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.

‘Murderball’ Takes Sport Documentary to New Levels

Murderball (2005) is directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin. Murderball is another name for quad rugby, a global sport for quadriplegic players. At the time this documentary was made, the U.S. quad rugby team had dominated the global competition, until Canada defeated the team in 2002. This defeat sets up the deep rivalry between the two teams, and this documentary chronicles the road to the 2004 Athens Paralympics and culminates with them facing off.

Murderball also provides some great portraits of the players, and their families and friends. Each player on the team is a quadriplegic with differing levels of abilities. Many became quadriplegic following car accidents, though a couple overcame diseases. They players are honest, open, and humored about their recoveries and their moving on with life, such as in dating and sexual activity.

Mark Zupan is the primary player we follow throughout this documentary. He serves as the spokesman for the team, going to events to talk about the team and recruit players. Zupan seems larger than life, both aggressive and vulnerable at the same time, and interviews with his friends and family suggest his personality hasn’t changed much because of the accident.

Another major portrait is Joe Soares, a much-awarded player from the United States who goes on to coach the Canadian team. The documentary spends a decent amount of time focusing on the relationship he has with his son, which seems troubled at first but then improves after he has a heart attack.

The competition preparation moves the stories forward. The U.S. and Canada face off in a game that determines which one has the top seed going into the Paralympics. Within the last five seconds, Zupan scores to win that top spot for the U.S. team. At the Athens Paralympics, the two teams face off again, this time with Canada winning. Shapiro and Rubin make an interesting choice in representing this game with a rather mellow feel in that the sounds are muted, the music is or mellow, for the first couple periods. In the third period of play the game sounds appear again as the tension builds and ultimately Canada wins.

Overall, Murderball is a high-energy documentary with interesting people, great score, and intense competition story that grabs you and keeps you.