Sports documentaries aren't just for dedicated fans like season ticket holders and hardcore tailgaters. A truly great sports doc can inspire those with a passing interest as well as diehards. In fact, an impressive number of documentaries across a wide array of sports have gone mainstream by garnering significant critical acclaim and major awards. Here are 15 of the greatest ever. —Donald Deane
Some will complain that video gaming isn't a sport, but the same was once said of skateboarding. Either way, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an engrossing and frequently funny portrayal of down-on-his-luck teacher Steve Wiebe as he attempts to beat reigning champion Billy Mitchell at the world high score of Donkey Kong.
Pumping Iron helped popularize competitive bodybuilding and gave us a firsthand look at Arnold Schwarzenegger's hedonistic streak before he became a movie star and politician. Who can forget the scene where the future Governator feasts on fried chicken and birthday cake while smoking weed? As if that isn't disturbing enough, Schwarzenegger also makes an exceedingly graphic comparison of bodybuilding to having an orgasm.
This gritty doc chronicles the lives of several bruised and battered pro wrestlers – including Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who's addicted to crack cocaine. Wrestling magnate Vince McMahon initially supported the project; he later withdrew that, ostensibly because it advertised competing ventures. As a result, the film was marketed as "the film Vince McMahon doesn't want you to see."
High-flying aerial tricks are the norm in skateboarding today, but they owe their existence to the Zephyr crew. After a drought in Santa Monica, California in the mid-1970s, these surfers-turned-skateboarders took to empty swimming pools and performed the sport's first-ever vertical tricks.
Although professional soccer isn't widely popular in America today, it was a different story when Pele joined the New York Cosmos in 1975. Spurred by the addition of the Brazilian forward and other international stars, the Cosmos went on to win several championships and gain a huge following before waning in popularity and folding in 1985. This is the story of how that club became one of the most famous in footballing history.
A harrowing docudrama, Touching the Void uses a combination of interview footage and reenactments to depict Joe Simpson and Simon Yates' ill-fated climb of the Peruvian peak Siula Grande. It's a true nail-biter as the intrepid mountaineers endure injury, subzero temperatures and raging storms while struggling to descend from the summit.
Asif Kapadia's film Senna depicts the 10-year racing career of Brazilian champ Ayrton Senna, who died tragically during a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994. The film shows the driver as a fiercely intense competitor who engaged in rivalries, but who was also soft-spoken and deeply spiritual at the same time. Ron Howard's recent racing drama Rush may have received more hype, but Senna shows that James Hunt and Niki Lauda weren't the only colorful characters in Formula One.
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg follows the remarkable career of baseball's first Jewish superstar at a time when segregation was still prevalent in the 1930s and 40s. This emotional film recounts how the Hall of Famer became a beloved figure in the Jewish community, how he nearly broke Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record and how he was, due to the discrimination he faced himself, one of the few players to openly welcome Jackie Robinson to the sport.
Bruce Brown's 1966 surf doc helped introduce surfing to a broader audience and gave rise to the "surf-and-travel" culture. It was also one of the first to eschew the formal structure of documentaries at the time for a personal style; it shot on a shoestring budget on a wind-up Bolex 16mm camera.
This compelling Ken Burns documentary offers a fascinating portrait of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American to be crowned heavyweight champion (from 1908-1915) during the Jim Crow era. During his tenure as champ, Johnson encountered significant racism and even fled the country to escape legal persecution.
9/11 left Americans profoundly shaken, but an unlikely rallying point emerged less than two months later when the oft-hated New York Yankees found themselves in the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Nine Innings follows the hard-fought seven game series, and although the Yankees eventually lost, it shows how the game provided a much-needed boost of morale in New York and the country in general.
Murderball follows quadriplegics on the U.S. national wheelchair rugby team as they gear up for the 2004 Paralymic Games, but it doesn't rely on depressing sentiments. Instead, it portrays the players as legitimate athletes. Claudia Puig of USA Today said it offers "more intimacy and drama than most Hollywood sports movies."
Ken Burns' 18 and 1/2-hour epic Baseball traces America's favorite pastime from its beginnings to the season before the 1994 strike. This sweeping, exhaustively comprehensive documentary won an Emmy Award in 1995 for Outstanding Informational Series and was followed by a companion piece called The Tenth Inning in 2010, which covered an additional 15 years of the sport.
To this day, "The Rumble in the Jungle" – the 1974 heavyweight championship match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali – remains as one of the greatest sporting events of all time. Leon Gast's 1996 documentary When We Were Kings captures this moment complete with all of Ali's trademark swagger and brashness. Interestingly, Gast shot the original footage in 1974, but the movie – which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature – wasn't released until more than 20 years later due to legal and financial issues.
This excellent movie was filmed over a five-year period and follows two inner-city basketball players from Chicago as they pursue their NBA dreams. Although the film was universally praised by critics – Roger Ebert called it "one of the great moviegoing experiences" of his lifetime – it was completely snubbed at the Oscars. The resulting outcry ultimately led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to revise its nomination process.