From Tragedy to Triumphs: The Greatest Sports Documentaries, Ranked
From stories about the underdogs you want to root for, to scandals, to controversial figures, sports documentaries explore the human side of our favorite athletic legends. Using in-depth interviews, revealing footage, and ample research, these sports documentaries have truly hit it out of the park. Read on to see which documentaries made it to our ranked list of the best sports documentaries.
25. The Two Escobars
ESPN’s The Two Escobars proves that, sadly, sports and current events can be dangerously intertwined. One of the most unique sports documentaries, the film tells the story about how Andrés Escobar’s fate would be connected to another more famous Escobar. In the early 1990s, Colombia was plagued with violence stemming from the prolific drug trade. At its center was one Pablo Escobar.
Drug cartels not only controlled the cities — they often used sports teams as a way to launder money. Andrés Escobar was a soccer player for the Colombian national team who, after making a disastrous mistake on the field, was murdered. The film explores how the death of Pablo Escobar may have led to a vacuum of power in which Andrés Escobar’s killers may have become emboldened to go after the drug kingpin’s favorite team.
24. Dare to Dream
Released in 2005, Dare to Dream takes viewers alongside the United States Women’s Soccer Team as they go from unknown to Olympic winners. The film focuses on five of the team’s most significant players: Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, and Kristine Lilly.
The documentary focuses on how the team gained worldwide attention after winning two World Cups and two Olympic Golds. In one of the most memorable moments of the film, Brandi Chastain helps the American team secure a victory against China. Overcome with emotion, she strips off her uniform in what became one of the most iconic images in sports history. The film has continued to inspire female athletes, and addresses important issues faced by women in sports.
23. The U
ESPN’s The U pulls viewers back to the 1980s, when the city of Miami was more synonymous with vice than it was with football. It was during these tumultuous and often crime-ridden years that the University of Miami’s football team, the Hurricanes, began their winning streak. This event shifted the nation’s attention to focus on college football’s new “Bad Boys”.
The documentary begins with the decision by Coach Howard Schnellenberger to scout football players from some of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods. The move was unheard of at the time, considering most students in the private University of Miami were affluent. However, it proved successful, as the team went on to secure four national championships. The U explores how the team changed the face of college football, one scandal at a time.
22. Survive and Advance
The ESPN documentary Survive and Advance is one of the most uplifting sports documentaries on college basketball. The film describes the unbelievable turn of events for North Carolina State’s The Wolfpack, who went from underdogs to winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.
Most fans of college basketball can still remember that fateful game, in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1983. Survive and Advance focuses on the important role the late coach Jim Valvano had in helping his team achieve their athletic dreams. Known for his powerful speeches, Valvano is often credited with helping to guide his team to victory, not just through his motivational talks, but his unique way of coaching.
21. Freedom’s Fury
Known as the “Blood in the Water Match”, the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, serves as the backdrop for the sports documentary, Freedom’s Fury. The film centers on a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary. What made the match so significant was that as the two teams were competing, their respective countries were in the midst of a bloody conflict.
At the time of the match, Hungary was struggling to gain its independence from Soviet imperialism. As the revolution raged on in back home, the two athletics teams soon found themselves in their own poolside battle. The water polo match soon goes beyond just athletic competition, and becomes a metaphor for Hungary’s revolution. Quentin Tarantino, who was the film’s executive producer, called the film “the best untold story ever”.
20. Dogtown and Z-Boys
Before skateboarders like Tony Hawk became a household name, a group of teenagers in a rough area of Santa Monica, California would completely revolutionize the sport. Using moves usually reserved for surfing, the Zephyr Team or Z- Boys, would gather together to develop new skateboarding techniques.
The boys, from a poor part of the city known as Dogtown, would often illegally practice their skateboarding moves on abandoned swimming pools in more wealthy neighborhoods.
The documentary follows the boys as skateboarding becomes more popular, leading to the Z-Boys becoming international skate stars. Directed by a former Z-Boy member, Stacy Peralta, the film fuses vintage footage with recently shot interviews. The film, narrated by Sean Penn, traces the sport’s journey from its punk subculture roots to the modern skateboarding industry.
Considered to be one of the most controversial sports figures in recent decades, Lance Armstrong continues to capture the world’s attention — most recently with the ESPN documentary, Lance. The documentary begins with Armstrong declaring “I’m going to tell you my truth” to filmmaker Marina Zenovich.
With that declaration, Armstrong continues with the revealing documentary, in which he admits that he began taking performance-enhancing drugs early in his career, when he was just 21 years old. He goes on to mention how his dysfunctional and abusive home life may have caused him to develop an unhealthy competitive streak. The documentary, which has garnered positive reviews since its release, gives viewers an intimate look into one of sport’s most complex characters.
18. Deep Water
One of the greatest mysteries in the history of sailing is the subject of the 2006 sports documentary Deep Water. In 1968, Donald Crowhurst entered the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first yacht race in which lone yachtsmen sailed around the world.
Using archival footage, interviews, and Crowhurst’s own audio tapes and film, the film explores what happened when Crowhurst set sail from England that fateful day. From allegations that Crowhurst had entered the competition for financial reasons, to evidence pointing to his mental illness and possible suicide, Deep Water is a fascinating look at the driving factors behind Crowhurst’s involvement in the dangerous race, and the secrets he may have been hiding.
17. Red Army
The 2014 film Red Army goes beyond just telling the story about hockey stars. It demonstrates how sports have the power to transcend geopolitical lines and change history. Using archival footage and interviews, the film focuses on the former Soviet Union’s national ice hockey team.
Red Army follows the team of Soviet players as they attempt to carve out their hockey careers in a politically charged world where nationalism is tied with athleticism. The film follows the international, and often clandestine, journeys the hockey players had to make in order to join National Hockey League teams. Scott Feinberg of the Hollywood Reporter described the Cold War sports film as “one of the best documentaries that I have ever seen”.
16. A Sunday in Hell
The 1976 sports documentary A Sunday in Hell chronicles the famous European cycling race, the French Paris-Roubaix Spring Classic. Following the riders as they navigate the treacherous terrain of the Roubaix track, the documentary covers the race from a variety of angles.
The track is lined with mostly cobblestones, which can be either extremely dusty or dangerously slippery when muddy. Both conditions have caused countless accidents and damage to bikes. The name of the film derives from the competition’s nickname, Hell of the North. Snaking through northern France, the track had been largely destroyed in World War I, reducing the city to hellish rubble. Leaving no detail uncovered, filmmakers show the extreme difficulties the cyclists put themselves through in order to win.
15. Go Tigers!
The documentary Go Tigers! follows the residents of Massillon, Ohio, a town obsessed with high school football. The film goes on to say that the tradition is so strong, that all baby boys are given a tiny football after they are born. It is with this explanation that the documentary takes viewers into the heated rivalries that exist between two Ohio high school football teams, the Tigers and the Bulldogs.
Massillon, considered one of the most successful high school football teams in the country, has often been criticized for overly prioritizing football. Stressed by a losing streak and cuts to the school’s budget, the football players are faced with a myriad of challenges. Go Tigers! explores the enormous pressures placed on the young football players in a town that bases its identity on the sport.
Often compared to a real life version of Friday Night Lights, the film Undefeated is a moving look into the world of high school football. The film takes place in a poor part of Memphis, Tennessee. With little prospects off the field, the football players must cling to their goals of athletic stardom if they want to escape their poverty-stricken lives.
The team, the Manassas Tigers, is led by a charismatic coach named Bill Courtney. Passionate about football and his players, Courtney not only transforms the team but the lives of the athletes as well. Despite the hardships, Courtney helps his players advance in their lives on and off the field, proclaiming: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals it.”
13. Pumping Iron
Before he was telling moviegoers “I’ll be back”, Arnold Schwarzenegger was lighting up the screen in the docudrama, Pumping Iron. The film focused on the Austrian weightlifter and other competitors vying for first place in the Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe professional bodybuilding competitions.
The film focused on the rivalry between Schwarzenegger and his competitor, Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno. Throughout the documentary, viewers can see how each man has their own training style and personality when it comes to bodybuilding. The movie was a success at the box office, and is considered to be responsible for popularizing commercial gyms and increasing interest in bodybuilding within the general population.
12. The Price of Gold
Few people can ever forget the image, and sound, of champion figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan wailing “why?” over and over as she clutched her knee in pain. It is with this image in mind, that this ESPN documentary investigates what led to Kerrigan’s assault at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway — and what role did Kerrigan’s competitor Tonya Harding play in the violence, if at all?
The Price of Gold centers on the competition between figure skaters Kerrigan and Harding, who became rivals on and off the ice. The film reveals how the media often pitted the two against each other, and how Harding’s troubled background may have led her to achieve her Olympic dreams through any means necessary. Using archival footage and interviews from Harding herself, critics found the documentary to be both heartbreaking and illuminating.
11. Touching the Void
The 2003 docudrama Touching the Void centers on the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two mountaineers forced to do the unthinkable when their climb in the Peruvian Andes goes dangerously wrong. Faced with a deadly snowstorm and broken limbs, one of the climbers makes a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.
The film, which was based on Simpson’s book, is considered one of the “100 Greatest Documentaries of All Time” by PBS. Considered one of the most thought-provoking sports documentaries, the film forces viewers to wonder what they would have done in a similar situation.
10. The Endless Summer
Before social media saturated our screens with endless images of tropical vacations, the film The Endless Summer gave moviegoers “feeling of missing out”. Using crude hand-held cameras, filmmaker Bruce Brown, followed surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August as they surfed their way around the world.
The surfers’ goal is to “follow” the summer by escaping winter to tropical destinations. Using impressive photography skills, Brown’s film transported viewers to exotic beach destinations across the world. The documentary is often credited with creating the “surf-and-travel” culture, and for popularizing surfing as a sport. In reviewing the film, NPR said “it visually taps into the wanderlust that sends us to far-flung beaches in search of an escape from life that we can’t find at home”.
While many North Americans aren’t familiar with the name Hillsborough, the name sends chills down the spines of many British. The 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 soccer fans were crushed to death, remains the worst disaster in British sports history.
The documentary Hillsborough premiered on ESPN in 2014, but its British debut had to be postponed two years because investigations were still being conducted. For many, the event stirred up deep-rooted views on social class and the dangers of obsessive sports fans. The film investigates how the tragic event happened and how it changed the British sports world forever. Following the tragedy, soccer fans, police, media, and politicians became entrenched in “blame game” that continues to this day.
8. OJ: Made in America
O.J.: Made in America gave viewers a deep look into one of the sports world’s most controversial figures, O.J. Simpson. Using archival footage and in-depth interviews, the sports documentary follows Simpson’s life from football player to criminal. Exploring the issues of race and celebrity, director Ezra Edelman delves deep into the murder trial that made Simpson a household name.
In order to create the Oscar-winning documentary, Edelman conducted more than 70 interviews with lawyers, Simpson’s childhood friends, former LAPD detectives who had been involved in the case, and relatives and friends of the victims Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. In addition to covering Simpson’s life, the documentary also shed light on the historical events that shaped the former athlete’s racial identity.
7. When We Were Kings
In the film When We Were Kings, director Leon Gast takes viewers on a trip back in time, to the history-making “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match. In 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman were invited to compete in a heavyweight championship match held in Zaire, known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Considered one of the most important sports documentaries, the film goes beyond just the boxing match, offering important context to the importance of the fight. The documentary explores the controversial reasons why the match took place in a country run by a brutal dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. When the movie won an Oscar in 1996, Ali and Foreman joined the filmmakers onstage, showing that the two boxers had finally made peace with one another.
Mike Tyson is considered one of the most divisive figures in sports history. The champion boxer has had a career full of ups and downs, filled with both athletic achievements and personal struggles. It’s no surprise that he would make a fascinating interview subject, as was the case in director James Toback’s film, Tyson.
The sports documentary traces Tyson’s life from troubled youth in crime-ridden Brooklyn to his entry into the world of boxing. In the film, the former undisputed world heavyweight champion shows a side not often seen by the public. The film received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, with critics lauding the vulnerable and complex nature of the boxer, beyond how he is typically portrayed in the media.
Using the Greek myth warning of the dangers of hubris, Icarus explores the dangerous world of doping in sports. It takes a deep look at how for some athletes the seductive lure of winning by any means becomes their downfall. The sports documentary begins with Bryan Fogel, an amateur cyclist, exploring the use of performance-enhancing drugs to help him win a cycling race.
Fogel soon comes in contact with Russian anti-doping laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov. In a strange turn of events, Rodchenkov shows Fogel how to avoid detection from drug tests, and finally admits that he has been involved in Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. What follows are a series of twists and international conspiracies that would rival even the most suspenseful political thriller.
4. Free Solo
Loaded with stunning cinematography, and filmed from dizzying heights, Free Solo is much more than a sports documentary. The Oscar-winning documentary follows free soloist Alex Honnold as he attempts to scale Yosemite Park’s El Capitan wall. Free soloing is a type of ice or rock climbing in which the climbers, climbing alone, do not use ropes, harnesses, or other type of protective equipment.
Honnold’s ascent up a more than 3,000-foot face of rock had audience members both terrified and cheering for the determined athlete. The film was shot by fellow climbers and professional cameramen, who followed Honnold up the cliff in order to get the perfect angle. Honnold’s climb, which the New York Times called “one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever”, makes for a breathtaking and heart-pounding film.
3. The Last Dance
One of the newer sports documentaries is the ESPN miniseries The Last Dance, which takes a look at Michael Jordan’s memorable career, particularly his time with the Chicago Bulls. Using previously unseen footage, the film offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the sports world’s most iconic athletes.
The sports documentary miniseries chronicles Jordan’s last season with the Bulls, from 1997-1998. The film also delves into his relationships with his former teammates and other NBA personalities. Extensive interviews with former teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman provide unique insight into that time period, beyond the scandals and headlines. Richard Roeper, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, said, “Not only were the Bulls a team for the ages, they also gave us a sports soap opera for the ages.”
Considered to be one of the most engaging sports documentaries about motor racing, Senna tells the story of Brazilian racing champion Ayrton Senna. The film features extensive footage of Senna’s racing career, while also including home videos detailing his private life. It follows his quick rise to fame following his success in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix, to his untimely death just ten years later in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
The BAFTA-winning film offers an intimate look into his rivalry with fellow racer Alain Prost, and his desire to improve safety conditions in the world of motor sports. The film takes a heartbreaking twist when audiences learn that just before his death, he worked to reform the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association after witnessing several other drivers killed in racing accidents.
1. Hoop Dreams
Called “the most powerful movie about sports ever made” by The Washington Post, Hoop Dreams is widely considered to be one of the most moving sports documentaries. The 1994 film follows the lives of two aspiring basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, as they navigate their budding professional basketball careers.
Viewers were captivated by the film’s unflinching look at the intersection between race, class, and professional sports. Seeing the two subjects struggle between their poor Chicago neighborhoods, and their dreams of NBA stardom, led the late Roger Ebert to call it “one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime”. Critics applauded the filmmaker’s exploration of the often overlooked world of sports scouting, and the pressures young athletes face from both internal and external factors.