For thousands of years, humans have found enjoyment and entertainment both in watching and participating in tests of skill and athleticism we’ve come to call sports. However, until radio and, subsequently, television and cinema were invented, the only way we could partake in the stories was to either attend the events or read about them long after the fact.
Today, however, it’s never been easier to watch live sports from anywhere in the world — be that on TV, on the internet, or otherwise. However, there is one problem with live sports: you’re never really getting the whole story. Sure, the main event is the game, match, or whatever else you want to call it. But sometimes, the story in the background is much deeper and, arguably, even more interesting than the event itself. That’s where this guide comes in; the following 20 films take a deep dive into some of the most exceptional stories in athletic history — not just the games and/or events, but every facet of the surrounding tale. These are the best sports documentaries of all time.
30 For 30
Technically speaking, ESPN’s 30 for 30 is a series and not a single documentary. However, it’s such an exceptional series with so many amazing entries that we couldn’t pick just one “episode” for our list. In fact, it has been nominated for a whopping 32 awards (and won 6) since it first aired in 2009. Told from an intimate perspective, each of the entries in this series takes an impressively-deep dive into different sports stories (or stories that touch on the world of sports) from around the world — including (but not limited to) things like the Miami Hurricanes, OJ Simpson’s infamous high-speed chase, a cautionary tale of the SMU football debacle, and so much more. For reference, though the name is a bit misleading and originally referred to 30 films from 30 different storytellers, this show (and its offshoots) have accounted for a whopping 157 entries and counting.
A Sunday in Hell
Though in the post-Lance Armstrong world, cycling is recognized and celebrated around the globe as a legitimate sport, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, for years and years there was really only one film that documented the sport. That film was A Sunday in Hell. Thankfully, despite its solitary nature, this flick also happens to be one of the most exceptional sports documentaries of all time — following the French Paris-Roubaix spring classic, a race notorious for its horrendously-bad track conditions. The route is so rough, in fact, that (apart from cycling races) it’s not even used for vehicular traffic — rather, it serves to transport cattle by-foot when not closed for this race. This particular film gives an unprecedented and unrivaled look at some of the most intimate, exasperating, and excruciating parts of this legendary race. And, despite its age, it’s still probably the best cycling-focused film ever.
Director: Jørgen Leth
Length: 1h 51min
Beyond the Mat
Say what you will about how “real” professional wrestling is; you can’t fake falling 20 feet from the top of a steel cage onto the ground below. And that’s just one example of the intense athleticism required for this performative sport. If you’re interested in learning a whole lot more about it — including the good, the bad, and the heartbreaking — you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better flick on the subject than Beyond the Mat. The doc includes interviews and candid footage of big-name wrestlers like Mick Foley, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Chyna, and even Jesse “The Body” Ventura (as well as clips of others ranging from The Undertaker to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and more). If you’re a detractor of the pro wrestling world, give this film a watch and it may very well change your opinion forever.
Sport: Professional Wrestling
Director: Barry W. Blaustein
Length: 1h 42min
Yacht racing sounds, at least on the surface, like a casual jaunt, embarked upon by bored rich people on the weekends. However, Deep Water tells a very, very different story — focusing specifically on the world’s first solo round-the-world yacht race back in 1968. For reference, that race was so disastrous — marked by horrible weather, rough waters, and more — only one of the participants even finished the race. Combining original 16mm footage shot by the actual racers themselves while out on the open ocean, audio recordings, after-the-fact interviews, and more, the story focuses specifically on one racer, Donald Crowhurst, who was forced to choose between abandoning the race to return home bankrupt and defeated or to continue onward aboard an unfinished, leaky boat. If you want to learn the full story, you’ll have to watch Deep Water yourself.
Sport: Yacht Racing
Director: Louise Osmond, Jerry Rothwell
Length: 1h 32min
Do You Believe in Miracles?
In the Winter Olympics of 1980, amongst rising Cold War tensions, the American hockey team found themselves facing off against a presumably unstoppable Soviet team for a shot at the Gold Medal. It was a real David and Goliath story, as the Americans weren’t ever expected to make it as far as they did, let alone take the #1 spot atop the podium. Yet, somehow, they did it and they won. Of course, that didn’t happen without a tremendous amount of hard work, focus, and a hefty portion of luck. This relatively short documentary tells that very story via archival footage, interviews with the players (on both sides) and coaching staff, and commentary from ABC’s Al Michaels — the man who famously shouted “Do you believe in miracles?” as time expired on the clock.
Sport: Ice Hockey
Director: Bernard Goldberg
Dogtown and Z-Boys
Though it has waned a bit from its overwhelming popularity in the 1990s and 2000s, skateboarding is still one of the most unique and impressive sports around. However, it would never be what it is today without the pioneering athletes on the Zephyr skating team from the 1970s. Narrated by Sean Penn and directed by Stacy Peralta, one of the actual members of the ’70s team, this is widely considered the best skateboarding documentary of all time. Centered around “Dogtown” — a colloquial name for the surrounding areas of Santa Monica and Venice, California — the doc follows the rise of skateboarding from a casual surfer pastime to an acrobatic sport in its own right. And, along with plenty of archival footage, it features appearances by some of skateboarding’s biggest names — including Tony Alva, Steve Caballero, Jay Adams, and so many more.
Director: Stacy Peralta
Length: 1h 31min
Just a year or so ago, Alex Honnold became a household name. And it’s an honor that’s rightly deserved, as he was the first person ever to climb the sheer 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park completely without any ropes, anchors, or any other support safety gear. His lifelong dream and one of the most exceptional feats of human athleticism, the entire experience was documented masterfully by filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The documentary was so magnificent, in fact, that it earned them an Academy Award. Of course, that’s not the real story here. While the accolades are absolutely deserved, the real attention is owed to Honnold himself, as the only alternative to finishing the climb was certain death. If you want to see the limits of the human body and spirit pushed to their absolute limits, do not pass this sports documentary up.
Sport: Rock Climbing
Director: E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Length: 1h 40min
Basketball is celebrated around the world as one of the greatest sports of all time. It’s also one of the more accessible sports around, requiring just three elements: a ball, a basket, and people who want to play it. The combination of athleticism, the spirit of competition, and accessibility also all make it a sport full of hope. It’s not just a game; it’s an escape; it’s pure possibility. And that’s what the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams captures brilliantly. Focusing on a pair of inner-city boys from Chicago as they go from playing street ball to college hoops and make their way toward professional basketball, this film transcends basketball and functions as a signal beacon for anyone who wanted to achieve more than they were given. Even if you don’t particularly care for basketball as a sport, it’s still 100% worth watching.
Director: Steve James
Length: 2h 50min
As everyone likely already knows, even the highest levels of achievement come with dark sides. Sports are certainly no different; and that’s what the Academy Award-winning Netflix documentary, Icarus, focuses upon. Told through the eyes of the director and cyclist Bryan Fogel, this fantastic documentary delves deep into the seedy underworld of doping and illuminates a scandal that involves performance-enhancing drugs, a Russian whistleblower scientist, and Vladimir Putin himself. Though the story is absolutely true, this flick is almost more of a political thriller than a straightforward documentary — which adds to the entertainment factor.
Director: Bryan Fogel
Length: 2h 1min
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg
Before Jackie Robinson rocked the world as the first African American to play professional baseball, a Jewish man by the name of Hank Greenberg walked a surprisingly similar path. As a Jew in America, he was demonized and faced a constant barrage of antisemitism — both on and off the field. Still, he persevered and became a first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, steadily leading the team to league dominance in the 1930s and becoming a hero around the world, especially to those who suffered prejudice themselves. Composed of archival footage and interviews with some of the people closest to the story, this documentary is one for anyone who finds hope in beating the odds and pushing back on hatred to achieve greatness.
Director: Aviva Kempner
Length: 1h 30min
If you’ve ever thought that persons with disabilities cannot compete at the highest levels of sport, then you almost certainly haven’t seen the 2005 Murderball documentary. Centered around a sport now known as quad rugby (or wheelchair rugby), this intense film spins a tale about the brutal, intense, full-contact gladiatorial past time and the athletes who participate in it as they strive for a spot competing in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. The whole cinematic masterpiece is remarkable, inspiring, and (at times) heartbreaking. But it does a magnificent job of illustrating that, just because someone can’t walk, that doesn’t mean they can’t be one of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.
Sport: Quad Rugby
Director: Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Length: 1h 28min
No No: A Dockumentary
For those who are unfamiliar, Doc Ellis was an MLB pitcher in the 1970s. And while he played for the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers, and New York Mets, the most fascinating part of his career was his tenure on the Pittsburgh Pirates. That’s because, back on June 12th, 1970, Ellis threw a no-hitter. And while that is an achievement in itself, what’s even more remarkable is that he did it while high on LSD. Of course, that remarkable and perhaps wacky event is only one part of his story. Following his baseball career, Ellis went into recovery and even began helping others in their recovery from addiction. From one of the wildest events in baseball history to his charitable work, this is a fascinating and surprisingly moving tale.
Director: Jeffrey Radice
Length: 1h 40min
On Any Sunday
If you know anything about On Any Sunday, it’s probably that late actor and ‘The King of Cool’ himself, Steve McQueen, was heavily involved in the production and even appears in the film. What you might not know, however, is that this documentary is the work of legendary director Bruce Brown — the same fellow that directed fabled surf doc The Endless Summer along with a slew of other flicks. Though he is most famous for his ocean-focused films, this one actually focuses on and captures the world of motorcycle racing in a way that no other documentary before or since has managed to replicate. In fact, it was even nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar in 1972, which is a pretty big deal considering the fact that motorcycle culture, back then, was much more underground and even a bit frowned upon by the upper-crust and authority figures of the time.
Sport: Motorcycle Racing
Director: Bruce Brown
Length: 1h 36min
Though not a “sport” in the more traditional sense of the world, bodybuilding still requires absurd amounts of physicality, focus, skill, and raw talent. And perhaps no event in its history is more indicative of this than in the faceoff between Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger and Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno for the title of Mr. Olympia in the 1970s. In fact, it was this film that put ‘Arnie’ on the map and led to his career taking off and morphing him into the superstar he is today. It’s a bit dated, to be sure, but there is still no other weightlifting-focused documentary that comes close — aside from, perhaps, the whistleblowing Bigger, Faster, Stronger, which looks at bodybuilding from a darker, steroid-fueled angle.
Director: George Butler, Robert Fiore
Length: 1h 26min
It would have been easy to put The Endless Summer on our list — and it would have been fair, as that’s one of the best surfing flicks ever made. However, Riding Giants just barely edged past it for us, perhaps for its unique two-pronged approach, spanning both the sweeping history of surfing itself as well as more intimate looks at the real individuals involved. Or maybe it’s because this Stacy Peralta-directed flick (yes, that Stacy Peralta) more accurately illustrates that surfing isn’t just a casual sport for hippy burnouts, but rather a delicate dance between man and nature that is all-too-often violent and perilous. Whatever the case, this documentary is widely considered amongst the greatest of all time, be that surfing, sporting, or otherwise.
Director: Stacy Peralta
Length: 1h 45min
In 1988, Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian racing driver, won his first Formula One world championship. In 1990, he did it again. Then, in 1991, he did it a third time. And he managed all of that before the age of 33. Before he could take another title, however, Senna perished in a crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in front of an audience of 300 million people. It was a tragedy that shook the racing and sports worlds alike, as — to this day — Ayrton Senna is still considered to be one of the greatest drivers to ever hit the pavement. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see what he could have achieved had he lived longer. Still, this documentary serves as a fitting tribute to one of the most magnificent drivers in the history of motorsports.
Sport: Formula One Racing
Director: Asif Kapadia
Length: 1h 46min
Touching the Void
2003’s Touching the Void is undoubtedly the most questionable and controversial “documentary” on our list, as it actually concerns an event that wasn’t filmed, for it would have been impossible for climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates to bring cameras on their perilous trek up the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. However, the disaster-fraught adventure, to director Kevin McDonald, was one still worth telling. But rather than sticking with the limited footage available and interviews, the production team decided instead to create a series of dramatizations — aided by the input of the real-life climbers themselves. It’s left to the discretion of the viewer to decide if this is a documentary in the truest sense of the word — a topic that is still widely discussed to this day. That being said, it’s no less a marvelous tale of daring, disaster, and just how far men will go to survive.
Sport: Mountain Climbing
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Length: 1h 46min
One of the most controversial figures in the sporting world, Mike Tyson has had a tumultuous career and life. He also happens to be one of the most dominant boxers of all time — a fact bolstered by his 50 wins (44 by KO), just six losses, and the fact that he holds the record as the youngest boxer to win a heavyweight title at the age of 20. So it was almost compulsory to add his aptly-named Tyson documentary to this list. Of course, as we all know, his story goes much deeper than the ring — starting on the streets of Brooklyn, where he turned to fighting as a means of curbing bullying and humiliation, to his felony conviction for rape and subsequent three-year stint in prison and more. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Mike Tyson’s story is one worth being told, for better or worse.
Director: James Toback
Length: 1h 30min
There are a lot of stories about the greatest athletes to ever compete, but stories of underdogs are sometimes even more important and beloved — just ask anyone who has ever seen Rudy. 2011’s Undefeated is one such story, circling an inner-city football team in Memphis, Tennessee, and their volunteer coach dedicated to helping the team beat the odds both on and off the field. Of course, this isn’t merely a story of struggle. Rather, it’s a tale of achievement in the face of insurmountable odds, as the Manasses Tigers go from being an underfunded and underprivileged team hired out to practice against bigger and “better” teams to becoming one of the most dominant forces on the gridiron.
Sport: American Football
Director: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin
Length: 1h 53min
When We Were Kings
Muhammed Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was always destined for greatness. And while his physical prowess and arrogance were unmatched for years, time would inevitably be his undoing — as is so often the case with athletes. However, one of his most remarkable achievements came when he was at the age of 32 and considered to be well past his prime. You see, in 1974, Muhammed Ali took on and beat George Foreman, the standing heavyweight champion of the world who also happened to be a decade younger than the aging Ali, in the fabled bout known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Of course, the match is only a small part of the story, as illustrated in When We Were Kings. Besides the fight itself, this is a story of legendary promoter Don King, dictator of Zaire (the African country in which the match took place), and a massive music festival featuring some of the top black performers in the world at the time. If you want to know more, you’ll just have to sit down and watch this one.
Director: Leon Gast
Length: 1h 28min
The 30 Best Sports Books Of All Time
Not every sport-focused story worth telling has been turned into a good documentary. However, there is a legion of books worth checking out once you’ve finished watching all these docs. Check out the best ones on our list of the greatest sports books of all time.
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