Ten great sporting documentaries

Sport teaches many lessons that can be applied to other areas of life and livelihood.  The reason most business will get involved is to capture some small part of the emotion that sporting achievement can bring.  We saw it at the Olympics.  We see it at Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium.  We see it pitch, pool and track side every weekend.

Live coverage of great sporting moments are worth millions to broadcasters as we see in major sports but there is also the strength of feeling that can only be captured through a longer and more reflective look behind the scenes.

The genre of the sports documentary has provided rich ground for talented film makers.  Any list of the best is surely bound to fail as beauty and passion are in the eye of the beholder but among the finest the following ten must surely take high rank.  It is a measure of the strength in some sports that we found it necessary to limit ourselves to one pick from each sport.  Do you have any others that should be included?

Gaelic Games A Year till Sunday (1998)

On the eve of a battle between two counties long starved of success, perhaps somebody has trained their camera on the preparations.  If so they will have to go some way to match the intensity and the humanity of A Year Till Sunday shot around the Galway senior football team on their road to All Ireland glory under a fresh faced John O’Mahoney in 1998.

“Winter training is a complete pain in the ass.  It’s wet, it’s cold, it’s miserable.  You don’t want to go.”

Rugby Union Living with Lions The 1997 Tour (1997)

Keith Woods, Martin Johnson, Jeremy Guscott and a golden cast of characters showed everything of what it meant to be part of a rugby team on tour, wrestling with the challenges of a game dealing with going professional.  The camera work would not get past the edit suite today but adds to the sense that you really are in the dressing room or on the pitch with the players at the end.

“When you think you’ve nothing left.  That’s when you become a Lion.”

Boxing – When we were Kings (1996)

Mohammed Ali was the world’s first sporting superstar in every sense of the word.  Any footage of his press conferences is worth a viewing but this goes deeper into the murky world of the sport he illuminated.  The Rumble in the Jungle gripped the world.  This is as fine a reflection on the noble art of boxing, and politics, as you are likely to find.  It took 23 years to complete because of law suits over copyright but when it was released, it was worth it.

“I done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator. That’s right. I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”

Australian Rules – Every Heart Beats True (2010)

The story of Jim Stynes, a modern day Colonial Boy, who left Ireland and became one of the legends of Australian Sport.  The film charts his triumphs on the field, the legacy for young people he built off it, and the tragic and graphic detail of his battle against Cancer.  Jim Stynes died in 2012 but if in years to come his name is not known by the next generation, this film should be shown to them.

“Jim, you’ve got cancer in a number of places in your body.”

Paralympic Sport – Murderball (2005)

Forget about the rivalry of America and Canada in Ice Hockey, this behind the scenes documentary on the two teams at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens is the real deal.  The idea that wheelchair bound athletes are in some way to be treated with kid gloves is completely thrown out the window.  We saw in London how fast, savage and downright violent the sport of wheelchair rugby can be.  The rivalry here was ramped up by an American coach ‘defecting’ to Canada.  The only pity is that this did not switch NBC and the USA onto the power of Paralympic sport.

“We had been calling it Murderball but you can’t really market that to corporate sponsors.”

Formula One – Senna (2010)

Formula One aficionado’s would always have rated Ayrton Senna as among the finest drivers of his or indeed any generation.  To the rest he was a pretty good driver and part of a major rivalry with Alain Prost.  If he had lived Senna would have remained there, boxed off as a really good Champion but not quite a legend.  Maybe such status is only conferred on those who die young. Especially so when your death is televised live to 300 million people. Senna is a movie that you do not need any love of motorsport to appreciate.

“I have no idols. I admire work, dedication and competence.”

Basketball – Hoop Dreams

The art of documentary film making is to be lucky in your selection of which story to follow.  William Gates and Arthur Agee crossed the tracks when they went from inner city hardship to a rich high school with an impressive basketball scholarship programme.  Their dream was to play in the NBA.  Not every story finishes as it’s supposed to but sometimes the journey is still worthwhile.

“It became more of a job than a sport to play.”

Cricket  – Out of the Ashes (2011)

We love the fact that the Irish cricket team has conquered apathy and a lack of infrastructure at home to go out and occasionally beat the world.  There is a good story to be told around that.  This story of the Afghanistan national team, how it came together and brought a nation to its feet that had been on its knees is another exceptional example of how sport really can mean more than a score line.

“A wonderful film, provocative in its hopefulness”

Soccer – Once in a Lifetime

Billed with  a strap line of goals, greed and girls, the story of the New York Cosmos in the 1970’s was a precursor of the kind of excess money that is now taken for granted in top class soccer.  The Cosmos were the equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, drawing bigger crowds that the New York Giants but with an attraction based more on the glories of a star studded past than on skill.  Pele, Beckenbauer and many more earned great money and did little for US soccer.  But it was a good story.

Baseball – Nine Innings from Ground Zero (2004)

One month after 9/11 The New York Yankees played a World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  The Yankees are America’s love ‘em or hate ‘em team but this transcended sport and was seen by many across America as vital in the healing process after such a disaster as the attack on the twin towers.  If Hollywood had made this the Yankees would of course have won.  They didn’t but the film captures a sense of how sport can bring people back from a very dark edge.

Similar Articles