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The ten best sports documentaries

· 1117 words · about 6 minutes


"My mother, God bless her, she's always said in America you can make something of your life."

Arguably the greatest sports documentary not to win an Oscar, Steve James' basketball opus Hoop Dreams was propelled into the public eye thanks to the glowing recommendation of the late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. Following the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys as they struggle to become college basketball players on the road to going professional, James' directorial debut deftly deals with race, class ands sports ability to overcome such societal boundaries.


"Muhammad Ali, he was like a sleeping elephant. You can do whatever you want around a sleeping elephant; whatever you want. But when he wakes up, he tramples everything."

Although there are a number of commendable documentaries on boxing, only one truly captures the essence of the sport's greatest exponent: Muhammad Ali. Directed by Leon Gast, the Academy Award®-winning When We Were Kings is an unprecedented look at the notorious 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout between Ali and the then-world champ George Foreman. It's worth watching alone for Ali's now legendary witicisms.


"For me, he is not a soccer player, he is like a classical musician. When he plays, behind his play, there is, for me, classical music."

The star of the great World Cup-winning French team of 1998, Zinedine Zidane was a figure that truly transcended football, uniting a country - albeit briefly - that had been torn apart along class and racial divides. Shot over the course of a match between the Galacticos of Real Madrid and Villarreal on 23 April 2005, directors Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno effortlessly captured all that was great about "Zissou", aided by a score from Scottish band Mogwai. Zidane himself didn't disappoint - in the space of 90 minutes he creates a goal and is sent off for his part in a mass brawl. Magnifique!

SENNA (2010)

On that morning when he woke up, he asked God to talk to him. He opened the Bible and read a passage which said: God would give him the greatest of all gifts. Which was God himself.”

A huge box office hit in the UK and further afield, as well as an Academy Award® winner, Asif Kapadia's archival behemoth offers a reverential look at Brazilian Formula 1 star Ayrton Senna, leading up to his tragic death in 1994. The three-time world champion united his home country, previously only known for their footballing exploits, and set the bar for future drivers such as Michael Schumacher and Britain's own Lewis Hamilton.

9.79* (2012)

"If you don’t take it, you don’t make it."

From BAFTA-winning George Best: All By Himself director Daniel Gordon, 9.79* casts a forensic eye over one of the biggest controversies in Olympic history: the 1988 Men's 100m Final in Seoul, South Korea. The race brought together Carl Lewis (USA) and Ben Johnson (Canada), who had been fierce competitors for a number of seasons and would now meet to decide who was the fastest man in the world. Johnson bested Lewis in the race but, after failing a drugs test days later, the medal was awarded to Lewis. However, as Gordon's doc discovers, Johnson may not have been alone in taking performance-enhancing drugs. A timely tale of sporting morality that's as relevant now as it was then.


"Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquillity."

Back in the spotlight thanks to a major new film release starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, the titular Battle of the Sexes between the then-world women's tennis champion Billie Jean King and aging men's pro Bobbie Riggs was a grudge match not just for bragging rights but for gender equality. King, already outraged at the much higher fees male pros were able to secure compared to their female counterparts, challenged the chauvinistic Riggs to a one-off match. We won't spoil the result here, but make sure you catch James Erskine's doc before seeing the new fictional take.


"One thing you have to do is respect your competitors."

The second of three films from Sachin: A Billion Dreams director James Erskine on our list, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is a classic tale of self-destruction, following the rise and fall of Italian - and world - cycling's poster boys before the Lance Armstrong era. An outspoken critic of doping in competitive sports, while struggling silently with his own addiction to cocaine which would ultimately lead to his untimely demise, Erskine expertly captures the immense pressure thrust upon elite atheletes by their team, their fans, the media and - of course - themselves.

RED ARMY (2014)

"Everybody was afraid. It's understandable. It's like in a dark room, trying to find a dark cat. It's not funny."

Red Army reveals the untold story of the most dominating sporting dynasty in history: the Red Army ice hockey team. Formed by the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, the team would dominate the sport for nearly 40 years and act as a display of world-class power and propaganda. A prime example of a sports documentary opening up a niche profession to a wider, sociopolitical debate.


"As a kid growing up in the ghetto, one of the things I wanted the most was not money, it was fame. I wanted to be known, I wanted people to say, "hey there goes O.J.""

It is the defining cultural tale of modern America - a saga of race, celebrity, media, violence, and the criminal justice system. And two decades after its unforgettable climax, it continues to fascinate, polarise, and even, yes, develop new chapters. Winner of this year's Best Documentary Oscar, Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America revisits - and redefines - it all. The domestic abuse. The police investigation. The white Bronco chase. The trial of the century. The motive, the blood, the glove. The verdict. The aftermath. Simply unmissable.


"Tendulkar has had the greatest cricket career of anyone who has ever played the game"

On DVD and On Demand now, James Erskine directs and co-writes this documentary about the life and career of legendary Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. The film charts Tendulkar’s career from his first-class debut for Bombay at the tender age of 15, to becoming the highest runs scorer in the history of Test and ODI cricket. Featuring extraordinary home movie and unseen footage from Tendulkar’s private life and including interviews with his family as well as extensive contributions from Tendulkar himself.