23 Best Sports Documentaries Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

, 2010

If you're not a fan of F1 racing, you might not know who Ayrton Senna is. If you are, there is no way you don't know. However, this 2010 British-French documentary packs so much thrill and emotion, you don't have to be a racing enthusiast to be engrossed by it.

So, who is Ayrton Senna? At a time when F1 cars were +1000HP fire-breathing monsters and the grid was stacked with world champions, the Brazilian racing driver rose above the rest to take 3 world championships and win the fabled Monaco Grand Prix a record 6 times. At the age of 34, a devastating car crash took his life.

Director Asif Kapadia develops a compelling, emotional, and exhilarating portrait of F1 racing and the man that was Ayrton Senna. He is still considered by many to be one the best and most exciting racing drivers to have ever stepped into an F1 car. The documentary too, is a thrilling pursuit: moving, psychological intriguing and absolutely nerve-wracking!

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Adriane Galisteu, Alain Prost, Arnaldo Jabor, Ayrton Senna, Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams, Gerhard Berger, Jackie Stewart, Milton da Silva, Neide Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Ron Dennis, Sid Watkins, Viviane Senna, Xuxa, Xuxa Meneghel

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: PG-13

, 2017

Director Bryan Fogel, who you might know as the guy behind Jewtopia, initially set out to chronicle his exploration of doping to win an amateur cycling race. He starts off by reaching out to experts to help him with obtaining and administering said drugs, one of which points him towards Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia's national anti-doping laboratory. Rodchenkov eagerly agrees to help him out.

Little did he know that his Russian acquaintance would transform Fogel film from a self-experiment documentary into a true-crime political thriller, when the scientist admits to being involved in a state-sponsored doping scheme of epic proportions on camera. Putin is obviously not amused.

Aside from all the madness that unfolds in this Netflix production, it's Rodchenkov's likeable and eccentric personality that makes the story more relatable and human as well as giving you a rare glimpse into the upper echelons of a country like Russia. As the plot thickens, one can't help but think that Fogel too is in over his head. Rightly award-winning, this is gripping stuff even if you're not into sports!

Genre: Documentary, Mystery

Actor: Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan, Don Catlin, Grigory Rodchenkov, Jacques Rogge, Nikita Kamaev, Richard Pound, Victor Webster

Director: Bryan Fogel

Rating: TV-MA

Undefeated won an Oscar but since it’s a documentary, few sadly paid attention to it. It tells the story of a football team in a poor area in Tennessee. Kids without a bright future, until the new coach arrives. Yes, that sounds like a very old, cliché tale. But keep in mind it is a documentary, and the story it tells is powerful, gripping, and any familiarity quickly becomes irrelevant. Even if you have no interest in American football, or in sports in general, you will love it and more than likely find yourself reaching for the Kleenex at least a few times before the credits roll.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Bill Courtney, Chavis Daniels, Montrail 'Money' Brown, Montrail 'Money' Brown, O.C. Brown

Director: Daniel Lindsay, T. J. Martin

Rating: PG-13

Another fantastic documentary from 2012, this one tells the remarkable story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic Men’s Basketball team that received scant attention in the shadow of the renowned U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA superstars (Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, etc.). The Lithuanians’ story is all the more fascinating in that it comes immediately on the heels of their country’s freedom from Communist rule. With little hope of participating in the Barcelona games, they received the most unlikely last-minute assistance from the Grateful Dead, of all sources. A really great true-life story, told with an exuberance and a verve not often expected from non-fiction filmmaking. I challenge anyone watch this one and walk away uninspired.

Genre: Documentary, History

Actor: Arvydas Sabonis, Bill Walton, Chris Mullin, David Remnick, Greg Speirs, Jim Lampley, Mickey Hart, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Sarunas Marciulionis

Director: Marius A. Markevicius, Marius Markevicius

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

Asif Kapadia, the genius of biopics who gave us Senna, is back with this documentary on an even bigger sports personality: Argentinian soccer player Diego Armando Maradona. Considered as possibly the best soccer player of all time, Maradona's footage on the pitch is pure wizardry, and you'll feel that way whether you are a soccer fan or not. But that's not the focus of this documentary. What happens outside the pitch is more interesting: from Maradona's modest beginnings to the passionate hatred (and love) that entire countries develop of him. And it doesn't make his story less interesting that during his time in Naples he was affiliated with the mafia.

This is an excellent documentary that distills 500 hours of footage into 2, giving you all you need to know about a character who captured the imagination of a big part of the world for decades. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Alberto Bigon, Ciro Ferrara, Claudia Villafane, Corrado Ferlaino, Dalma Maradona, Diego Armando Maradona, Diego Maradona, Gonzalo Bonadeo, Maria Rosa Maradona, Pele

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rating: TV-14, TV-MA

This groundbreaking documentary follows the USA Olympics sexual abuse case that made headlines in 2015. Through interviews with Olympians, their families, and investigative reporters, it’s also a documentary on the overall culture of abuse in gymnastics: sexual, physical, and emotional.

In one scene from the 1996 Olympics, gold medalist Kerri Strug has to run, vault, and land - all with a severe foot injury that was covered up by her coaches. She does this twice, limping between attempts and crawling off the mat on the second, crying. Meanwhile, her family, her coaches, the spectators - the World - is celebrating.

When she’s carried off, it’s Larry Nassar, the pedophile at the center of the documentary, who carries her.

Athlete A is groundbreaking exactly because it illustrates that the problem is not only with one doctor, or the 54 coaches who were also found guilty of sexual abuse, or the morally bankrupt leadership of USA Gymastics; it’s also about what went so wrong with society to see the abuse of young girls as cause for celebration.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Géza Poszar, Gina Nichols, Jen Sey, John Nichols, Maggie Nichols

Director: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk

Rating: PG-13

“They called me uppity. Uppity n*****. And I loved it”. That’s how this excellent documentary, about the first professional black racing driver Willy T. Ribbs, starts. It summarizes the strong personality of a champion who excelled in tracks that were filled with confederate flags.

The documentary explains the details of the difficulties that Ribbs went through in the 70s and 80s, but also the people who supported him and recognized his talent. It’s by no way a sad movie, on the contrary, even when Ribbs is talking about people spitting wherever he walks or about the death threats escalating, his unharmed determination is at the center of the story.

This is an inspiring documentary about a character who never got his worth in the history books. I was full of shivers by the first half-hour mark.

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Adam Carolla, Al Unser Jr., Bernie Ecclestone, Bobby Unser, Chase Austin, David Hobbs, Doug Boles, Geraldine Ribbs, Ian Brown, Nate Adams, Paul Newman, Phillip Ribbs, Willy T. Ribbs

Director: Adam Carolla, Nate Adams

Rating: Not Rated

In 2010, Dutch 15-year old Laura Dekker set out on a mission to be the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Maidentrip is the beautiful and inspiring documentary film that tells her story as she took on this behemoth task.

The film lets you experience this adventure of a lifetime along with Laura, share at first in her loneliness at sea, and later in her desire to be left alone when surrounded by people. Documenting her thoughts and feelings during this voyage, Laura reveals herself to be wise beyond her years. Yet despite the magnitude of the task Laura has taken in, her teenager self still glows clearly with its distinct child-like quality - simply wanting to do what makes her happy - sailing and seeing the world. The sheer honesty in Laura's narrative is what makes this story so extraordinary. You will accompany the young skipper against all odds as she follows her dream and in the process, lose and once again find her identity and sense of belonging. Maidentrip will leave you with an itch - an itch to travel, but more importantly, an itch to follow your dreams.

Genre: Adventure, Documentary

Actor: Laura Dekker

Director: Jillian Schlesinger

Rating: Not Rated, Unrated

You don’t need to know a lot about baseball to appreciate The Saint of Second Chances. It has enough going on to keep you hooked from start to end, beginning with Jeff Daniels’ inimitable voice as the narrator and Charlie Day’s inspired casting as the younger Veeck, all the way down to the Veecks’ fascinating ties with American sports history and Mike’s inspiring and heartwarming second-chance philosophy. It all gets a bit too much at times, as if the filmmakers themselves were overwhelmed with their abundant material and creative decisions, but it’s executed with so much care and love that it seems as if this is the only way it could’ve come out: a wonderful mess. 

Genre: Documentary

Actor: Agnes Albright, Bill Veeck, Charley Rossman, Charlie Day, Dan Barreiro, Darryl Strawberry, Don Wardlow, Gary Private, Howard M. Lockie, Ila Borders, Jeff Daniels, Joel Spence, Kalup Allen, Lamar Johnson, Lee Adams, Max Kassidy, Oscar Jordan, Stewart Skelton, Tom Billett, Tony LaRussa

Director: Jeff Malmberg, Morgan Neville

Rating: PG-13

The particulars of the scandal are enough to shock, enrage, and move anyone, but the directors of BS High also put Johnson in the hot seat and skewer the guy until they wring all ego and delusion out of him. The result is a compelling and terrifying look into a con man’s mind. Johnson alternates between justifying and denying his fraudulent ways and even tries to draw empathy from the audience by explaining his upbringing. But cleverly, the directors intercut his wild speeches with heartfelt testimonies from the real victims of this scam: the young recruits who were promised a better life if they played in Johnson’s team, only to be abused and marked for life. It’s impossible not to feel for the young men, who even up until the documentary’s end, wonder out loud how they could possibly move on from such a traumatic experience. 

Genre: Documentary

Director: Martin Desmond Roe, Travon Free