In the wake of the universally acclaimed Michael Jordan documentary ‘The Last Dance’, sports documentaries have found a new wave of fans.
ESPN’s newest and perhaps best take on the story of ‘MJ’ and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s isn’t their first foray into the world of sports documentaries.
Over the years, they have made various other documentaries that weren’t as hyped as The Last Dance. For some of these, the topics were also less appealing to the larger sporting fanbase.
Everyone knows who Michael Jordan is and what he did throughout his illustrious career. But a lot of other documentaries were focused on some lesser known stories.
That being said, they are still top quality productions that now, with a new group of fans at their disposal, should get another look in.
Here are our top five sports documentaries of all time!
5. Catching Hell
To non-American sports fans around the world, the name Steve Bartman may not mean anything.
However, the Chicago native made all the headlines back in 2003 for an incident that resulted in him needing a security escort out of Wrigley Field, the home of the Cubs.
That year, the Cubs were on the brink of their first National League pennant in nearly 60 years. They were 3-0 up in game six and only needed five outs to win that pennant (the National League pennant is the baseball equivalent of an AFC or NFC Championship in the NFL).
To fans, the drought appeared to be all but over.
Florida Marlins batter Luis Castillo hit a ball wide into foul territory, with Cubs fielder Moises Alou running over to make what would’ve been an outstanding catch.
Bartman, a Cubs fan sitting front row, leant forward to catch the ball. His attempt to catch the ball disrupted Alou, meaning Castillo could bat on.
From there, the Marlins scored a staggering eight runs in that inning to beat the Cubs. They would ultimately win the series in game seven, crushing the dreams of Chicago fans.
ESPN’s Catching Hell, a documentary based around the events of that infamous night detailed the event in a way that was hard to watch, but impossible to take your eyes away from.
Bartman’s mistake was scapegoated to unimaginable lengths prior to the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win. The Curse of the Billy Goat had seemed to strike again and fans were left furious in the immediate aftermath.
Catching Hell is a compelling, yet unbiased take on whether Bartman was unfairly treated and how one innocent mistake can change a life forever. And it’s downright brilliant.
The story of Icarus in Greek mythology is well told.
The moral of the story is what has brought the story to such prominence in today’s society.
If you fly too close to the sun, you can get burned.
This makes the title of Bryan Fogel’s Academy Award winning documentary on doping in sports.
Fogel, working with Russian scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory.
Rodchenkov was a whistle-blower who revealed destructive secrets to the true nature of Russia’s Olympic team.
Icarus follows this story and doesn’t hold back.
The story of how Rodchenkov was hired following the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, through to his testimony about what went down during the 2014 Sochi Olympics and finally, the very real threats on his life and the mysterious deaths of his colleagues.
Icarus is a scary insight into the dark side of international sports, but a documentary that cannot be overlooked as any sporting fan.
3. The Test: A New Era for Australia’s Team
Perhaps there is some recency bias for this pick, but it’s hard to deny that it’s great viewing.
If you’re a cricket fan, you know the story of the present-day Australian Test team. Following the sandpaper scandal in South Africa, not many were sure they would recover.
Steve Smith and David Warner received one year suspensions for their involvement, whilst up and comer Cameron Bancroft received a nine month suspension. Head coach Darren Lehmann was sacked.
Smith lost the Test captaincy and with it, a lot of respect amongst cricket fans across the globe. He was replaced by Tim Paine, the wicketkeeper who many had tipped to be captain earlier in his cricketing career, but had been struck down by injuries over time.
Paine earned plenty of admirers for his performances in the face of adversity, with honourable performances against Pakistan and India.
However, entering the 2019 Ashes Tour, people still weren’t sure whether the team, with Smith, Warner and Bancroft back would gel to retain the little urn.
The Test, which takes a long look at the team behind the scenes, captures the environment so well and how the team has changed from the sandpaper scandal.
The insight into a team that was brought to its knees that then rose from the ashes (pun intended) is hard to pass up, as any sports fan.
As far as cricket documentaries go, this is up there as a must-see.
2. Sunderland ‘Til I Die
Only a few seasons ago, Sunderland were a team firmly situated in English football’s top flight, the Premier League.
They were a respected and strong team that any fan (except Newcastle fans) could see an appreciation for.
However, following a torrid 2016/17 season that saw them relegated, the club was forced into turmoil. Changes were made left, right and centre.
Sunderland ‘Til I Die is very effective at doing what The Test did, but in the opposite manner.
Instead of the Tyne-Wear side rising from their ruins to be a Premier League side again, they fell even further. They were relegated again.
The documentary showcases the club on its knees. The perspective of the fans, combined with those inside the club makes for intriguing viewing.
The fans especially make this documentary and are a great focal point.
The documentary is firmly grounded in reality and it hits you hard when you get to know the people of the club more.
That dynamic of a club with so many aspirations, but can barely get past the first hurdle adds so much to an already fantastic documentary.
Beautiful in its depiction of a club in trouble both on and off the field, Sunderland ‘Til I Die cannot be overlooked as a football fan.
1. The Last Dance
Again, there may be some recency bias here, but you’d be hard pressed right now to find anyone who would disagree with this selection.
The Last Dance is a near-perfect encapsulation of one of sport’s greatest dynasties. It may also be the catalyst for many more documentaries of its kind.
The Chicago Bulls’ team of the 1990’s was something to behold, mainly down to one man.
One of the greatest of all time, Jordan was always seen as a larger-than-life figure during his playing career. Through this documentary, we get to see him and his former teammates, friends, colleagues and other industry experts shine a whole new light.
From the outset, the documentary shows you that this isn’t going to be just about showing you the greatest hits. It goes in-depth into the psychology of Jordan and the Bulls, something that propelled them into immortality.
Like any good sports documentary, it brings you along for a rocky ride with no punches pulled. You question whether you can look at some of these legends of the game in the same way.
But you also see the side of them you never thought you’d see. The emotional side. Jordan is understandably a focal point and his story, from his early days in North Carolina to game six of the NBA Finals in 1998, is written and told beautifully.
When the greatest hits are eventually played, you still get goosebumps. But not for the reasons you originally did.
When the Bulls won their first championship after Jordan’s baseball hiatus. When John Paxson landed the killer shot against Phoenix. ‘The Shot’ against Cleveland.
Not one stone is left unturned and it is breathtaking.
If you don’t watch it, you’re doing yourself a major disservice.