Okay, I’m aware that one of the quickest ways to lose approximately 60% of your readership is to bang on about sport. And I do completely understand. While I am an unabashed sports enthusiast, I can completely see the inherent pointlessness of watching a bunch of people attempting to hoof a leather sphere into a net, or one woman attempting to hit a ball past another woman using a racket.
But – and I cannot emphasise this enough – almost all of the documentaries on this list can be enjoyed by even the most sports-phobic of viewers. I am able to say this, because I am married to the worlds single most sports-phobic person - and she has been completely enthralled by many of these programmes.
Because the very best sports documentaries tell us not just about sport, but inform us on some aspect of the human condition. Pretty much none of the documentaries on this list are just about sport. They are about dreams, ambition, sacrifice, society, inequality, rage, bombast, hope and desire. And each one is, in its own way, a masterpiece.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Originally commissioned as a 30-miniute documentary short, this classic of the genre ended up taking five years to film, and clocking in at a lengthy 171 minutes. But the time flies by. Hoop Dreams is the story of two African-American high school students from Chicago who dream of a career in pro-Basketball. Both from impoverished areas, they are given places at the prestigious St Joseph High School thanks to their athletic prowess.
This epic project follows their progress over five years, charting the ups and downs, triumphs and heartbreaks, of their lives in sport, at school and at home. This is a story about race and class, inequality, aspiration and the pursuit of the American dream. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert pronounced it "one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen", and both he and TV co-host Gene Siskel made it their film of the year for 1994.
When We Were Kings (1996)
Okay, it’s fair to say it’s probably difficult to make a boring documentary when you have Muhammad Ali as its centre. But, that notwithstanding, this is a truly outstanding piece of work, which justifiably won 1996’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar. The film tells the story of the Rumble in the Jungle, the fight that took place between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. The film does not shy away from the dubious ethics of locating a global sporting contest in Zaire, at the behest of the country’s brutal dictator Mabutu Sese Seko. But Ali’s extraordinary connection with the African people, and his eloquent and powerful discussion of race and heritage, is something to behold.
The fight itself is an extraordinary display of Ali’s infamous ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy, and a reminder that Ali’s bombastic self-confidence was backed up by true greatness. Interviewees include Norman Mailer and Spike Lee. When the film won its Oscar, Ali and Foreman took to the stage along with the film-makers, their enmity long-since buried. Touchingly, Foreman even helped the now-frail Ali onto the stage.
Of course this was going to be a good film. You combine the greatest racing driver of all time with one of the great documentary makers, and you’re not going to be disappointed. Asif Kapadia, who has also made astonishing films about Amy Winehouse and Diego Maradona, chose to make this film without any talking heads – almost unheard of in sports documentary making.
Instead, he tells the story of the life, career, and tragic early death of Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna using home video, racing footage, and archive interview of the great man. The film explores Senna’s insatiable ambition and nerveless skill, his sometimes tempestuous rivalry with Alain Prost, and his shocking death in a high-speed crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. Senna was just 34.
Touching the Void (2003)
You’ll almost certainly know the story of Touching the Void, even if you’ve not seen the film (or read Joe Simpson’s book upon which it’s based). The tale has become part of mountaineering folklore, and it’s not hard to see why. It is a flabbergasting tale of courage and grit. In 1985, two friends, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, travelled to a remote corner of the Peruvian Andes to conquer the unclimbed West Face of the 21,000ft Siula Grande. They reached the top, only for things to go horribly wrong on the descent.
When Simpson fell and badly broke his leg, Yates was forced to attempt to lower him down the mountain by rope. When he accidentally lowered him over a cliff, and was unable to pull him back up, and with conditions worsening, Yates realised that he would die if he stayed there. He was forced to cut the rope. What happened over the next few days was almost unfathomable. This spellbinding docudrama uses a mixture of actors, interspersed with the testimony of Simpson and Yates, to explain the inexplicable. The Guardian called the film “the most successful documentary in British cinema history.”
The Last Dance (2020)
In 2020, with the nation locked down, we all watched a lot of telly. Certain programmes, like Normal People and Tiger King, became part of the national conversation. Another such show was this ten-part series documenting the career of the greatest basketballer of all time, Michael Jordan. The series follows his final season with the Chicago Bulls, but also looks back at a roller coaster career and dramatic life of this complex, charismatic athlete.
The series features incredible behind-the-scenes footage filmed by a crew granted an access-all-areas pass to the Bulls, as well as interviews with pretty much everyone who’s ever been anyone in basketball. Upon release, the series was hugely feted, albeit with some controversy. It was seen as being excessively favourable to Jordan, and unduly harsh on long time teammate Scottie Pippen. Nevertheless, it is a riveting watch, and one that was rewarded with the Emmy for Best Documentary Series.
Last Chance U (2016)
This Netflix documentary ran for five excellent seasons, but the first was never bettered. It tells the story of the American Football team at East Mississippi Community College, located in the small backwater town of Scooba. The football programme, run by a god-fearing, permanently-angry coach Buddy Stephens, prides itself on turning around players with potential who have troubled backgrounds.
While Stephens runs things on the field, off it the teams lives belong to academic advisor Brittany Wagner, the show’s breakout star, who gives her all in trying to ensure that the players keep up their grades sufficiently to stay on the team. As with the best sports documentaries, the on-field action is just a sideshow to the unfolding drama in the everyday lives of the players and staff. Although, to be fair, the monumental fight in a grudge match at the end of the series is also not short of drama.
Orient: Club for a Fiver (1995)
These days, the sanitised, commercialised product that is Premier League football features on a near-constant stream of behind-the-scenes documentaries about teams including Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal. In reality, they are little more than extended marketing videos. But before them all came this little gem of a documentary, on Channel 4 in the mid-90s. It tells the story of the 1994/95 season at Leyton Orient as they struggled to stay in the third tier of English football. The club were so in debt that they were sold for the princely sum of £5.
The undoubted star of the show was co-manager John Sitton, who appeared to be unravelling under the pressure or performing six jobs for the financially embarrassed club. One scene went down in infamy. With the club losing 1-0 at home to Blackpool, Sitton launched an epic, expletive-riddled tirade during half-time, which included him firing the club’s longest-serving player, and challenging two of his team to a fight, encouraging them to bring a friend, and to “bring your f***ing dinner as well.” Although nobody had the faintest idea what this meant, it became the quote that the film was remembered by. The following season, Sitton lost his job and, finding work in football hard to come by, drove a London taxi for 16 years.
Free Solo (2018)
I find that I have a grim fascination with films about climbing – in part, because I have a crippling fear of heights. I watched this terrifying documentary with hands so sweaty I could barely hold on to my drink. But then, it turned out, so did the other two people I watched it with – and they aren’t scared of heights. The fact is, this is one of the most unnerving television experiences you could wish to see. It tells the story of Alex Honnold – a free soloist. Free soloing means climbing without ropes.
As Joe Simpson and Simon yates can attest, climbing with ropes is incredibly dangerous – so choosing to forego any safety equipment is almost suicidal. This is the fascinating issue at the heart of this film: Why does Honnold choose to take such risks? And what is the morality of filming him on a venture that may well result in his demise? The venture in question is becoming the first climber to free solo El Capitan, a granite monolith 3000ft high in Yosemite. Honnold himself is, unsurprisingly, a complex character, and one to whom it is at times difficult to warm. But his exploits and courage are beyond question, and the result is a film unlike any other, and one that was rightly rewarded with a Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Fire in Babylon (2010)
Any discussion of the greatest sports teams of all time will inevitably include the Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, the All Blacks of the 2010s, and the great football teams of Hungary, in the 1950s, and Brazil in 1970. But perhaps the greatest team of all was the West indies cricket team from 1980 to 1995. In that incredible 15-year period, they didn’t lose a single Test series. This superb documentary tells the story of how that team came into being, under the auspices of captain Clive Lloyd.
The film takes a quick gander through the history of West Indian cricket before looking at the serious business of how Lloyd turned the West Indies from a series of talented cricketers into a dominant, lethal cricketing machine, the likes of which the game had never seen. The list of interviewees is a veritable Who’s Who of West Indian cricketing greatness, including Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Michael Holding, Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, and of course Lloyd himself.
You might think that cheerleading isn’t a proper sport. It’s just a bunch of scantily-clad teenagers waving pompoms, right? This jaw-dropping documentary series will disabuse you of that notion forever. It follows the Cheer Team of the Navarro College Bulldogs, based in Corsicana, Texas, as they prepare for the National Cheerleading Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. The Navarro squad are the best in the business, thanks to the presence of Monica Aldama, a former cheerleader herself, whose tough love approach draws extraordinary results from her pupils.
Away from the training mat, the series also follows the lives, and pressures, of the dedicated troupe of youngsters who are vying for spots on the team. Their commitment and sacrifice, and their courage in what is an undeniably dangerous sport, is a wonder to behold. Little surprise that Rolling Stone declared it to be “Apocalypse Now with pompoms.”
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