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The 25 Best Sports Documentaries of All Time

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The 25 Best Sports Documentaries of All Time National Geographic Documentary Films


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For almost as long as cinema has existed, we’ve filmed sports. And why not? The beauty, courage, and determination of athletes are not only aesthetically compelling, but their struggles are inherently dramatic. So is the culture surrounding games and competitions. With the advent of televised sports—and, in recent decades, faster, more modern ways of documentation—sports documentaries have proliferated as a popular genre.

When football usurped baseball as our national pastime sometime in the 1960s and ’70s, NFL Films played an essential role in creating its hyperbolic image; by the turn of the century, ESPN’s SportsCentury series gave us compact, formulaic portraits of our greatest figures. HBO Sports initiated an often self-aggrandizing but also powerful investigative deep-dive program. Plus, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series invited filmmakers to contribute a wide range of sports tales, such as Barry Levinson’s The Band That Wouldn’t Die or Dan Klores’s Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks.

The styles run the gamut—from cinema verité to the stately Ken Burns approach—and there are dozens of incredible works that you won’t find on this list simply because there is too much great stuff to reduce to 25. So for those of you who sorely miss The Great American Cowboy (an Oscar winner), On Any Sunday, 16 Days of Glory, John McEnroe: In The Realm of Perfection, or any number of 30 for 30 segments, including The Two Escobars, well, we don’t blame you. But this is our list, and we stand by it. After all, what is a sports list if it doesn’t start an argument?

The Last Dance (2020)

This Netflix series, a Covid-era sensation, gives us plenty of behind-the-scenes footage of the Chicago Bulls during Michael Jordan’s reign as the King of the NBA and the most famous American athlete of his time. It also shows contemporary interviews of Jordan, heavier, glassy-eyed, nursing a drink, cigar in hand, a lone figure in his mansion recounting his glory days. In his prime, Jordan was the ultimate corporate success story—until his gambling, and the personal tragedy of his father’s death, dented the shiny facade. But it’s his ruthlessness as a competitor, and six-time NBA champion, that is at the heart of this mythmaking entertainment. Jordan revisits old grudges (Isiah Thomas) and controversies (“Republicans wear sneakers, too”), while creating new rifts—just ask his running mate, Scottie Pippen. If the show is less than entirely candid, with a strong whiff of public relations, it’s a comfort-food hype reel made to binge.

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League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis (2013)

No American sport was more greatly embellished by the documentary format than professional football in the form of NFL Films, which, in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, bolstered the game’s mythology through cinematic brilliance. NFL Films has too many great shorts to count, and they are at turns operatic, violent, and funny. In the mid-’80s, their Crunch Course show came along with any new Sports Illustrated subscription as a videotape freebie. Essential as it felt at the time, much of what NFL glorified is now forever tempered in light of what we now know about the devastating consequences of concussions. Based on the book by brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, this Frontline documentary (which at one point involved ESPN, which backed out), is the sobering antidote to the NFL Films bravura. Painful to watch but absolutely necessary.

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Lorena, Light-Footed Woman (2019)

Although it runs just under a half hour in length, this portrait of the stoic distance runner Maria Lorena Ramirez is hard to shake. A true folk hero, this introvert from Chihuahua, Mexico, is the kind of athlete who captures us without flair or charisma—but instead with unpretentious, stoic grandeur. Also, she runs great distances in sandals, not sneakers; even when presented with a pair of running shoes, she feels they’d be unnatural to run in. Gorgeously photographed, this documentary captures the loneliness of running, as well as Ramirez’s attachment to the rural life in which she was raised and continues to live.

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)

Picture Muhammad Ali at the turn of the 20th century, a Black man who slept with white women and lived like a rock star. He inspired the phrase “The Great White Hope” for the white challenger—any white boxer—who could beat him in the ring. Such is the story of Jack Johnson, a radical and transformative athlete who was years ahead of his time. Told in the trademark Ken Burns style, the story starts with the beginning of Johnson’s boxing career as he works toward trying to get a title fight and is denied by the usual racism of the time. The bigotry Johnson encountered is covered especially well with quotes from other fighters and newspapermen. It was similar to the way Jackie Robinson was constantly put down by the white press but way worse. The two parts of this documentary are split between Johnson’s rise to the title, his being targeted by the government and forced into exile, and his eventual downfall. It’s riveting.

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The King of Kong (2007)

Seth Gordon’s scrappy and affectionate look at the OG gamers of the ’80s arcade era is too much fun. It’s e-sports before e-sports. Clad in black, hot-sauce salesman Billy Mitchell is the feather-haired stud of the early gaming era. Pac-Man, Centipede, then Donkey Kong master—Mitchell is a cocksure prince of them all. Enter the challenger: frustrated musician, failed jock, amateur draftsman, and regular-guy dreamer Steve Wiebe. “Oh, he’s just come up short in a lot of things in life,” his wife says, “and nobody wants to do that all the time.” Wiebe sets a new world record for Donkey Kong at home as his son cries for his father to wipe his bottom, but the score falls short in the eyes of governing authorities. And so Mitchell and Wiebe head for a showdown, as the featured players in a movie studded with a motley crew of entertaining characters. “Billy Mitchell always has a plan,” says Mitchell; but that plan didn’t include Wiebe, the ultimate contender. Who will win? As Leonard Cohen sings on the soundtrack, “Everybody knows.”

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Fallen Champ (1993)

We’ve seen Mike Tyson from almost every angle, but Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple’s 1993 documentary is perhaps the most powerful evocation of his early years through his imprisonment for rape in 1992. There is no narration and a combination of original and archival interviews from Tyson’s early mentors, Cus D’Amato and Kevin Rooney; rival manager Butch Lewis; and notables such as Al Sharpton, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jack Newfield. Kopple charts Tyson’s dynamic rise to heavyweight champion (one standout anecdote: when Butch Lewis, Michael Spinks’s trainer, saw Tyson punching holes in the wall before his fight, he knew Spinks was in trouble) and how Tyson was ill-equipped to deal with fame. We also revisit his misbegotten marriage to Robin Givens, inevitable alliance with Don King, and eventual encounter with Desiree Washington. It is a depiction of rape culture and race in a different era, and Kopple presents both sides, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind.

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TVTV Goes to the Super Bowl (1976)

This is the TV-documentary version of Hunter Thompson’s gonzo approach to that all-American spectacle, the Super Bowl—when it was already the crowning sports event in the country but had not yet gained the PR-controlled stature of the Academy Awards. Jocks were not just polished on TV as they would be in decades to come; they are captured here with a candor that would soon vanish. But the circus surrounding the game—held in Miami circa January 1975 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys—was already a piece of garish Americana. Featuring revealing, off-the-cuff interviews with some of the players’ wives, the show is brightened by correspondents Bill “Billy” Murray (at his wiseass best) and Christopher Guest. “Do you feel that television is affecting the game?” Murray asks legendary TV analyst (and former player) Pat Summerall during a pickup game of NFL veterans and the CBS crew. “Oh, I think there’s too much damn television, don’t you?” Despite Murray’s presence, this irreverent gem is an overlooked artifact and deserves the attention of any football fan or student of American hype.

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One Day in September (1999)

At the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage—and eventually murdered—by Palestinian terrorists. In Kevin Macdonald’s tense documentary, narrated by Michael Douglas, the events unfold like a thriller. The filmmakers do not strike a neutral, objective stance but one of thinly veiled moral outrage, principally directed at the West German officials that allowed the games to continue during the standoff. The film is a political nail-biter with a backbone.

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Spellbound (2002)

Okay, this one is just a complete charmer. We drop in on the lives of eight contestants in the 72nd Annual Scripps Spelling Bee, held in Washington, D.C. They are children from across the country: immigrants, middle-class kids, kids from wealthy eastern suburbs and the rural Midwest. The first half is devoted to getting to know the contestants and their families; the second half documents the National Finals in Washington. Yes, there is plenty of suspense—unadorned, naturalistic—but what stays with you are the portraits of the contestants and their families, presented with respect, empathy, and no shortage of good humor.

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Diego Maradona (2019)

The rise and fall of Diego Maradona may today seem like a stock tale of rags to riches to ruin. But Maradona wasn’t just any athlete—he’s one of the greatest soccer players of all time. And this visceral documentary, directed by Asif Kapadia, doesn’t clutter the telling with cutaways to talking heads. Instead, the comments lace the audio, and our understanding of Maradona’s professional and public life unfolds in grainy footage, as well as still photography. We are thrust into the middle of his crowded, sweaty, bumpy life—the claustrophobic nature of celebrity in our face. The majority of the documentary follows Maradona’s years playing in Naples, where locals hung pictures of him in their homes next to Jesus. This immature man, born in the slums of Argentina, the sole supporter of his family from the time he was 15 years old, first delighted in his fame but was soon undone by it. His fall from grace, which was also caused by his growing addiction to cocaine, is brutal and without remorse. As his trainer Fernando Signorini says, “Diego has had a life both tremendous and terrible.” In Naples, Diego was a rebel, cheat, hero, god, and ultimately, a disgrace.

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Free Solo (2018)

As one would expect from a Nat Geo–produced feature, the cinematography in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s 2018 Oscar-winning documentary is astounding. If you’re at all afraid of heights, you might find yourself white-knuckling through Alex Honnold’s exhilarating adventures climbing ridiculously massive mountains without any safety harness in place. But while the tension is unrelenting—culminating in Honnold’s ascent of a 3,000-foot rock wall (El Capitan) in Yosemite National Park—what gives this movie its weight is the intimate portrait of Honnold, a mostly solitary man for whom having a relationship with a romantic partner is as daunting, if not more so, than his epic climbs.

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Red Army (2014)

Gabe Polsky’s riveting documentary about the Russian Five, the core members of the Soviet National hockey team in the 1980s, unfolds like a Russian novel. The lead talking head is the team’s captain, Slava Fetisov, who is at turns hostile, sardonic, sensitive, and introspective. His gruff charm is at the heart of this exciting—and often hilarious—look at the Russian Five, whom NHL legend Scotty Bowman called the greatest starting five in hockey history. The movie brings us inside the team’s draconian life under coach Viktor Tikhonov, a classic villain. His innovative training methods created a kind of ballet; in a system that was highly controlled, the Russian game was revolutionary in its freedom. The movie’s steady sense of humor helps cushion the inevitable sorrow and tragedy.

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Pumping Iron (1977)

Arnold Schwarzenegger was already a legend in the world of bodybuilding, but George Butler and Robert Fiore’s 1977 feature made him a star to a wider audience. The movie documents Arnold’s seventh consecutive title—and his swan song—as Mr. Universe, as he competes against another future crossover notable, Lou Ferrigno. (Ferrigno would go on to play the Incredible Hulk on TV.) Schwarzenegger’s merciless psychological torture of Ferrigno—encouraged by Butler, who wisely coaxed Arnold, already on his way to an acting career—convinced him to participate in one final tournament (and he was paid $50,000 for his efforts). It adds a must-watch sense of drama to the groundbreaking documentary—and gives an inside look at the nascent bodybuilding culture and its place in movie history.

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Rocks with Wings (2001)

This quiet and affecting story about high school girl’s basketball, set in an impoverished section of New Mexico during the late ’80s, is lo-fi but far more emotionally gripping than most. Although the film takes place in a Navajo community, filmmaker Rick Derby does more than give lip service to Navajo sensibilities; he embroiders them throughout this narrative. It’s a story of race and culture clashes, as coach Jerry Richardson, a Black man raised in Texarkana, transforms members of a previously moribund sporting culture into perennial state champions. It's sensitive, thoughtful, and understated.

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O.J.: Made in America (2016)

One of the most memorable American scandals of the 20th century—and possibly the last one that collectively captivated the nation in real life in quite the same way—is presented in Ezra Edelman’s dramatic five-part series with plenty of social and political context. In fact, while Simpson’s football career is covered, it is secondary to the murder trial that made him one of our most infamous characters. This isn’t simply the story of a superstar athlete turned Hollywood celebrity but a tale about race, police brutality, and how both those factors weighed on Simpson’s murder trial. The docuseries is a supersized 30 for 30 that elevated the genre to its heights.

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Icarus (2017)

Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary starts as one thing—Fogel’s experiment with performance-enhancing drugs to help him excel in an amateur bike race (and to see if he can sneak past the drug testers) and morphs into something far bigger: a muckraking, perilous account of Russia’s long history with doping. The central figure is Grigory Rodchenkov, former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. He’s a charismatic, ethically damned figure who seems ripped out of the pages of a Graham Greene novel. The movie is unnerving and tense, and its paranoia is hardly invented. And the stakes could not be higher.

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Murderball (2005)

This account of wheelchair rugby has it all—heart-racing footage of the sport, the tension of big tournaments, as well as vulnerable and caring portraits of the contestants, most of whom suffer from quadriplegia. There’s a punk-rock sensibility to the proceedings, as well as candor, rage, and an appealing lack of sentimentality when it comes to these fierce characters and their families. Intimacy, sex, and rivalries are all given attention. In the end, however, there is a sweetness that is undeniable.

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Senna (2010)

Senna is another sterling example of a documentary that eschews the traditional talking heads and narration for audio interviews. The story of Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna comes to vibrant life through the deft assemblage of film and video footage of his races, as well as private home movies. The same technique that director Asif Kapadia used in his Maradona documentary proves winning; no small credit goes to him, as well as to his collaborators for sifting through massive amounts of footage to present a cohesive and taut narrative. Senna’s fate, like those of so many race-car drivers, may seem preordained. Nevertheless, the movie is consistently tense but also filled with grace notes and a touch of sensitivity that keeps it from being lurid or exploitative.

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Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

While skateboarding enjoyed mainstream popularity starting in the 1960s, it took a band of misfits to revolutionize it into the skate culture we know today. Directed by one of those misfits-turned-skating-star, Stacy Peralta, here is the insider’s look at the young men in southern California who changed the culture with their raw brilliance and fuck-the-world attitude. The movie captures the excitement of the movement, the world it disrupted, how their impact spread, and the cost to the human lives involved. It's a pivotal, influential document.

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Baseball (1994)

Ken Burns was ridiculed for the transparent length of his Baseball documentary series when it first aired in 1994—never mind that it pioneered the long-form documentary sports series. No other American sport has been given this kind of monumental consideration with equal success. Massive yet incomplete—a sure debate starter—it is at turns epic, stately, sentimental, and deeply concerned with the game itself but even more with how the game shaped America. Jackie Robinson is probably the true center of the series, but former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil is its heart and soul.

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Hoop Dreams (1994)

Street basketball has a rich literary history, starting with Pete Axthelm’s The City Game, peaking with Rick Telander’s 1975 classic Heaven Is A Playground, and later sparkling in Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot. None of those efforts have had the cultural impact of Hoop Dreams, Steve James’s saga following the lives of two Chicago basketball players. Perhaps that is because nobody spent as much time on their project as James did on his—seven years. The result is a master class in journalistic immersion as we track the hopes and fantasies of Arthur Agee and William Gates as they fight against the odds. Intimate and full of ache, it remains a classic.

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When We Were Kings (1996)

There is no shortage of documentaries devoted to Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most charismatic American athlete of the mid-to-late 20th century. But Leon Gast’s 1996 feature, concentrating on a single bout—Ali’s 1975 heavyweight fight against George Foreman in Zaire, better known as “The Rumble in the Jungle”—captures the Ali myth in a bottle. Seemingly past his prime, Ali didn’t stand a chance against the foreboding reigning champ, Foreman. At least that’s what the experts said. But a series of delays and a tactical bit of brilliance in the ring (“rope-a-dope”) not only earned Ali one of his most famous victories but served to enlarge Ali’s international reputation. Featuring literary talking heads such as Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, as well as a performance by James Brown, this movie has it all and then some.

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The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

The great filmmaker Werner Herzog’s terse, elegiac documentary about ski jumper Walter Steiner is cinematically and emotionally haunting. Shot on film, it keeps us aware of the technical challenges Herzog and his crew faced; their depictions of what jumpers called ski-flying is captivating and genuinely suggests what it must feel like to fly. But the beauty is laced with the terror of the endeavor. Eventually, it's Steiner’s psychological torment, his vulnerability, fear, and humility, that makes this movie unforgettable. A solitary, questioning figure, Steiner is also one of the most memorable athletes ever captured on film. The movie is both thrilling and melancholy.

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The Endless Summer (1966)

Bruce Brown’s innovative, gorgeous-looking 1966 documentary follows surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson as they travel the world looking for the perfect wave. There have been dozens of documentaries exploring the beauty—and terror—of the sport since, but none surpass Brown’s seminal effort. Shooting on 16mm film, the filmmaker sometimes shot a wave that lasted longer than the amount of film in his camera. Despite the technical challenges of the era, this lush movie provides not only a wanderlust that inspired generations of surfers but also an insight into what makes them tick. For decades, college dorm rooms were adorned with posters for The Endless Summer; its legacy cannot be overstated.

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Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

The Olympics merits its own documentary film festival of greatness. From Leni Riefenstahl’s pioneering propaganda to Bud Greenspan’s cottage industry of filmic brilliance, the Olympics have inspired many a documentarian. (There’s also the notable Visions of Eight, about the 1972 Games.) But none match the cinematic genius of filmmaker Kon Ichikawa’s visual masterpiece on the 1964 Summer Games in Toyko. For Ichikawa, a contemporary—and some would argue equal—of Akira Kurosawa, director of classics such as Fires on the Plain and Odd Obsession, this was his first documentary. Decades before Greenspan, he filmed many events with long telephoto lenses, which helped create a sense of tension and depict the isolation of the athletes. Mixing color footage with black-and-white (including backstage shots of a young Joe Frazier), the movie is a stunner, heightened by inventive sound editing. Tokyo Olympiad is a monument to filming and, in a case of form and function, the athletics and spectacle it depicts.

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