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.

‘Tokyo Olympiad’ Offers an Epic Spectacle

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) is an epic spectacle of the 1964 Olympic games that celebrates the coming together of humanity within this sporting event in peace.

Ichikawa structures this spectacle from the running of the torch to the closing ceremonies. The documentary celebrates the individual within the collective without focusing on the person. His cinematography shows the athletes and their performances, but we learn very little about the athletes themselves, aside from one man from Chad and another woman who hugs her fiancé after winning the gold.

Within the arc, this documentary focuses on select events, usually in their final competitions. For the 100-meter dash, we see the men running in what feels like slow-motion through a vacuum. No external sound detracts from them. The slow motion effect belies the fact that the race ended within 10 seconds. The slow-motion technique appears in other events, such as the pole vault.

Other events show each competitor as he or she prepares. With the men’s and women’s shotput, the camera closely focuses on their facial expressions as they prepare in their minds for the throw.

While many events are shown without commentary, a voiceover sometimes accompanies other events by describing the weather, people’s actions, and of course the competition as it unfolds. For the 10,000-meter dash, the voiceover turns into a sports commentator, describing who keeps taking the lead throughout the race.

Ichikawa uses a range of framing to represent these different events and the event of the Olympics itself. Extreme close-ups show muscles in the arms and legs, or they show the eyes and teeth. Extreme wide shots capture all right lanes of a swimming pool from overhead so we can watch all the competitors in the race from start to finish. Medium shots focus on the athletes and their routines, such as one woman putting a lemon on her starting block before the race.

Other shots make less sense. As an American boxer walks away, the camera keeps him in frame. The boxer looks back at the camera not understanding what’s going on. Receiving no explanation, he keeps walking, and the camera, stationary, keeps recording.

In addition to the myriad uses of framing, this documentary incorporates great score that runs throughout. The score is often orchestral, but occasionally switches to light jazz times.

The year 1964 was the first time for Tokyo and for the Asian continent to host the Olympics. At the beginning of the documentary the narrator takes a moment to note how both East and West Germany compete together in these events though at the time the wall divided them. Overall, a deep sense of the significance of bringing people together in peace runs throughout this documentary.