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Since the 1897 flick The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight documented an entire boxing match for Victorian audiences to watch, sports docs have definitely come a long way. While the entire field owes a huge debt of gratitude to landmarks such as The Endless Summer, it was the father/son team of Ed and Steve Sabol that really elevated the genre. Their NFL Films, rich with grand paradigmatic music and the thunderous tones of announcer John Facenda, brought the sports documentary from bruising gridiron battlefield to a kind of fine art form, and no doubt had much to do with football’s ensuing explosion in popularity. With the advent of ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, and even legitimate sports news programs like HBO Real Sports and 60 Minutes Sports, the very nature of sports and athletes as subject for serious examination, especially as documentary fodder, is thriving. That is not to say that there were not memorable documentaries prior to 30 For 30—there were, and many are included here—but the level of the form has been undeniably elevated, and the bar raised, making it a golden age for both sports fans and non-sports fans alike. And now, with the monumental, near 8-hour O.J.: Made in America capturing last year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary, it’s official: The sports documentary has grown up.
As with all great films, the top sports documentaries both echo and comment on the social issues surrounding a sport, how the times affect the sport, and how the sport affects the times. While it once was pretty easy to narrow down the best 25 in the genre, the task has become (thanks to the aforementioned) increasingly difficult. The following is a quarter-century’s worth of the best sports documentaries of all time.