The 50 best sports documentaries
While ESPN's zeitgeist-driving Michael Jordan documentary "The Last Dance" officially ended on Sunday, there's still plenty of similar content out there to enjoy.
To help with your quarantine binge-watching, Axios is hooking you up with our 50 favorite sports documentaries of all time.
50. "At the Heart of Gold" (2019)
Featuring dozens of interviews with survivors, this film provides a gut-wrenching look at the decades of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
- By stitching together the many complex threads, director Erin Lee Carr reveals a dangerous system that prioritized winning over everything.
- Ultimately, the film acts as a powerful forum for the courage of hundreds of young women and lays bare that the Nassar scandal was much bigger, and more sinister, than a single monster.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: HBO
- 49. 🇷🇺 "Of Miracles and Men" (2015): There have been plenty of retellings of Team USA's miraculous hockey gold medal at the 1980 Olympics. This one is from the perspective of the Soviets they upset, and it's utterly fascinating.
- 48. 🎾 "Venus VS." (2013): Director Ava DuVernay ("Selma", "A Wrinkle in Time") pays homage to Venus Williams' role in the fight for pay equity.
- 47. 🏒 "Ice Guardians" (2006): A measured meditation on one of the most controversial positions in all of the sports: the hockey enforcer.
- 46. ⚾️ "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" (1998): A nostalgic, and often humorous, portrait of one of the greatest baseball players to ever live and what he meant to American Jews.
45. "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" (2014)
This is the colorful true story of the Portland Mavericks, a scrappy, independent baseball team full of underdogs that was started by actor Bing Russell (Kirk's father) in the 1970s."
So rife with underdog victors and hairpin twists of fortune that, if it weren't all true, no one would believe it."— Scott Foundas, Variety
Trailer: Watch | Stream: Netflix
- 44. 🏏 "Fire in Babylon" (2011): The story of how the West Indies triumphed over its colonial masters through the achievements of its cricket team.
- 43. 🏈 "The Best That Never Was" (2010): Ever heard of Marcus Dupree? Exactly.
- 42. ⚽️ "Dare to Dream" (2005): The definitive look at the 1999 USWNT that won the World Cup and helped usher women's sports into a new era. If you don't get chills when their bus pulls up to the Meadowlands, check your pulse.
- 41. 🏀 "Kobe Bryant's Muse" (2015): Great way to learn more about a man who was taken from us far too soon. RIP.
40. "The U" (2009)
Long before hip-hop culture filled America's airwaves, the Miami Hurricanes brought "street values and hood bravado into America's living rooms," writes director Billy Corben.
- "If the 'Canes didn't invent the end zone celebration dance, they certainly popularized and perfected it" on their way to winning four national titles between 1983 and 1991.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: ESPN+
- 39. 🏍 "On Any Sunday" (1971): Directed by Bruce Brown ("Endless Summer") and produced by legendary actor Steve McQueen, this film explores the world of motorcycle racing and the unique talents needed for all the different types.
- 38. 🥊 "Tyson" (2009): This is Mike Tyson's story in his own words, and it's shockingly honest and candid.
- 37. 🏄♂️ "Momentum Generation" (2019): I thought this was going to be about surfing. Turns out, it's about friendship and the different ways in which people traverse that confusing space between childhood and adulthood.
- 36. ❄️ "The Great Alone" (2015): Shot in the arctic wilderness of Alaska, this film tells the inspiring comeback story of champion dog sled racer, Lance Mackey.
35. "You Don't Know Bo" (2012)
Bo Jackson was an athlete in much the same way William Shakespeare was a writer. It's an accurate description, sure, but it undersells the former while making you question just what it means to be the latter, writes Axios' Jeff Tracy.
- You won't find Jackson on any lists for the best baseball or football players ever, but he may be the most singular figure in sports lore. Someone who could do the seemingly impossible, make it look routine, and shrug like it was nothing.
- He was a real life superhero, which only made his abrupt fall that much harder to reconcile. Every time I see footage of his injury, I think there must be some sort of mistake. That tackle ended whose career now? Robert Frost was right — "nothing gold can stay."
Trailer: Watch | Stream: ESPN+
- 34. ⚾️ "No No: A Dockumentary" (2014): On June 2, 1970, Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter for the Pirates ... while tripping on acid.
- 33. 🏀 "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson" (2011): The eye-opening story of how Allen Iverson's basketball future was nearly derailed by an assault charge and how his trial divided the city of Hampton, Virginia, along racial lines.
- 32. 🏂 "The Crash Reel" (2013): This film chronicles the rivalry between Kevin Pearce and Shaun White, which culminates in Kevin's life-changing crash and eventual comeback.
- 31. 🏀 "Survive and Advance" (2012): "Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
30. "Once in a Lifetime" (2006)
For a few years in the 1970s, the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League were as big as the Rolling Stones, signing the likes of Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, getting private tables at Studio 54, and hanging out with the glitterati of New York City.
- But, like many New York stories, it all came crashing down, and this film takes you on a journey through it all.
- The end result is a wild and illuminating ride through the first modern heyday of soccer in America.
🎥 Trailer: Watch | Stream: N/A (available to rent/buy)
- 29. 👟 "The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats its Young" (2014): A famous prison escape sparks the idea for a cult-like race that has seen only 10 finishers in its first 25 years.
- 28. 🏀 "The Heart of the Game" (2005): This film follows a Seattle high school girls' basketball team over the course of six seasons.
- 27. 📆 "June 17, 1994": This film toggles between O.J. Simpson's police chase, the World Cup's opening ceremony in Chicago, the end of Arnold Palmer's U.S. Open career, a Stanley Cup parade in New York, and the NBA Finals. What a day.
- 26. 👊 "Knuckle "(2011): A 12-year journey into the brutal and secretive world of Irish Travelers, where arguments between rival clans are often settled through ritualized, bare-knuckle fighting.
25. "Minding the Gap" (2018)
Skateboarding is for the outcasts. It's for the cool kids, the shy kids, the big kids, the small kids. In Rockford, Illinois — the small town in the Rust Belt that plays host to this Oscar-nominated film — it's for kids who need a respite from what too often becomes a violent and dangerous home life.
- With footage filmed over the course of more than a decade, we get to witness the growth and development (or lack thereof) of three friends attempting to navigate their way out of a world that traps people in its grasp.
- It's devastating, real and raw. It's not so much watching an open wound as it is seeing a wound in the act of opening, then wondering whether it will ever fully heal.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: Hulu
- 24. 🥇 "One Day in September "(1999): The 1972 Munich Games were billed as the "Olympics of Peace and Joy," but became the Olympics of terror.
- 23. 🏈 "Elway to Marino" (2013): Six quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 1983 NFL draft, but it's all the drama in between that makes this film so entertaining.
- 22. 🥊 "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" (2004): A century ago, Jack Johnson was the most famous African American on Earth.
- 21. ⚾️ "Nine Innings From Ground Zero" (2004): Sports help us heal.
20. "Tokyo Olympiad" (1965)
This film was commissioned by the Japanese government during the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, and the result is a rather artistic take on sports, devoid of the typical heroism or pageantry.
- "Tokyo Olympiad" captures the athletes at the back of the marathon, as well as the leaders, and there's no real story — just snippets of the action.
- 19. 🏈 "Undefeated" (2011): Follow along as an inner-city Memphis high school football team defies the odds and puts together a successful season after years of losing.
- 18. 🛹 "Dogtown and Z-Boys" (2001): A colorful examination of the rise of skateboarding through the lens of a pioneering group of eight teenagers from "Dogtown" (i.e. the surrounding areas of Santa Monica and Venice, California).
- 17. 🗻 "Touching the Void" (2003): An Oscar-winning memoir of one man's fight for survival after a climbing accident in the Peruvian Andes.
- 16. 🏀 "Once Brothers" (2010): An unfortunate tale of loss and regret that focuses on the kinship between Croatia's Drazen Petrovic and Serbia's Vlade Divac. Fractured by the Yugoslav Wars, the two never reconciled before Petrovic was killed in a car crash in 1993.
15. "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (2007)
Documentaries don't have to tell the story of something earth-shattering to be impactful. In fact, sometimes the most entertaining stories are the ones you know the least about — like the world of competitive arcade-gaming.
- You don't need to have played Donkey Kong to find this captivating — you just need to be willing to dive into the niche world of arcades, viewed through the far more common lens of victory, defeat, rule-breaking and comeuppance.
- Some might disagree with including this in a list of best "sports" documentaries, but it certainly has all the elements of one, including a hero (Steve Wiebe), a villain (Billy Mitchell) and plenty of history on the line.
- 14. 👨🦽"Murderball" (2005): A deep dive into the fast-paced world of wheelchair rugby, better known as "murderball."
- 13. 🤼♂️ "Beyond the Mat" (1999): A behind-the-scenes look at the world of pro wrestling that focuses primarily on three men: aging legend Terry Funk, daredevil Mick Foley and struggling former star Jake "The Snake" Roberts.
- 12. 🏋️♂️ "Pumping Iron" (1977): Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno play starring roles in this iconic film about the world of professional bodybuilding.
- 11. ⚽️ "Diego Maradona" (2019): Most documentaries use interviews to drive the narrative, but director Asif Kapadia relies solely on archival footage and the result is a gripping look at one of the most famous soccer players ever.
10. "Free Solo" (2018)
El Capitan is a 3,000-foot high wall of sheer rock in Yosemite National Park, and professional climber Alex Honnold climbed it in under four hours, alone and without any rope. No one had ever done that before, and if you've seen this movie you understand why.
- "Free Solo" is as tense as any thriller and as heart-pounding as any action movie. I defy you to take your eyes off the screen in the final half hour, as even professional climber and co-director Jimmy Chin can hardly believe what he's witnessing.
- Honnold's singular focus is equal parts captivating as it is off-putting. You feel for his girlfriend, now-fiancé, Sanni McCandless, who seems often cast to the back-burner of Honnold's mind as he thinks of the climb, and nothing but the climb.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: Hulu, Disney+
- 9. 🏄♂️ "The Endless Summer" (1966): The definitive surfing documentary. Had the movie poster pinned above my bed in my freshman year dorm room.
- 8. ⚽️ "Hillsborough" (2014): The tragic account of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, in which 96 fans were crushed to death due to overcrowding.
- 7. ⚾️ "Baseball" (1994): At 19 hours long, it is no short watch, but the stretched-out length allows award-winning director Ken Burns to tell the story of baseball from its fledgling start to the immovable place it holds in American society today.
- 6. 🏁 "Senna" (2010): A fast-paced profile of Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula One, and a hero in his native Brazil.
5. "Icarus" (2017)
Director Bryan Fogel's first-hand exploration into how illegal doping enhances his performance in amateur cycling takes a wild — and frightening — turn as he stumbles upon one of the biggest scandals in Olympic history.
- The film starts out with Fogel taking PEDs to find out how easy it would be to cheat the system. Then he meets Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory, and the film completely shifts
- I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into when I sat down to watch this a few years ago, and it completely blew my mind. It's basically two movies in one.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: Netflix
4. "When We Were Kings" (1996)
On October 30, 1974, perhaps the most famous heavyweight championship boxing match of all time took place in Kinshasa, Zaire: the "Rumble in the Jungle" between champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali.
"Both a tribute to Ali and an evocation of a bygone era, it's about the transformative moment when black America, flexing its newborn pride, encountered black Africa."— David Ansen, Newsweek
Trailer: Watch | Stream: N/A (available to rent/buy)
3. "The Last Dance" (2020)
2. "O.J.: Made in America" (2016)
As any great piece of art does, "Made in America" brilliantly weaves culture, context and environment into the narrative, spinning decades of prejudice, years of fame and days of malice into five supersized episodes that somehow still don't feel like enough.
- Every documentary is about something true to life, but while they all capture a story, they don't all capture a moment quite like this does.
- This film's ability to tell such a complex story without omitting anything important, while also not wasting time with unnecessary exposition, is why it sits near the top of this list.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: ESPN+
1. "Hoop Dreams" (1994)
The godfather of sports docs, "Hoop Dreams" follows two young basketball players from Chicago, William Gates and Arthur Agee, over the span of five years, beginning just before high school all the way to the start of college.
- Compiled from 250+ hours of footage, it is quite simply the best sports documentary ever made, and arguably the greatest sports movie period.
- William and Arthur's NBA dreams are the heartbeat of the film, but director Steve James uses basketball as the jumping-off point to explore the harsh realities of inner-city life, as well as issues of race, class and education.
Trailer: Watch | Stream: HBO