For many, documentaries are a go-to form of entertainment. And what better way to enjoy an informative piece than having it set in the world of sports? It’s captivating to witness drama, heartbreak, and major milestones, and the stories of how people became top-level athletes are nothing short of inspiring.
With ESPN’s new 30 for 30 series, there are countless sports documentaries to enjoy. But let’s not forget the jaw-dropping movies showcasing feats such as the Barkley Marathons or Lance Armstrong’s fall from Tour de France grace. Channel your inner Carl Boenish and take a leap of faith into this list of some of the greatest sports documentaries ever made.
The Price Of Gold
One of ESPN’s 30 for 30 docs is the unbelievable true story of what happened in the early ’90s with two of figure skating’s biggest names, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. It was before the Olympics, and these two athletes were at each other’s throats, both wanting to take home gold.
Everything quickly changed when Harding and her boyfriend hired someone to attack Kerrigan, resulting in Harding being banned from the sport. Director Nanette Burstein breaks down what is considered to be one of the biggest stories in sports history. Trust us; this story is equal parts dumb and fascinating.
Take a leap of faith and watch Sunshine Superman, a 2014 documentary showcasing the incredible life and death of the “father of BASE jumping,” Carl Boenish. Freefall cinematographer Boenish loved nothing more than jumping from incredible heights and documenting the experience to share with others.
Director Marah Strauch made sure to use actual footage from Boenish throughout the documentary, making it feel as though you are experiencing the freefall right there with the legendary BASE jumper. The documentary is a great expose about the incredible, one-of-a-kind athlete who wanted nothing more than to expand the boundaries of what is humanly possible.
The Armstrong Lie
In the beginning, director Alex Gibney was on a quest to write about Lance Armstrong, the man that kicked cancer’s butt and returned to the world of cycling in 2009. That was, until it came out that Armstrong was using steroids to win Tour de France after Tour de France.
Gibney had to switch gears and think of a new twist to his story; the result was The Armstrong Lie. The documentary features exclusive interviews from Armstrong and illustrates the scandal that shocked the world and stripped the cyclist of all of his awards.
The Last Dance
The Last Dance is ten hours of drama surrounding one of the most popular athletes ever to walk the Earth, Michael Jordan. The 30 for 30 special dives into the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-’98 season, Jordan’s last year with the franchise.
Through interviews with Jordan, former teammates, coaches, and pretty much everyone you can think of, viewers get immersed in something they’re going to have a hard time turning away from. Tack on the privileged information that is thrown in throughout Jason Hehir’s mini-series, and you have yourself one excellent sports documentary.
The Two Escobars
The Two Escobars chronicles the interesting way Colombian soccer player Andrés Escobar and narcotics lord Pablo Escobar’s lives intertwined in the ’90s although they are of no relation. As a star defender in soccer-crazy Colombia, Andrés was a celebrity in his own right. But then he scored an own goal during the 1994 FIFA Cup against the United States and was later slain.
Directors Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist go in-depth for this intriguing 30 for 30. They explain through archive footage and interviews how Pablo Escobar’s death gave other cartels the confidence to go after Andrés without the fear of retaliation.
Get ready for some sports drama with the documentary Red Army. The film tells the story of the Soviet Union’s national ice hockey team and the legendary “Russian Five” who made up the 1990s roster. Seen through the eyes of captain Slava Fetisov, the film illustrates the link between the sport and politics from the Cold War through the ’90s.
It also showcases the allure of the National Hockey League and explains how Russian players eventually made their way into the rosters. If you’re intrigued, you’ll be interested to know the documentary uses rare archival footage of the infamous national team.
The Dawn Wall
The Dawn Wall is the riveting tale of Tommy Caldwell’s mission to become the first climber to ascend El Capitan in Yosemite, aka The Dawn Wall. But the film is about so much more than Caldwell’s legendary climb. The documentary takes the audience through his life and what brought him to this dangerous goal.
And let us tell you, this man’s life is anything but ordinary. Everything from love, heartbreak, being held hostage, losing a finger, and even pushing a man over a cliff is documented in this movie. Yeah, you’re not going to want to miss a minute.
The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young
Held in Wartburg, Tennessee, The Barkley Marathon is an ultramarathon trail race based on a historic prison escape. In what may be the world’s most challenging race, each year, 35 contestants are chosen from around the world, and, typically, no one makes it the 100 miles in 60 hours to the finish line.
To put it in perspective, since the first race in 1986, only 18 participants have completed the exhausting race. Directed by Annika Iltis and Timothy James Kane, The documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young showcases the runners’ journey as they set out on one of the most grueling challenges of their lives.
Dogtown And Z-Boys
It was the ’70s when Venice Beach, California, aka Dogtown, was hit with a new action sport, skateboarding. Stacy Peralta, one of the Zephyr boys and a pioneer of the sport, documents his time revolutionizing skateboarding and how he and his friends, Tony Alva and Jay Adams, knew they were on to something big.
Peralta’s documentary dives into how he and his friends became the young faces for the quickly-evolving sport. Their part in the ’70s helped skateboarding explode in the ’80s and eventually becoming what it is today.
Riding Giants brings viewers into the world of surfing. Starting with the humble Hawaiian roots of the sport and advancing to the modern-day art of pipeline surfing, director Stacy Peralta illustrates the history of surfing while paying tribute to those who are brave enough to ride the world’s biggest waves.
The director even dives into the changing trends in the sport, bringing in contemporary surfers for interviews. Athletes such as Jeff Clark and Laird Hamilton discuss their revolutionary styles of surfing, from riding remote waves to tow-in surfing. Wave-chasers aren’t going to want to miss out on watching this documentary.
O.J.: Made In America
O.J.: Made in America isn’t only a dive into the tragic deaths of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. Rather, it’s a 467-minute deep-dive into the roller coaster of O.J. Simpson’s life, arrest, and the “trial of the century” that happened in 1994.
The docu-series lays out all of the facts of the slayings, making Simpson look guilty beyond belief. But tack on his all-star defense team, courtroom drama, and a glove that weirdly didn’t fit, and you have a true-crime lover’s dream documentary.
Touching The Void
Touching the Void uses reenactments as well as interviews to tell the tale of mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates. Trust us when we say that this docudrama is not for the faint of heart. In 1985, the two climbers made it to the summit of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, but complications happened on their descent.
Yates broke his leg, and Simpson attempted to lower him back to base camp with ropes. But a storm hit, bringing Yates over a ledge and leaving Simpson no choice but to cut the cord. Miraculously, Yates survived, and with a broken leg and frostbite, he crawled for days back to camp.
The Tillman Story
About the professional football player with a million-dollar contract who became a soldier, The Tillman Story is a documentary surrounding the conspiracy of Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan. After the events of September 11, 2001, Tillman hung up his Cardinals jersey and enlisted in the United States Army. Then, in 2004, he was shot and killed, but not by enemy fire as the military initially told his family.
The Tillman Story looks to uncover the truth of the American hero’s death. Unfortunately, the truth isn’t something any family wants to hear. Get ready for a wild ride as the film discovers the truth behind a propagandistic military cover-up.
After attempting to climb what is known as the “Shark’s Fin” of Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas in 2008, three adventure seekers returned with a vengeance. Conrad Anker, director Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk all returned to the 4,000-foot ascent, with hopes of finishing the dangerous pass.
The documentary Meru showcases the harsh conditions the three climbers went through to see their dreams of making it to the summit a reality. Going back and forth between the failed 2008 climb and the successful 2011 climb, the film proves that perseverance is key, and a little thing like a near-fatal avalanche accident isn’t a reason to stop climbing.
Growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with a speech impediment during a time when New York was one of the leading crime hubs of the country, made Mike Tyson hard. But, against all odds, Tyson became the youngest lightweight champion of the world, climbing his way to fame before he could legally drink.
James Toback’s documentary Tyson used old footage and emotional interviews from the boxer, intending to make a movie about what makes the famous boxer tick. Going from poverty to world-class athlete was no easy feat, so find out how Tyson was able to climb the latter to fame in this gripping documentary.
One Day In September
Kevin Macdonald’s Oscar-winning film One Day in September documents the tragic events that took place during the 1972 summer Olympics. Narrated by actor Michael Douglas, the documentary takes the viewers on a journey back to when the radical Palestinian group Black September took 11 Israeli athletes and a West German police officer hostage.
Ironically, these Olympic games were advertised as the “Olympics of Peace and Joy.” Still, nothing short of terror took place as the hostages were executed in the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. If you’re in the mood for a new type of thriller where all of the events are real, look no further than this sports documentary.
Directors Jimmy Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi are back with the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo. Ironically, many climbers don’t enjoy the film because they believe it glorifies the very dangerous sport of free climbing.
But most people put that thought behind them as they watch climber Alex Honnold attempt something that’s never been done before — free climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,000-foot sheer rock face. The documentary also doubles as a character study of Honnold, as the audience “lives” with the climber before and after his dangerous attempt in Yosemite.
Produced by longtime Evel Knievel fan Johnny Knoxville, Being Evel dives into the life, legacy, and career of the famous daredevil. The documentary goes into what made the man risk life and limb time and time again, and how he became one of the most famous athletes in the country.
If you’re interested in the man who sailed across more than 75 ramp-to-ramp jumps using nothing but a motorcycle, then you’re going to want to watch Being Evel.
The non-stop, single-handed, around-the-world yacht race of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, showcased in Deep Water, is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The greatest sailors from around the world came to compete in the race, so it was odd when Donald Crowhurst set sail.
Crowhurst was an inexperienced contestant with an unfinished boat, and no one knew about the inner demons he was carrying. Lying about his position and never making it to the finish line, Crowhurst was never seen again. All that was left on his vessel was a journal. Deep Water dives into the mystery and has all of the details.
More Than A Game
It seems as though ever since he made it to the NBA, LeBron James grows more and more popular each and every year. More Than a Game chronicles James’ life as an AAU and high school basketball player, showing him and his friends ruling the courts from a very young age.
The documentary brings you into the life of James, but the focus of the film is basketball and how James became a legend. If you’re a fan of the basketball superstar, then you’re not going to want to miss a chance to learn more about his life and how he was destined for greatness from the age of 13.
Hands On A Hardbody: The Documentary
It might be a stretch to call Hands on a Hardbody: The Documentary a sports documentary, but bear with us. The film brings viewers into the world of the “Hands on a Hardbody” contest held in Longview, Texas. The endurance competition pits 24 people against one another to see who has the willpower to keep one hand on a truck the longest.
The winner, of course, gets the truck. The contestants’ drama, heartbreaks, and frenemies are too good to be true and the very reason why you need to watch this documentary. If you can believe it, this contest also inspired a Tony-nominated Broadway play!
After a 110-year losing streak, in 2004, the Manassas High School Tigers finally turned their program around with the help of coach Bill Courtney. Following the team through their ups and downs, the documentary Undefeated shows Courtney nurturing and developing his players’ physical and emotional strengths through their high school careers.
Then, in 2009, with the help of star player O.C., the team finally had a chance at their first winning season ever. This film is emotion, inspirational, and shows the perseverance young people have to achieve a like-minded goal.
In 1989, disaster struck Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England. This 30 for 30 special brings viewers through the heartbreaking human crush that occurred during the semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The solution to an overcrowded stadium was standing-room-only pens.
As more and more people flooded the area, people against the fences of the pens became trapped. The result was 96 casualties and another 766 injuries. The documentary Hillsborough chronicles the disaster, lingering effects, and the investigation that took years to conclude. There are also interviews with victim’s relatives and survivors as well as police officers who were on the scene that fateful day in April.
Man On Wire
Presented like a heist film, Man on Wire chronicles the daring high-wire walk made in 1974 by Philippe Petit. The documentary might not be about a “typical sport,” but Petit’s hour-long walk on a tight rope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center is nothing short of astounding.
Director James Marsh includes rare footage of the preparations Petit and some of his friends made before his daring walk, still photographs of his journey between the towers, and interviews with some of the participants who were there on the historic day.
André The Giant
Jason Hehir’s HBO documentary André the Giant tells the inside story of one of the greatest wrestlers of the 20th century, André René Roussimoff. The film is full of archival wrestling footage as well as origin stories. But the best part of the documentary might be the interviews with wrestlers who had the pleasure of knowing André, such as Hulk Hogan.
Hogan was good friends with André, so the former professional wrestler has stories that wrestling fanatics will drool over. Of course, the film also celebrates his contributions to the entertainment industry, his life growing up in France, and his numerous contributions to WWE.
Survive And Advance
Another ESPN 30 for 30 film that is definitely worth the time to watch is Survive and Advance, the story of the 1983 North Carolina State basketball team. The documentary showcases the team’s season, diving into the NCAA tournament and the Wolfpack’s unlikely nine-game run and the great motivator that was Coach Jim Valvano.
The documentary brings back the ’83 team for a reunion, discussing their love for their late coach and how inspiring he was in their improbable run during the tournament. Don’t worry; there are many clips from that fateful year!
Go Tigers! brings viewers to the small town of Massillon, Ohio, a small town where people live, breathe, and eat football. The documentary features the 1999 team, the working-class town, and the rivalry between the Tigers and the Canton McKinley High School Bulldogs.
Director Kenneth A. Carlson spends time with three teammates, all of whom have different stories and are dealing with the various pressures placed on them as they figure out what their future holds. Do you think they made it out of their small town of Massillon?
Next Goal Wins
It was 2001 when the American Samoa national football team suffered a massive loss against Argentina, losing the match 31 to zero. The documentary Next Goal Wins chronicles coach Thomas Rongen’s mission to reinvent the team and make them winners.
The film also showcases Jaiyah Saelua, a defender for the team, and the first transgender player to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier match. It’s an inspiring movie proving that underdogs tend to come back with a vengeance! Oh, and director Taika Waititi is bringing the story to Hollywood if you’re interested in seeing the team depicted on the big screen.
When We Were Kings
One of the greatest documentaries made about legendary fighter Muhammed Ali is the Academy Award-winning film When We Were Kings. The movie is about the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between two legends, Ali and George Foreman, held in Zaire in 1974.
The documentary includes various interviews from people and features some of the celebrities who were there to witness the historical moment, including James Brown, Spike Lee, and others. If you’re ready to see all of the pre-fight hype and aftermath that happened in Zaire, you’re going to want to watch this great sports documentary.
The 2010 documentary Senna illustrates the life and death of Brazilian Formula One auto racer Aryton Senna. As a racing prodigy, Senna easily captured the hearts of people around the world when he drove around the track.
Other than the titles he won, one of the noteworthy accomplishments of the auto racer was his determination to make the sport he loved so dearly safer for everyone. This documentary doesn’t have formal commentary or interviews, but it does have archival footage of Senna’s racing days as well as home videos provided by the late racer’s family.