Five Sport Documentaries to Check Out

Sport has been a subject of documentary since Edison’s and the Lumieres’ 1890s experiments. One of Edison’s first pieces is a boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. In the 1930s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia showcased atheticism in the guise of propaganda. Today, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has propelled sport documenatary to new popularity.

In no particular order below are five sport documentaries to check out.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The film captures Ali at his heights of skill and charm, and it captures the fans’ fervor of the event. Though financial issues kept the film in production for more than 20 years, that delay didn’t inhibit any of the film’s power when it was finally released in 1996.

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown‘s The Endless Summer follows two 1960s surfers as they attempt to catch waves on coasts around the world: New Zealand, Tahiti, and South Africa, to name a few. The surf rock soundtrack offers an easy-going feel, and the voiceover narration provides light-hearted humor and fun in its wry observations on the surf, surfers, and local cultures.

Tokyo Olympiad

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympaid is an Olympic achievement unto itself with its scale and length. Filmed during the 1964 Olympics, Ichikawa’s catalogue captures details grand and small, from entire races to anguished faces. The careful editing results in a musical composition that glides through the Olympic experience.


Murderball offers an edge-of-your-seat look at wheelchair rugby and the competition between the U.S. and Canadian teams in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Players such as Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett break down the stereotypes of sport, masculinity, and ability with brutal honesty and biting humor. The result is entertaining and uplifting.

Hoop Dreams

If you watch only one sport documentary, make it Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. The almost-three hour film follows two Chicago teens recruited to play ball in suburban high schools as they pursue their dreams to play pro ball. They face multiple obstacles along the way — financial and familial, physical and psychological — as they aim for spots on college and, later, NBA teams. The thrilling gameplay at the Illinois state championships is among some of the best shot and edited game footage in any sport documentary.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

10 Boxers Recount ‘Facing Ali’

Facing Ali (2009) was a great follow-up to When We Were Kings. Pete McCormack’s documentary features interviews 10 fighters who faced Ali in the ring throughout his career, including George Chuvalo, Sir Henry Cooper, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, and Ernie Terrell.

Facing Ali is as much about Muhammad Ali as it is about these fighters, who appear in the order in which they fought Ali during his career. The documentary devotes an extended segment to each one, allowing them to share a little bit of their history, their upbringing and background, and their journey into fighting. George Chuvalo shares the tragedy of losing his wife and three of his children, for example. Others talk about their time in prison, while George Foreman shares the story of when he was saved.

Following their personal backgrounds, these fighters share their experiences with Ali both in and out of the ring. Archival footage of the fights shows highlights of their bouts. Not all of these fights show Ali as the victor or even the best fighter at the time. Sir Henry Cooper managed to knock Ali down in the early 1960s before a crowd of 40,000 people in Wembley Stadium. A couple of the fighters demonstrate their techniques to the camera.

In watching this after When We Were Kings, I was particularly interested in what George Foreman had to say about the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Foreman talks about thinking he would go into that ring and beat Ali in three rounds, and Chuvalo recalls how they were sure Ali would lose. Foreman describes the fight, but in particular he remembers the punch that Ali didn’t throw as he was going down. Instead, Ali held back. That gesture, for Foreman, is what makes Ali the greatest fighter in his mind. That respect for the fighter runs deep among all of them.

Facing Ali is well shot and edited, and it moves at a quick pace with deep, honest interviews that keep you interested and engaged. Even if you are not a fan of boxing, you still come to appreciate the one known as “the greatest” as a boxer and a man through these fighters’ recollections.

Ali and Foreman Face off in ‘When We Were Kings’

When We Were Kings is a 1996 documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the famous bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Though the rumble happened in 1974, the footage remained shelved for many years before it finally was edited into this final form. The result is an documentary captures a key moment in time in these fighters’ histories.

Leon Gast’s documentary follows three threads. The primary and most interesting one are the speculation and preparation going into the fight and the fight itself. The other two threads are a little less interesting. A second one is the political situation in Zaire in the country’s motivations for hosting the fight. The last and least interesting is the music concert that also was staged around the same time.

One thing I really appreciated about this documentary was how it really showcased the Lightning Lip. The footage of Ali shows him so animated, often talking smack about Foreman and throughout and building himself up at the same time. It is such a stark contrast to how he is now.

Even though Ali talked himself up, much speculation surrounded the event and predicted George Foreman’s win. Interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton give us some of the background into what people were thinking, namely that Ali was out of his league in this fight. Obviously, the outcome proved otherwise.

While I appreciated the music, the most exciting part of this documentary is the fight itself. When We Were Kings builds to that moment through press conferences and commentary about each fighter’s ability. Mailer and Plimpton share just how palpable the tension was in the stadium, and along with the commentator their observations offer a further layer of analysis of what’s happening in the ring. They show just how subtle and how sophisticated boxing can be, with the type of hook, jab, uppercut, and even patience that goes into a fight. No wonder Ali turned the sport into an art.

When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1996. The film is not a straightforward sport competition documentary, but that’s the part of the documentary that is the most interesting.

‘Muhammad Ali: The Greatest’ Lets the Lightning Lip Speak for Himself

A better, though longer, title for Passport Productions International’s Muhammad Ali: The Greatest is Everything You Might Want to Know about Muhammad Ali in 50 Minutes or Less. A chronicle of Ali’s life, the film packs a lot of information into a short time, but its quality suffers for its economy.

Voiceover narration by Carlos Larkin and a library of still shots march through the fighter’s youth, career, and retirement. The film touches on the usual events: the stolen bicycle, the Olympic medal, the conversion to Islam, the draft evasion, and, of course, the major fights. More personal details get glossed over – his four marriages and three divorces barely warrant passing mention. The prominent figures in Ali’s life, such as his brother or his trainer Angelo Dundee, get no mention at all.

But the highlights take on almost mythical proportions through the voiceover: “On January 17, 1942, an event occurred that changed the world.” (In other words, Muhammad Ali was born). The elevated rhetoric continues throughout the film, such as this gem: “Neither boy had any idea that this afternoon would change history.” (In other words, Ali’s new Schwinn was stolen, and he vowed to beat up whoever did it. A police officer guided the young fighter into the gym).

The film also tries to place Ali’s career in context with early 20th century boxing and race issues. In an early segment, the opening narration describes how boxing overcame the color barrier long before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but it then contradicts this statement with its focus on early greats, their achievements, and their public reception. Jack Johnson won the title in 1908, and his victory, combined with his flamboyance, caused public outrage. He was arrested on a bogus charge of transporting a woman over state lines for immoral purposes – the woman he was “transporting” was his wife! Later, Joe Louis emerges as the antithesis of Johnson, and better public opinion of him follows. He wins well and serves the army in World War II before retiring. The film purports Ali as a combination of these two men.

For all its efficiency the film fails to deliver much. It lacks talking head, no actual interviews with Ali, and minimal fight footage. Instead, it uses numerous stills, and the camera wanders around them, usually starting at the bottom and panning up. It also uses press clips, fight posters, brochures, and even a ticket stub. Sometimes these items are superimposed over a textured blue or gold background with the words “Muhammad Ali” at the top and “the Greatest” at the bottom – just in case you forget what you’re watching.

By accident or design, there is one thing the film does really well: It let the “Louisville Lip” speak for himself. Extensive footage of Ali talking to the press leaves nothing to the imagination as to how he got his nickname. He tells the press before his match with Sonny Liston:

If you like to lost your money
Then be a fool and bet on Sonny.
But if you want to have a good day,
Then put it on Clay.

The windy words were not wasted for Ali beat Liston twice, once in a six-round decision and once by knockout in the first round. Extensive excerpts of Ali’s college tour speeches also demonstrate his speaking ability, but uneven sound quality makes some of the clips difficult to understand. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest is not to be confused with a fiction film by the same title. The fiction one, directed by Tom Gries, stars Ali as himself and is based on the rosy autobiography by Ali with help from Herbert Muhammad and Richard Durham. This production includes a generous portion of the trailer, and a DVD extra is a featurette about Gries’s production.

Overall, this film sticks with the familiar conventions of the Muhammad Ali myth. It provides no new insight. It even talks about Ali and his great career, yet it never shows him boxing! This cut-and-dried film provides a great, quick overview, but for fans seeking better, try another film.