We understand. We miss sport too. And even though we appreciate that there are more important issues at stake right now than sports to enliven our evenings, this unscheduled time out has made us realise how much we enjoy having sport in our lives.
In a way, no subject lends itself better to the documentarian’s touch than sports. The field, the court, the pitch – they are natural settings with their own built-in narratives (the comeback, the underdog, the impossible season, the town that did the unthinkable). Its players are the characters, its seasons the storylines, its games the moments of conflict.
The ones that truly resonate tell stories bigger than their sports, but inherently linked to them, and offer emotional, inspirational or affirming stories from the heart of sporting excellence.
While we’re sure we missed a couple of your favourites, these are the ones that still get us hyped. Some are classics, some are new streaming entries. In no particular order, here are some of the best sports documentaries of all time.
Here’s one for the adrenaline obsessed. Alex Honnold an, an American rock climber, was the first person ever to climb the sheer 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park completely without any ropes, anchors, or any other support safety gear. The documentary earned itself an Academy Award, but while the accolades are absolutely deserved, the real attention is owed to Honnold himself, as the only alternative to finishing the climb was certain death.
The Last Dance
You’d need to have been living under a rock to not have heard of The Last Dance but believe us, it’s worth the hype. The documentary tells the story of Michael Jordan and the incredible Chicago Bulls team that dominated the NBA in the 1990s.
The behind the scenes footage of the 1998 season forms the basis of each episode but the majority of each episode is taken up by the stories of Jordan and the Bulls’ rise to dominance and their fight to stay at the top.
Consisting almost entirely on racing footage and home video clips, much like the aforementioned follow-ups, Kapadia tells the life and tragic death of Brazilian F1 champion Ayrton Senna.
It charts his rise to prominence in 1984, title wins at the end of the decade and the start of the 1990s, his rivalry with team-mate Alain Prost, his efforts to improve the safety of the sport – witnessing the death of driver Roland Ratzenberger just a day before his own – and his funeral.
When We Were Kings
Muhammed Ali was always destined for greatness. And while his physical prowess and arrogance were unmatched for years, time would inevitably be his undoing — as is so often the case with athletes. However, one of his most remarkable achievements came when he was at the age of 32 and considered to be well past his prime. In 1974, Muhammed Ali took on and beat George Foreman, the standing heavyweight champion of the world who also happened to be a decade younger than the aging Ali, in the fabled bout known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”
Bryan Fogel’s first-hand exploration into how illegal doping enhances his performance in amateur cycling competition takes a frightening turn as he stumbles upon one of the biggest scandals in Olympic history. That’s the kind of elevator pitch that leads to Oscar bait Hollywood fiction pictures. But this story is scary real and captured by Fogel.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
There are marathons, which are already tough enough if you ask anyone who’s actually ran one, and then there’s ultra-marathons. One of the most notorious is the Barkley Marathons, a trail race set over 100 miles with 54,200 feet of accumulated vertical climb through its duration. That’s about an Everest, twice over. As of 2019, only 15 runners have ever completed it.
Touching the Void
A once-in-a-lifetime story that became a truly great non-fiction film, Touching the Void was nevertheless controversial for its many re-enacted scenes and so, for some, is not a true documentary. Based on the 1988 book by Joe Simpson about his and Simon Yates’ near-disastrous climb of Siula Grande, Touching the Void dramatises one of the most intense climbing accounts anyone has ever lived to tell. The situation is two climbers, one with a broken leg, dangling from a rope on a mountain in Peru, with no water, no fuel to melt snow for water and bad weather closing. Both will die unless the injured man is cut free, giving the uninjured man the chance to get help. You are the uninjured man, knife in hand. What would you do?
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
After the 2016-2017 season, Sunderland FC was relegated from the Premiere League to the Championship League, one of the biggest defeats for any top-tier English soccer club. But they would spend the next season battling against an even worse defeat. A story more about a city than a club, Sunderland follows one of soccer’s most fervent fanbases. Consider this series the Friday Night Lights of English football.