On August 16th, Netflix will be kicking off a two-part documentary – The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist – and from what we’re hearing, it could be one of the best sports documentaries in recent history. It tells the story of Manti Te’o, who was the victim of a catfishing prank by three people.
Te’o was a senior linebacker at the University of Notre Dame in 2012. At the start of the season, he announced both his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, and grandmother had died within hours of each other. Their deaths played a role in the team’s journey to the National Championship.
It wasn’t until January of 2013 that Deadspin published an investigation that concluded Kekua, Te’o’s supposed girlfriend, didn’t exist and the photos of her were actually of another person. “My whole world changed. And I’m questioning everything,” said Te’o in the documentary trailer.
What Are the Best Sports Documentaries to Watch?
Netflix has been on a tear lately, releasing some of the best sports documentaries we’ve seen in a while – and The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist may very well land on that list. It’s going to be part of their UNTOLD sports documentary series, which has already produced some masterpieces.
When you think about all the greatest moments in sports history, along with all the lesser-known or least-talked about moments (and moments that will happen in the future), it’s reasonable to consider that many of the best sports documentaries haven’t been made yet – but they will.
The story of Manti Te’o and his fake girlfriend was one of the biggest headlines in recent college football history and we’re about to hear pieces of the story we’ve never heard before. While we await the August 16th release, let’s look at 30 of the best sports documentaries of all-time.
30. Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
Tokyo Olympiad is a Japanese sports documentary directed by Kon Ichikawa and released in 1965. It follows the events of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan – showing athletes in a number of different events. Unlike most other Olympic documentaries, this one shows the human side of the athletes.
29. No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
No No: A Dockumentary is an American sports documentary directed by Jeff Radice and released in 2014. It tells the story of Dock Ellis, a professional baseball player who once threw a no-hitter while on LSD. It talks about his baseball career, addiction to drugs, and eventual death.
28. Man In the Arena: Tom Brady (2021)
Man In the Arena: Tom Brady is a newer sports documentary miniseries – directed by Gotham Chopra and Erik LeDrew, and produced by ESPN Films, Religion of Sports, and 199 Productions. It’s 10 episodes long and tells the story of Tom Brady and his 10 Super Bowl appearances.
27. Diego Maradona (2019)
Diego Maradona is a British sports documentary directed by Asif Kapadia and released in 2019. It follows the story and career of Diego Maradona, one of the greatest soccer players to ever live. It mostly focuses on his success with FC Barcelona and the Italian men’s national team.
26. Last Chance U (2016)
Last Chance U is an American sports documentary miniseries directed by Greg Whiteley, Adam Ridley, and Luke Lorentzen. It was produced by Netflix and released in 2016 – there are 5 seasons and 38 episodes. Each season follows several low-level college football players that are trying to prove themselves.
25. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005)
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is a sports documentary based on a book by Geoffrey C. Ward of the same name. It was released in 2005 and tells the story of Jack Johnson – the first African American to be named Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World
24. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is an American sports documentary directed by Seth Gordon and released in 2007. It tells the story of Steve Wiebe, who was on a mission to beat the high score of Donkey Kong, a 1981 arcade game. If you’re a gamer, this is the documentary for you!
23. Senna (2010)
Senna is a sports documentary directed by Asif Kapadia – the same director who gave us Diego Maradona – and released in 2010. It tells the story of Ayrton Senna, a Brazilian motor-racing champion. He made his professional debut in 1984, but tragically died in an accident 10 years later.
22. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
Dogtown and Z-Boys is an American sports documentary directed by Stacy Peralta and produced by Agi Orsi. It tells the story of the Zephyr Competition Team – a group of American skateboarders in the 1970’s. The documentary is narrated by Sean Penn and is a classic for all the skaters out there!
21. The Endless Summer (1966)
The Endless Summer is an American sports documentary that was directed by Bruce Brown and released in 1966. If you’re into surfing, then prepare to be glued to your television for 95 minutes. It follows two surfers – Mike Hynson and Robert August – on a surfing trip around the world.
20. LFG (2021)
LFG is an American sports documentary directed by Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine. It was released in 2021 and follows members of the United States women’s national team – including Megan Rapinoe, Jessica McDonald, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press, Sam Mewis and Julie Foudy – as they fight for equal pay and equal opportunity.
19. Hillsborough (2014)
Hillsborough is a sports documentary directed by Daniel Gordon and released in 2014. It tells the story of the tragic Hillsborough disaster in 2012, where an overcrowded stadium led to 97 deaths and 766 injuries during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
18. Pumping Iron (1977)
Pumping Iron is an American sports documentary directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore. It was released in 1977 and gives viewers an inside look at the world of professional bodybuilding. If you like to lift weights, you’ll love the competitive edges to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and others.
17. Undefeated (2011)
Undefeated is a sports documentary directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. Released in 2011, it follows the struggles and eventual successes of the Manassas Tigers of Memphis – a high school football team. You’re going to love how head coach Bill Courtney turns the team around.
16. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S Women’s Soccer Team (2005)
Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S Women’s Soccer Team is an American sports documentary written by Ouisie Shapiro and released in 2005. It mostly follows the impact Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, and Joy Fawcett had on US women’s soccer.
15. Murderball (2005)
Murderball is an American sports documentary directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro. Released in 2005, the film mostly follows the rivalry between Team Canada and Team United States wheelchair rugby teams at the 2004 Paralympic Games – you’ll love their story!
14. Beyond the Mat (1999)
Beyond the Mat is an American sports documentary directed by Barry W. Blaustein and released in 1999. It gives viewers an insight into the world of professional wrestling – primarily the lives of Mick Foley, Terry Funk, and Jake Roberts – though you’ll also see a young Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
13. Baseball (1994)
Baseball is an American sports documentary miniseries brought to you by Ken Burns. It was originally broadcast on PBS in 1994 and is nine episodes long. It tells you everything you need to know about the game of baseball – from before the 20th century all the way up to the 1990s.
12. Formula 1: Drive to Survive
Formula 1: Drive to Survive is a sports documentary series brought to by Netflix and Formula One. There are currently four seasons and 40 episodes, but there’s a fifth season on the way in 2023. If you aren’t into Formula One racing, then you will be by the end of the first season.
11. One Day In September (1999)
One Day In September is a sports documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald and released in 1999. It’s narrated by Michael Douglas and tells the story of 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. The research in this film is incredible.
10. The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014)
The Battered Bastards of Baseball is an American sports documentary directed by Chapman Way and Maclain Way. Released in 2014, the film tells the story of the Portland Mavericks, who played in the Class A-Short Season Northwest League in the med-1970s – they were owned by Bing Russell.
9. When We Were Kings (1996)
When We Were Kings is an American sports documentary directed by Leon Gast and released in 1996. It tells the story of the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974 – one of the greatest boxing fights of all-time where George Foreman and Muhammad Ali fought for the heavyweight championship.
8. Athlete A (2020)
Athlete A is an American sports documentary directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Released in 2020, it tells of the groundbreaking investigative story surrounding Larry Nassar – the team doctor who sexually assaulted members of the United States gymnastics team.
7. Touching the Void (2003)
Touching the Void is a sports documentary directed by Kevin Macdonald – the same director who brought us One Day In September. Released in 2003, it tells the story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, who find themselves in a life-and-death situation after reaching the summit of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes.
6. Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos is a sports documentary directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower. Released in 2006, it tells the story of the New York Cosmos – one of the greatest and most popular football (soccer) clubs in American history.
5. Icarus (2017)
Icarus is an American sports documentary directed by Bryan Fogel and released in 2017. The film explores how easy (or difficult) it is to use performance-enhancing drugs to win a cycling race. In the midst of his exploration, he ends up discovering a major international doping scandal in Russia.
4. Free Solo (2018)
Free Solo is an American sports documentary directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Released in 2018, the film tells the story of Alex Honnold – a rock climber who attempts to climb the El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, all by himself. It’s a captivating story.
3. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
O.J.: Made In America is an American sports documentary directed by Ezra Edelman and released in 2016. It tells the famous story of O.J. Simpson – from his illustrious football career to his infamous murder trial that had the entire world watching. The question remains, did he do it?
2. The Last Dance (2020)
The Last Dance is an American sports documentary miniseries directed by Jason Hehir and was released in 2020. The series consisted of 10 episodes and tells the incredible story of Michael Jordan – more specifically the 1997-98 season, which was his last with the Bulls.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Hoop Dreams is an American sports documentary directed by Steve James and released in 1994. The film is nearly three hours long, but is taken from over 250 hours of footage across five years of filming. It follows the story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two basketball players with a dream.
The Best Sports Documentaries Are Yet to Come!
The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist is going to be the first of four stories told across five films, making up Volume 2 of Netflix’s UNTOLD sports documentary series. The other three films in Volume 2 are The Rise and Fall of AND1, Operation Flagrant Foul, and Race of the Century.
Volume 2 will be released weekly between August 16th and September 6th, so there will be plenty of sports documentaries to enjoy over the next few weeks. Netflix will also be releasing an untitled Tour de France series and Season 5 of Formula 1: Drive to Survive in 2023.
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If you’ve already watched all the best sports documentaries in recent and not-so-recent history, then don’t worry – there’s plenty more where that came from in the near future. So, hang tight and stay patient, you’ll have some new sports documentaries to watch very, very soon!
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