The Best Sports Documentaries of All Time
While reality television appears to be the hottest trend in media today, very little about it is actually real.
Sports provides us with real life drama. However, sports documentaries give us a deeper look inside the lives of athletes.
The following are the ten greatest sports documentaries over the past 25 years.
Each of these documentaries show us a complex look at athletes or teams—some well known, others obscure.
Every film on this list is engaging, and takes viewers beyond the normal two-to-three hours of competition they might see by watching an event.
10. Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows
This 1998 documentary, produced by the A&E Network, gives us a look at the private life of one of the most popular wrestlers of all time, Bret "The Hitman" Hart.
Sure, it might be a film about a "fake sport." However, the story is very real as it profiles a performer reaching the height of his career while facing one of the biggest decisions in his life.
Also chronicled is one of the most infamous moments in wrestling history, as Hart became the victim of the "Montreal Screwjob," losing the WWE championship title to rival Shawn Michaels.
Few films take such a backstage look at the business of professional wrestling or how a predetermined event can have real consequences for those involved.
9. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S Women's Soccer Team
Aside from Ken Burns, nobody produces short sports documentaries better than HBO through their "Sports of the 20th Century" series. Part of the credit has to be given to the excellent narrator Liev Schriber.
This installment is one of the few that runs over an hour, and looks at the history of the U.S Women's National Soccer Team from their beginnings as a ragtag semi-professional outfit, to the retirement of three of its biggest stars.
This film doesn't just simply tell the story of how the team progressed from unknowns to household names—it tells us backstories of the obstacles many of the women had to overcome in order to excel at their chosen sports.
Dare to Dream should be required viewing not only for soccer fans, but for any family with a daughter competing in athletics.
8. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos
Believe it or not, for a three year period in the late 1970s, the kings of New York weren't the Yankees or the Knicks, but rather a soccer team.
Once in a Lifetime is the story of the rise and fall of soccer's New York Cosmos, a team put together by Warner Communications executives Steve Ross and Ahmet Ertegun.
The film focuses on the R-rated antics and meteoric rise of the team with barely any professional status to the most glamorous sports franchise in the Big Apple.
The Cosmos featured popular stars such as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giogio Cagnalia.
However, as quickly as the club rose to stardom it fell from grace, as the North American Soccer League and Warner Communications fell on financial times, and Cagnalia began exerting his influence on the club.
Even if you don't like soccer, the stories alone are priceless.
One of my favorite stories from the documentary tells us how the Tampa Bay team "wore out" Pele and Cagnalia with booze and strippers before a championship game.
7. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson was sports' first anti-hero, a legend in the African-American community, and a threat to white America.
The boxer was the first African-American sports superstar, having won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1908. Johnson faced unrelenting and vicious racism throughout his life.
Johnson not only understood his role as a black villain, but he relished in marrying and dating only white women at a time when such actions meant death in certain regions of America.
Filmmaker Ken Burns does an excellent job profiling not only the struggles of Johnson, but also his many faults and the impact his career had on African-Americans.
This film focuses on the ultra-violent and intensely competitive world of wheelchair rugby, known to its participants as Murderball.
The U.S National Team is the focus of this film, as they prepare for the World Championships featuring their star player Mark Zupan, and Joe Soares, whose place he took as the world's best player.
If there is one thing the film does, it's that it shows disabled athletes in the same light, with the same strengths and faults found in able-bodied competitors.
A large part of the film focuses on the pure hatred between Zupan, and Soares, who after being cut from the U.S team, coaches the Canadian National team.
The subjects of Murderball are never portrayed as charity cases or being handicapped, but rather as competitors with the same epic desires and faults of any other modern athlete.
5. Any Bud Greenspan Olympic Documentary
Nobody does a better job of the "retrospective look back" documentary than Bud Greenspan.
Greenspan has been chronicling every Summer and Winter Olympics since 1972.
He not only has a knack for finding interesting stories, but for some of the best cinematography in any genre.
In particular, his film on the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich is a classic.
It features the travesty of the men's basketball gold medal game between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and the real life tragedy of the Israeli hostage crisis.
Greenspan's films are regularly shown on Showtime and are well worth checking out.
4. Dogtown and Z-Boys
Like professional wrestling, people argue if competitive skateboarding is a real sport.
However, regardless of your feelings on this subject, this is a film worth checking out.
The Z-Boys were a group of lower-middle class teenage kids who loved surfing the waves off the coast of Santa Monica and took up skateboarding simply as a summer hobby when the tides went in for the day.
The surf-inspired style led to a revolution for competitive skateboarding. The Z-Boys revolutionized their sport as much if not more than Michael Jordan did his.
In addition, the personalities featured in the film are fascinanting.
Such personalities include Peggy Oh, the sole girl of the group, Tony Alva, the arrogant hot shot, and Jay Adams, the talented but troubled child prodigy.
Directed by Stacy Peralta, one of the most high-profile members of the group, she is able to get inside the closed world of the Z-Boys better than any outsider ever could.
3. When We Were Kings
When We Were Kings is a film that was nearly 20 years in the making.
Taken from months of footage shot by legendary documentary filmmaker Taylor Hackford, the movie focuses on the legendary 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.
Not only do we get great footage of the fight and a behind the scenes story, but also a depiction of what it meant to be black in America during the 1970s.
Foreman was a reluctant superstar who simply wanted to live his life undisturbed by the fame of being the world champion, while Ali embraced his role as a spokesman and the most well known member of the black community.
Whereas many films of this nature use scenes outside of the main story as filler, When We Were Kings uses them to feature excellent musical performances and a fascinating look at the inner workings of a young Don King.
Ken Burns' Baseball is the gold standard for not only all historical sports documentaries, but all historical documentaries in general.
From the founding of the game, to the early 1990s, Burns looks at the game's legendary and shameful players and teams.
Also of interest are the interviews with non-baseball figures from Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Will, and J. Steven Gould, which give an insight into the appeal and love that even intellectuals have as pure fans of the game.
Nobody has ever went as in depth or told a story as complete in the history of sports film making as Burns does in this nine part series.
1. Hoop Dreams
If a story like Hoop Dreams were created in a Hollywood studio, it would have been dismissed as too unbelievable to be true.
The story focuses on two 14 year old boys from the south side of Chicago.
Hoop Dreams chronicles the talented William Gates, who from the day he enters high school is given the title of "the next Isaiah Thomas," and the smaller, more raw and immature, Arthur Agee.
Gates lives in a housing project with his mother, who doesn't work, and his frequently unemployed older brother, a once talented prospect whose ego ended his career.
Agee lives with his mother who works hard to provide a better life for her son, and a father who falls into crack addiction.
There are scenes in this movie that are simply too powerful to describe, including Agee playing in a pick-up game and being distracted by his estranged father coming to the park to cop drugs, to Gates' mother after a serious knee injury, asking how it's going to affect his career.
The ending of the movie is at best unexpected, as Agee, who was cast away as a lost cause by the exclusive private school he and William attended, reaches heights of his career that Gates and his school never achieved.