In the span of 30 years, sports documentaries have gone from a niche subject area most broadcasters avoided to must-watch television events. Recent series like The Last Dance, Cheer, and Last Chance U, are immensely popular among sports fans and non-sports fans alike. Sports documentaries are also receiving more critical acclaim than ever before. Three of the last four Oscar winners in the documentary feature category have been sports films – OJ: Made In America (2017), Icarus (2018), and Free Solo (2019). And this year’s Academy Award winner for best documentary short was Learning To Skateboard In A Warzone (If You’re A Girl).
We may be living in the golden age of the sports documentary or just beginning to see the potential of a new form of storytelling. Either way, there are some fantastic sports stories out there.
Here’s our list of our favorite sports docs in no particular order.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
A list of the greatest sports documentaries with no mention of Hoop Dreams should not be trusted. In 1994, networks weren’t interested in sports films. But a group of indie filmmakers captured 250 hours of footage of two rising Chicago basketball stars over five years. Viewers watch two teenage kids with dreams of reaching the NBA, Arthur Agee and William Gates, as they develop into young adults and talented players. The film was historically snubbed at the 1994 Oscars (it wasn’t even nominated for best documentary) but it is still widely considered to be one of the greatest sports docs of all time.
Free Solo (2018)
Alex Honnald’s free solo climb of El Capitan may be one of the most impressive athletic feats you will ever see. But Free Solo doesn’t merely show Honnald’s assent, it gives viewers a behind the scenes look at the athlete training to climb without a rope and the filmmakers, who could capture their friend falling to his death at any moment. Even though you know the outcome, this film will give you sweaty palms or white knuckles for the duration of the feature. This high-stakes story and the beautiful adventure cinematography helped Free Solo win an Oscar in 2019.
OJ: Made in America (2016)
In this Oscar-winning series, Director Ezra Edelman uses the life and trial of O.J. Simpson as a means to tell the story of Black American experience in the mid- to late-20th century. Simpson, once one of the most celebrated athletes in the country, transcending race and culture, sees his country club world come to an end once put on trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. Every episode documents the history of O.J. and the pivotal moments that defined his career; from outrunning the competition to outrunning the law. The doc also examines the policing of Los Angeles over the last 50 years and the country’s racial divide over the verdict.
Judging Jewell (2014)
Before Clint Eastwood’s Hollywood blockbuster Richard Jewell, ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts released Judging Jewell. The doc tells the story of Atlanta Olympic park security guard, Richard Jewell. When a bomb explodes at Centennial Park during the ’96 Olympics, Jewell is immediately hailed as a hero for identifying the explosive and clearing the scene. But soon after, the FBI’s investigation turns toward Jewell, and newspaper reports publicize his possible involvement, as he becomes a prime suspect before being fully exonerated.
McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice (2011)
This 2011 doc pits two completely different opponents, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, against each other one last time. The film examines the two lives, their different upbringings (McEnroe and New York City kid and Borg who grew up in Sweden), and the pair’s infamous five-set final at Wimbledon in 1980.