It’s not easy being a hardcore sports fan in today’s world. Since the Utah Jazz’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, leagues and tournaments around the world have been postponed, rescheduled, and even canceled. There are no games to watch, no bets to make, and no bragging rights to write home about. However, there are many ways you can still get your fix of athletic amusement without live events. One of our favorite coping mechanisms is pressing play on the best sports documentaries.
There’s more to docs than just filling a void in a no-sports world, too. These stories share answers to the why and how questions on moments in sports history, show these superstar icons in their most human form, and illuminate the heavy influence sports has on the global landscape. The best sports documentaries share a level of context that pulls on the strings of emotion and reveals the story on a deeper, more intimate level.
Many of the best sports documentaries detail the darkest, and sometimes unknown, sides of greatness. Bryan Fogel’s Icarus is a documentary film that explores the vast abyss of an international performance-enhancing drug scandal in the world of cycling through the director’s lens. Fogel, the American cyclist and filmmaker, details his involvement in the scandal and illuminates the depths of the Russian government’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program.
There may not be a story as interesting and perplexing as Dock Ellis’ no-hitter. A “no no” in baseball is a rare feat in the game where a pitcher goes a whole game without giving up a hit. This Jeffrey Radice-led documentary details the story of Pittsburg Pirates pitcher and civil rights activist, Dock Ellis, who, while frequently ensnared in controversy, threw a no-hit game in 1970 against the San Diego Padres while high on LSD. It highlights this weird and wild event, as well as the captivating tale behind Ellis’ life outside of baseball.
ESPN’s newest documentary series, The Last Dance, takes a thorough look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through never-before-seen footage of the team’s final championship-winning season in 1997-1998. The 10-part series is already gathering critical-acclaim as it revisits the career of one of the world’s greatest athletes, Michael Jordan. It’s the rawest you’ll ever see Jordan, who keeps a cigar and a neat pour of Cincoro Tequila by his tableside as he relives the years that made him internationally known as the G.O.A.T (greatest of all-time) in the world of basketball.
ESPN’s 30 for 30 isn’t a single documentary, but rather a series of some of the best sports documentaries ever made. Here, you will find documentaries — 157 of them and counting — that highlight interesting, profound, and untold details and backstories in sports history. Some of our favorites include:
- The U: This is arguably one of ESPN’s best 30 for 30 episodes, diving into what went down at the University of Miami between 1983 and 1991. As racial and cultural tensions overwhelmed the city of Miami, the University of Miami’s football team ushered in a new era of recruiting, swagger, and “bad boy” success on one of the country’s biggest stages.
- Survive and Advance: This documentary takes an in-depth look at the late Jim Valvano, commonly known as Jimmy V, as he led the NC State Wolfpack basketball team through a nine overtime, one-point game in 1983. It’s a story that shares how one of the biggest underdogs overcame all odds en route to one of the unlikeliest victories of all time.
- The Two Escobars: The Two Escobars revisits an undisclosed marriage of crime and sport, shedding light on the rise of the Columbian national soccer team and its intersection to the country’s drug cartel-fueled murders of the time. The connecting point? Columbia Captain Andrés Escobar and his brother, the infamous Pablo Escobar. This documentary investigates the astounding connections between the two men, their murders, and their impact on the country of Columbia.
Senna explores the tale of Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, who’s considered to be one of the greatest drivers to ever live. Senna won three world championship titles in four years before suffering a fatal car accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix at the age of 34. Director Asif Kapadia’s story sheds light on the Senna’s rockstar charisma, his rise to fame, and acts as a proper tribute to legend whose life came to a tragic, early end.
Academy Award-winning Free Solo tells the intimate and riveting story of Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent up the El Capitan face in Yosemite National Park — no ropes, no carabiners, nothing. Honnold was the first to ever climb the face of the aptly named El Capitan, and National Geographic’s documentary captures the feat in its full remarkable glory. If for some reason you never thought of climbing as a sport, you’ll have no doubt after watching Honnold push the human body to its limits, both mentally and physically.
We’ve all heard the story of O.J. Simpson, but if you haven’t watched O.J.: Made in America yet, then you haven’t seen him in his entirety. Ezra Edelmen’s Academy Award-winning documentary revisits the murder trial two decades later in order to redefine the trial through the most even-handed lens possible. You’ll get an in-depth look at everything from Simpson’s unreal celebrity status to possible evidence tampering and Simpson’s “hypothetical” account of the murders in his book If I Did It. It’s so good that even after watching the eight-part series, you’ll be left wanting more.
Al Michaels’ titular wuote will forever be ingrained in American history. Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team tells the tale of the U.S. National Team’s improbable win over the Soviet National Team at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games for a shot at the gold medal. It includes interviews with players and coaches from both teams and tons of archival footage from one of the most unforgettable moments in sports history.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is a colorful examination of the rise of skateboarding through the lens of the Zephyr skateboard team in 1970. Skateboarding may never be what it is today if it wasn’t for this pioneering group of eight teenagers from an area now commonly known as Dogtown, the surrounding areas of Santa Monica and Venice, California. Director Stacy Peralta, one of the original members of the Zephyr team, reunited the original skate crew 25 years later so they could tell the story in their own words.
This British documentary is a must-see for all soccer fans. From the same brilliant team that produced Senna, The Class of ‘92 follows the stunning rise of six young footballers — David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville, and Phil Neville — in England from their beginning success at the Youth Cup in 1992 to becoming renowned stars after winning the Premier League championship in 1999.
If you’d prefer to digest your stories from a strictly audio medium, we’ve also put together some of the best sports podcasts worth your time.
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