The world of competitive sports is organically cinematic. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the bonds and camaraderie, the journey of pushing your body to the limit to achieve success—they all translate well on screen. There is no real screenplay and there are no actors, yet the stories are almost always Shakespearean: captivating, and inspiring.
When we made this list of top sports documentaries, we considered several things: how intriguing the story was, how the filmmakers provided new perspectives (that audiences might not have heard,) the number of compelling characters involved, and a clear message that doesn’t drag on unnecessarily.
For example, many might have heard of Michael Jordan and his success as an athlete, but The Last Dance offers plenty of new insight into his life and struggles through a balance of well-edited interviews, captivating visuals, and theatrics—transforming Jordan’s story to essentially play out like fiction and that made for a fun watch.
So, here are some of the best sports documentaries of all time, in our humble opinion:
The Last Dance
For their final season together in 1997-98, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls had a film crew follow them throughout the eventful year, as they went for their sixth NBA title in eight seasons. Unbeknownst to the team at the time, but over two decades later, the footage would result in a stunning 10-part docuseries of one of the sport’s most iconic athletes and most celebrated dynasties.
Relying mostly on archival footage and home video clips rather than the usual video interviews, Senna is a well-made and intriguing documentary depicting the life and death of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, directed by Asif Kapadia. The film primarily focuses on Senna’s racing career in Formula One, from his debut in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix to his accidental death in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
This acclaimed documentary was filmed over the course of five years, outlining the journey of black teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee who would commute 90 minutes each way daily from inner-city Chicago to St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, a mostly white school famous for its basketball program. Like many others their age, Gates and Agee aspire for NBA stardom. With their families behind them, they withstand social and physical obstacles that stand in their way.
OJ: Made In America
A chronicle of the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, whose high-profile murder trial exposed the extent of American racial tensions, revealing a fractured and divided nation.
Professional rock climber Alex Honnold tries his best to conquer the first free solo climb of the grand El Capitan’s 900-meter vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park with some dramatic implications in this gritty rock climbing documentary.
When We Were Kings
On October 30, 1974, the GOAT of heavyweight championship boxing matches happened in Kinshasa; Zaire: the “Rumble in the Jungle” was between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali. In historical archival footage and fresh interviews, this documentary explores the socio-political climate between African-Americans and the African continent during the Black Power era, including the brutality of then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
This true crime-esque sports documentary recounts the paranoid downward spiral of wealthy magnate and wrestling enthusiast John E du Pont, as well as the murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogel wants to uncover the truth about doping in sports, and a fateful meeting with a Russian scientist totally changes his story from a personal experiment into a global thriller. Contaminated urine, a mysterious death, and Olympic gold all play a part in the exposure of arguably the biggest scandal in sports history.
ESPN 30 for 30
To commemorate its 30th-anniversary celebration, ESPN looks back at some of the most compelling sports events that occurred from 1979 to 2009 with this incredibly cinematic documentary series, which features 30 films from some of Hollywood’s most distinguished directors and producers.
The thrill of sports documentaries lies in the balance of grit, hope, and success. And who doesn’t need a little something to lift themselves up once in a while?
Words Daniel Mabanta