The last 10 years have seen an incredible renaissance in the genre driven by the success of Senna and the increased number of outlets looking to fill their catalogues. At Formula One, the first thing everyone would say was how much they loved Asif Kapadia’s Senna documentary. And a superb piece of filmmaking it was. For me, his Diego Maradona was even better. Evoking as it did a period when I was in love with football and Serie A was riding high. Indeed the power of a great documentary, to evoke a specific time and place, narrating a story of struggle or triumph, or invariably struggle then triumph, as nothing warms the soul more than seeing ones fellow man rise against the odds. Sport is a microcosm of human existence with its ups and downs, twists and turns. Its somehow our daily lives taken to the most visible extremes. As we hunger for crumbs of comfort in a world devoid of sport, with uncertainty beckoning, we naturally turn to those stories of triumphs and adversities past.
Lockdown is the perfect opportunity to delve a bit deeper into the genre. I know everyone is watching Sunderland ‘til I die or The Last Dance, but I thought I would try to unearth some more obscure but rewarding documentaries you may not have heard of. A list of the greatest sports documentaries could easily run to over 100. As an avid consumer of the genre, I’ve tried to keep away from some traditionally well-known documentaries in order to unearth some unseen gems. I’ve also tried to delve a bit further back into the past for a couple of reasons. There has been a rebirth in great documentary filmmaking in recent years, leading to some incredible films and series. Notably Senna, Icarus, Free Solo and O.J.: Made in America. These have received wide releases and the plethora of new platforms mean they have received a wider audience. I have also limited each sport to one documentary. Sport is such a kaleidoscope of human endeavour and interest, I wanted to reach as far as possible. One final parameter was excluding any football documentaries. As a European, the sheer number of football documentaries could have resulted in a separate list of football only films.
Also excluded were anything from the ESPN 30/30 or ESPN Films canon. ESPN has done more to elevate the sports documentary than any other producer in the history of sports. Conceived in 2007 as a celebration for ESPN’s 30th anniversary (in 2009) by Connor Schell and Bill Simmons, the original series celebrated 30 stories ‘from the ESPN era”. Largely focused on US sports, they showed that a great documentary leaves you transfixed by the subject no matter what it is. Since then it has gone on to be a Peabody, Emmy and Oscar winning series and some of the best sports documentaries ever made. Many episodes have laid the groundwork for other great documentaries and films that came later (including The Last Dance and Invictus). For those interested, I have included my personal top twelve from this group at the end of this article.
So, to 10 great sports documentaries you’ve never seen (in no particular order):
A Sunday in Hell (1976) - You Tube
A one-day cycle race in Northern France, the Paris-Roubaix is considered one of the toughest cycle races in the world. Harking back to a simpler era for professional sports, this 45 year-old documentary has some brilliant camerawork (and a great soundtrack) for the time. The film captures the events of the 1976 race and features the greats of the era such as Eddy Merckx, Freddy Maertens, and Francesco Moser. Racing on narrow, cobbled roads and muddy tracks, the race is a war of attrition deemed too dangerous by a number of professional cyclists. The fatigue and injuries sustained throughout the race have given it the unofficial name – A Sunday in Hell.
Deep Water (2006) - Amazon Prime (rental)
After Sir Francis Chichester’s round the world (stopping in Sydney) voyage in 1976, sailing had caught the imagination of the nation. The Sunday Times sponsored the first solo, non-stop, round-the-world boat race. 9 competitors took part from the very experienced Robin Knox-Johnson through to the amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst. Not so much a race but a battle of epic proportions against the forces of nature both physical and human, this superb documentary, by the team behind Touching the Void, focusses on the Donald Crowhurst story. Told with extensive interviews, boat logs and footage from the boats that took part, this is a great meditation on what it is to be human, flaws and all. A tale of folly, crazy dreams and deception that is proof real life is more dramatic than fiction.
Dogtown and Z Boys (2001) – Amazon Prime/Apple TV (Rental)
Having nearly died out at the end of the 1960’s, skateboarding was brought to prominence by a rag-tag group of surfers who broke into the empty swimming pools of suburban Santa Monica, adapting their surfing tricks to skateboarding. The Z-Boys became the Zephyr Skate Team who transformed the image (and business) of skateboarding forever. Whilst their success was fleeting, it paved the way for the huge explosion in extreme sports. Without this pioneering group of committed Santa Monica fans, there would be no Tony Hawk, No X Games, No Olympic Games. This Stacy Peralta documentary features some great footage from the early 70’’s and a classic soundtrack. Worth also checking out his surf documentary – Riding Giants.
Do You Believe in Miracles (2001) – You Tube
A large number of my favourite sports documentaries use sport as a metaphor of the times. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this HBO production of the stunning US victory over the Soviet Union in the Winter Games of 1980 in Lake Placid. The Soviets had won the previous 4 gold medals and hadn’t been beaten in Olympic Hockey since 1968. Furthermore, the Russians had crushed the US team, made up of college athletes, 10-3 prior to the start of the games. Famous for Al Michaels legendary “Do you believe in miracles!” commentary on ABC, this has also been turned into a feature film starring Kurt Russell (Miracle). Evoking the era of Reagan, Rocky and Ivan Drago, you will be cheering for plucky little USA by the end of it.
Freedoms Fury (2006) - N/A
This obscure and difficult to find documentary is described by Quentin Tarantino as “the best untold story ever”. It shows vividly how close sport and politics are interlinked and mirror their times. Unlike almost anywhere on the planet, water polo is massive in Hungary and their dominance through the years has been consistent. They’ve won more World Championship medals and Olympic titles than any other country. Between 1932 and 1964, The Hungarian Men’s Team won 5 gold medals, a sliver and a bronze. In the 1950’s they reigned supreme. This Olympic semi-final match against the Soviet Union in 1956 took place less than a month after the brutal crushing of the Hungarian rebellion by Russian tanks. The Hungarians went on to win the gold medal but it shall be forever remembered as the “Blood in the water match”. The documentary features the remaining 13 players and is narrated by Mark Spitz.
Iverson (2014) - Netflix
In a time when the hype around The Last Dance and Michael Jordan is at fever pitch, this documentary is a lucid and revealing portrait of someone often referred to as the ‘anti-Jordan’. He was every bit as brilliant on the court as Jordan (arguably) but never won a championship and chose a different path to the clean- cut, sponsor friendly Jordan. Without a doubt his impact on ‘sport culture’ was much greater than Jordan’s. Iverson ushered in the hip-hop culture of tattoos and baggy clothes era so prevalent these days. He was the rapping, dope smoking, hardwood bad boy. At the time David Stern was ‘forced’ into making various rule changes on appearance to counteract this ‘street culture’. To quote Esquire magazine at the time, “He scared people, but he was popular”. Practice anyone?
Salute (2008) – Amazon Prime
Who was the white guy on the podium? The iconic image of the 1968 Olympic 200m podium with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ gloved fists is an enduring image, but who was the Australian that split them? Smith and Carlos had told Peter Norman what they intended to do and he supported them by wearing the same human rights badge. Another example of how sport and politics are indelibly linked. Did Peter Norman conceive how big this moment would be and how did they react back in Australia? Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the games but what became of Norman? What were his motives and views? This film offers a great insight into one of the most iconic moments in sport.
Sons of Cuba (2009) – Amazon Prime
Cuba has an incredible boxing tradition. They have won 73 medals, 37 of them gold at the Olympics. Since the Castro revolution amateur boxing has thrived. As one of Cuba’s most favourite sports, boxing is seen by many poor families as a way out of poverty with youngsters enrolled in academies from a young age. The Havana Boxing Academy takes boys from the age of 9 and turns them into the best boxers in the world. This documentary follows three hopefuls over 8 months as they train for the U12 National Boxing Championship.
TT: Closer to the Edge (2011) – Amazon Prime (rental)
The film that made Guy Martin. As with any great documentary, about so much more than bike riding. Breathtaking photography of what must be the most dangerous race still permitted, the TT is still peppered with great (and eccentric) characters. Very moving on the human cost of racing but also how those with it in their blood are compelled to race no matter the risk.
Barkley Marathons: The race that eats its young (2014) – Netflix
Inspired by a 1977 prison break, this has only been completed by 10 people in its first 25 years. People from all over the world are tempted to Tennessee via a secret application process that accepts only 35 each year. The ‘fun run’ is 60 miles with the full course being 100 miles (that must be completed within 60 hours). Peppered with wonderful characters, the race is run by someone called Lazarus Lake, who are all doing the race for their own reasons, this is a fantastic documentary on the limits of human endurance.
Best ever ESPN Documentaries
Kings Ransom – NHL’s Wayne Gretsky’s controversial move to the LA Kings
No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson
9.79 – 1988 100m Olympic Final
The 16th Man – 1995 Rugby World Cup
June 17th 1994 – OJ
The Two Escobars - The 1994 FIFA World Cup and the tragedy of Andrés Escobar
Jordan Rides the Bus – Michael Jordan plays Minor League Baseball
Unmatched – Evert and Navratilova
When the garden was Eden – 70’s New York Knicks
White, Blue and White – Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles at Tottenham Hotspur at the time of The Falklands War