The Top 10 Best Sports Documentaries to Watch Today

It’s safe to say that so far it’s been a summer of great sporting triumphs. With Portugal’s unexpected win against France in the EURO Championships and Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon glory taking place within a matter of days and the Rio 2016 Olympics coming up in August, we’ve honoured the occasion by tallying up our favourite ever sports docs for your factual enjoyment…

  1. Next Goal Wins

In 2001, American Samoa’s national football team suffered one of the most humiliating defeats in sporting history. Having been beaten 31-0 by Australia in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match, the team was dubbed the worst in the world, a title which has since been hard to shake. Fifteen years on, British filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison delve in to their world of intense training, almost perpetual losing, following a resilient group of friends who still dream of one day winning the world cup, or even simply a game. Can Thomas Rongen, former US national team coach, carry the group to their first victory? An underdog tale of teamwork, friendship and embracing diversity (the team includes the world’s first transgender professional footballer Jaiyah Saelua),  Next Goal Wins is one of the most inspiring and uplifting football documentaries around.

  2. Hoop Dreams

It would feel somewhat disingenuous not to include Hoop Dreams in a lineup of the best and most brilliant sports documentaries of all time. Having premiered at Sundance over a decade ago, this vastly successful doc chronicles the journey of two young basketball players, Arthur Agee and William Gates, as they attempt to realise their dreams of becoming NBA-worthy basketball players. After being plucked up by a scout to attend the prestigious basketball programme of plush prep school St Joseph’s, the boys must battle prejudice and complicated issues of race and social class to fit in and forge a career in one of the most competitive industries in America. A coming-of-age narrative following two talented young men from some of Chicago’s must underprivileged neighbourhoods, viewers are set to see some incredible basketball and an even more incredible story.

     3. Maidentrip

Most of us are lucky if we’ve decided what subjects we want to pick at school by the age of 14. Yet Dutch teenager Laura Dekker was so determined to sail the world alone that she even went to court to fight authorities convinced that she was too young. The film follows Dekker as she embarks on this monumental journey after 10 months of legal battles,  eventually having been granted permission to sail. Setting off on a five month trip around the globe and spending up to 7 weeks at a time at sea, Bekker must face some harsh and lonely circumstances in pursuit of her ultimate sporting dream. We can’t guarantee that Laura’s unbelievable determination won’t leave viewers feeling slightly underachieving, but we do know that it will make you marvel at the scope and possibility of the human spirit.

     4. Murderball

When established in 1976 by five Canadian wheelchair athletes, the controversial sport of wheelchair rugby was initially termed as ‘murderball’. This controversial name was changed in the coming years, with one of the film’s characters putting it aptly “ you can’t really market murderball to corporate sponsors.” Eye-wateringly fast-paced, aggressive and head-on, wheelchair rugby has since earned an infamous reputation as one of the most violent and dangerous sports in the world. This 2005 Academy Award-nominated documentary follows the story of the US team as they train for the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. Made up entirely of quadriplegic athletes, the team battle against the odds to become the best in the world, becoming firm friends along the way and discovering themselves beyond their disabilities. A chance to learn not only about an unusual sport, but also about the power of teamwork and transforming hardships in to personal strengths.

     5. Valley Uprising

Multi award-winning Valley Uprising tells the unconventional history of dedicated climbers in Yosemite National Park. Where once it was a banned activity practiced by a group of bohemian outlaws on the run from the law, in recent years the sport has become the heart of the valley’s cultural allure. Closely towing the line between bravery and lunacy, the men first came to the valley fifty years ago in search of untouched rocks and peaks, and forged existences completely dedicated to risking their lives for the love of climbing. They slept hanging from cliff edges, scaled vertical walls with almost no safety equipment, and created a relationship with the valley that verged on spiritual. Dodging the powers that be, the park rangers who deem their activities illegal, the extraordinary men in this documentary risk everything in the hunt for the ultimate thrill.

     6. Senna

Having won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary with his film Amy, Asif Kapadia is today one of the biggest names in documentary filmmaking. His first major success produced with James Gay-Rees was Sundance-winning film Senna, on the life of charismatic Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna. Cultivated mostly of archive footage of the Brazilian driver on the track, this thrilling and often harrowing documentary tracks Senna’s career progression from virtually unknown to world champion, documenting his endearing personality and steadfast compassion for his fellow racers. His rivalry with French driver Alain Post has a particular focus in the film, questioning if Senna’s reckless attitude contributed to his untimely death in an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

     7.  Dogtown and Z-Boys

In the 1970s, skateboarding experienced a massive proliferation in the state of California, eventually becoming a modern rite-of-passage for teenagers and young adults throughout the world. Documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys attempts to trace the root of this popularity back to its inception by identifying a particular group that masterminded the sport and carried it to its heyday. A group of young adults from poor, crime-ridden areas, the so-called ‘Z-Boys’ moulded the scene as we now know it and spread it throughout the area of ‘Dogtown’ otherwise known as Venice, California. The boys’ perseverance and one-upmanship soon transformed them from a surf team to the world’s skateboarding elite, creating the foundation for aerial skateboarding and inspiring the X Games, the world’s largest extreme sports championship. A story of scorching-sun, dusty streets and uninhibited experimentation, this documentary opens up a world of skateboarding that you won’t even know existed.

     8.  Venus & Serena

The improbable true story of two of the greatest athletes in modern history, this documentary provides new insight in to the lives and motivations of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. From their early years in Compton, California, where black children rarely even picked up a racket, never mind become world champions, to their enrolment in Rick Macci’s tennis academy, the film uses archive footage to track the girls’ sporting development from their childhoods. With interviews from notable figures in the girls’ lives including family members and American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, the film explores not only their tennis success but their relationship with each other, the resentments, pressures and love that has motivated them throughout their individual careers. What propels two girls to success when the rest of the world is telling them they can’t do it? This film attempts to answer…

    9. For Lack of Better

Taking skiing to the next level, For Lack of Better was released last year, chronicling the shocking lives of America’s fearless “street-skiers”. This group of daredevils travel from city to city seeking new urban landscapes to ski upon, using anything from railings to buildings as obstacles and props and risking serious injury with every new trick. Facing all the usual sporting risks-injury, falls and bad weather, alongside the added complications of traffic, police and urban hazards, this documentary asks how easily pluck can dissolve into carelessness. Aching bones and potential disabilities won’t stop this group practicing their obscure sport, but will they stop at nothing to become the world’s best urban skier? A thrilling and insightful documentary bound to have the more diligent among us squirming in their seats.

    10. When We Were Kings

This Oscar-winning 1996 documentary provides a scrupulous insight in to one of modern history’s most important sporting events, the 1974 boxing Heavyweight Championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Following the buildup to the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight, the film portrays Ali’s extraordinary confidence in stark contrast to Foreman’s awkward attempts to match his rival’s vast and dedicated fan base. Not just an incredible boxing film, the documentary also explores the deeper ethical issues behind the fight’s production and funding, shining a discerning light upon its controversial hosting in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), once the centre of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s brutal reign of terror…

By Megan O’Hara