Sports are a key part of our culture. They provide us an opportunity to relish the human body pushed to its limits, as well as to enjoy the feeling of collective bonding and enjoyment that comes from watching the same event together.
Sports documentaries are a fascinating part of the sports entertainment ecosystem since they provide us with a means of seeing behind the glamor and the myth-making that makes athletes into celebrities. These sports documentaries are an excellent way to get a glimpse into the exhilarating world of athletics.
10 The Last Dance
In the world of sports, one figure looms like a colossus, and that person is Michael Jordan. For many people growing up in the 1990s, he was the sports star.
He shone like a star, seems to have a golden touch that turned every one of his efforts to success (it’s the rare sports star who gets to be in a movie with the Looney Tunes characters). This highly-anticipated and critically acclaimed documentary sheds light on his fascinating and successful career with the Chicago Bulls.
9 Free Solo
There’s something both exhilarating and terrifying about rock climbing, that feeling of being so far above the ground that you’re almost on another plane of existence altogether. This acclaimed documentary manages to capture some of that, as it documents the scaling of El Capitan by the famous rock-climber Alex Honnold.
Though obviously Honnold’s achievement is the centerpiece of the documentary, it’s also just a stupendous piece of film art, and it definitely deserved its Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
8 When We Were Kings
Sometimes, there emerges a conflict between two athletes that becomes almost biblical in its proportions, and one such is the highly anticipated fight between boxing giants Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
This documentary, which won an Academy Award, largely focuses on the lead-up to this titanic bout. It took the director over two decades to create this magnificent work of art, and it definitely shows with the film’s fine attention to detail. Throughout, it provides a compelling portrait of the boxing world.
7 Hoop Dreams
Sometimes, the production history of a sports documentary is almost as interesting as the documentary itself. Such is the case with this widely-acclaimed and enduringly popular documentary, which focuses on two high school students as they set out to become basketball players.
The project started as a short film but soon grew into a truly mammoth undertaking with hundreds of hours of footage. The film also aroused some controversy when it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, leading to changes in the nominating process
Even those who aren’t sports enthusiasts will find much to enjoy about this film, which is not only a truly splendid sports documentary but also a piece of investigative journalism. It’s a searing expose of the prevalence of doping within professional sports, particularly by the Russians.
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, it raised more than a few hackles, but the film was widely lauded by critics and also earned the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
As with Hoop Dreams, Murderball is one of those sports documentaries that allows us to glimpse into the inner life of a sport through the eyes of its participants. In this case, that happens to be a sport with which many might not be overly familiar: wheelchair rugby.
Like many of the other documentaries on this list, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It’s also a potent and powerful reminder that those with physical disabilities are just as able to participate in and enjoy sports as the able-bodied.
4 Pumping Iron
Though body-building has become somewhat mainstream by now, at the time in which this film was made it was still considered something of specialized interest that most in the mainstream didn’t know nor care about. It offers us an insider look at both the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia contests, as well as the way that the competitors prepare for these feats of strength.
It is now known especially for helping to establish Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also inspired a sequel that focused on female bodybuilders.
3 The Life and Times Of Hank Greenberg
Though most in the public don’t realize it, documentaries are often expensive productions, taking substantial time to make as the makers cobble together funding.
That was certainly the case with this film, which focuses on the titular Hank Greenberg, a Jewish player for the Detroit Tigers who struggled against antisemitism as he became a very successful baseball player (he nearly broke Babe Ruth’s home record run). It was well-received by numerous critics, and it won several awards.
Nothing seems to inspire us like a film, whether documentary or fiction, about a sports team that manages to claw it's away back to victory after numerous defeats. That is the central premise of this film, which focuses on a high school football team Tennessee.
The critics loved the film, and they were particularly impressed by the fact that the film manages to still be compelling despite the well-trod nature of its subject. It received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Some names have become synonymous with the form of the epic documentary, and one of those men is Ken Burns. It is perhaps unsurprising that, given his interest in exploring those events and areas of American life that are key to our identity, that Burns would turn his attention to baseball, considered by many to be the all-American sport.
It’s a truly sprawling work that gives us an extremely thorough look at baseball, its inner workings, and its influence on American life and culture as a whole.
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