it, but what makes cycling an exciting sport, with a ton of strategy and tactics that go into any race.
Basketball - Slam Dunk
A pioneer in sports anime, and one of the most influential shows ever, Slam Dunk was basically made in order to increase the popularity of basketball in Japan — and it worked. The first Japanese-born player in the NBA was inspired by the anime to start playing, the Japan Basketball Association praised the original manga creator for helping popularize the sport in the country, and there was even a special pair of Air Jordans inspired by the show. Slam Dunk follows a delinquent who joins his high school basketball team after the girl he likes talks him into it. Though he starts out hating the sport, after realizing he's a natural, he gets really into the game and helps bring his team to victory.
Slam Dunk doesn't feature superpowered moves, as it is more focused on fleshing out its characters. That being said, you will quickly fall in love with the entire team, their relatable problems, and the excitement they feel for the sport. Though one of the oldest shows on this list, Slam Dunk still holds up really well.
Golf - Dan Doh!!
Yes, there is an anime about golf, and it's not as boring as the real thing. Dan Doh!! follows the titular Dandoh, a bit of a troublemaker who prefers to play baseball with his friends, but when he hits a wild fly ball which crashed into the principal's office, the principal recognizes Dandoh's talent and decides to introduce him to the world of golf.
Though Dan Doh!! Doesn't really offer anything new to the genre, it does serve to introduce viewers to a sport they probably wouldn't have watched otherwise. Dan Doh!! has everything you'd want out of a show about golf: fast-paced tension (surprising for this sport), great characters, and an underdog story about surpassing yourself and becoming the best that ever was.
Badminton - Hanebado!
Unfortunately, the vast majority of sports anime focus on manly guys playing manly sports, so it is very refreshing to see an anime show bring women into the spotlight and treating them as serious athletes.
Hanebado! can basically be described as a female version of Haikyuu. It follows a high school freshman named Ayano Hanesaki, who has a ton of talent for badminton but is forced to become teammates with the girl that defeated her in a tournament and nearly made her quit the sport altogether. The show focuses on exploring what exactly makes someone play sports, just as it throws stunning badminton scenes at the audience until they start asking themselves if they're now very much into badminton too.
Boxing - Hajime no Ippo
Before Madhouse brought us the greatest superhero satire anime in One Punch Man, they brought us one of the best and most legendary sports anime ever: Hajime no Ippo.
The ultimate underdog story about the best boxer not named Rocky Balboa — the anime centers around Ippo Makunouchi, a shy boy often beaten up by bullies. He's a caring, grounded, lovable character you can easily root for, and when Ippo encounters a pro-boxer, he'll get inspired to start training and become a boxer himself. The show is all about perseverance, and each of the characters gets a tragic backstory that fleshes them out, as you get inside the mind of each character mid-fight, helping you identify with the characters and care about why they're fighting.
More importantly, each character gets a unique boxing style that makes each fight a completely new experience. The animation turns each technique into a superpower, without making it feel over-the-top or unbelievable (even though the greatest technique, the "look away" is so baffling and ridiculous you can't help but love it). Hajime no Ippo is a show that will pump you up, and before you realize it, you're already at the gym.