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.

Catching the Perfect Wave in ‘The Endless Summer’

Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer is a classic surf documentary from 1964. In pursuit of an unending summer, two surfers travel the world looking to catch the greatest waves. Brown’s camera follows them on their journey, which takes them from Hawaii to California to the African continent to Australia and then to Tahiti.

Almost all of the visuals in The Endless Summer are of people catching waves, either riding them out or wiping out. Though we see the surfers mostly from a distance, Brown’s commentary keeps us right in with the action. Brown defines key terms, explains the different kinds of waves, reports the weather conditions, and in general spins the yarn for this tale.

But Brown is no ordinary narrator. He is not the omniscient narrator casting his observations with detachment and neutrality. Instead, he is goofy — for lack of a better word — in his narrating of this piece. Some of his comments border on dry humor. For example, one of the surfing locations is called “number three, right next to number two.”

Brown’s comments on Africa draw on cultural stereotypes while at the same time try to be humorous. In describing the people of Ghana, he says, “They came down to the beach with their kids and their lunch and still had both hands free.” Other comments are a little more pointed. After discussing the problems of sharks in the waters near South African shores, he says, “Sharks and porpoises have yet to integrate in South Africa.”

Another stereotype comes through the representation of women in this documentary. About an hour into the runtime, Brown begins to talk about women surfing in Hawaii. He notes that many women are accomplished surfers, but as he talks about the suit she wears and not her technique, the woman falls off her board. He returns to the subject of women when the surfers visit Australia, this time marveling at the bikinis they wear and letting the camera linger.

Accompanying this narration is a great soundtrack that consists primarily of surf rock, though the music changes to African drumming when they arrive in Ghana. No didgeridoos were heard when they visited Australia and New Zealand, however.

Ultimately, this documentary is about finding the perfect wave and the perfect conditions to surf it. The end credits even thank Neptune for making them.