Now we don't have access to it most of us would agree that live sport provides great theatre. Most would also agree that put alongside the myriad ills of the world, it is theatre of the trivial.
Yet some of the most powerful documentaries of my time have been about sport. Powerful and trivial: when placed together those two words create a paradox.
Without wanting to get too philosophical about it, the end product – live sport – is perhaps the trivial outcome of the complicated processes and machinery that fuel sport. The framework around which sport is built is far from trivial.
Many of these documentaries explore that complex relationship between sport and society; a couple of them are incredible explorations of the human mind and spirit. They are all brilliant documents of sport and its far-reaching effects.
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A note: I gradually whittled a by-no-means-exhaustive longlist down to a shortlist of 21. Some deserving documentaries were cut for tenuous reasons, like the director already had a film on the list or there were too many ESPN 30 for 30 entries.
Some notable omissions were The Endless Summer , the gold standard of surf/ road movies; The Armstrong Lie (no prizes for guessing what that one is about); Free Solo (just amazing, but there is a marginally better climbing movie on the list); No No: A Dockumentary (man, this hurt to leave out).
There are other outstanding pieces of work I'd recommend, work that possibly got a bit lost in the churn of ESPN 30 for 30's incredible output. Films like Slaying the Badger , The Two Escobars , Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies deserve your attention.
Colleagues and correspondents have pitched for docos like The Battered Bastards of Baseball , Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 and Bo Knows . In the past I have heard impassioned pleas for Undefeated and The King of Kong , a wonderfully weird look at the weird lives of the best Donkey Kong players. There is a mountain of great sports docos in which to indulge yourself.
There are two biases (which reminds me, Without Bias is another excellent 30 for 30 doco) that need to be acknowledged. One, recency bias, which is probably the only reason TES missed, as the surfing seems quaint by comparison with what they do now.
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Two, it's my list, deal with it.
If you enjoy this, or even if you hate it, check out my list of 10 Sports Films You Should See That You Might Have Missed.
11. Fire in Babylon (2010)
"We fought like slaves whipping the arses of masters."
And that, in one weighty Bunny Wailer sentence, sums up the tenor of this uplifting documentary about a West Indies team that broke the shackles of colonialism to become a torchlight for a region and the greatest cricket team to ever roam the Empire.
With a mix of terrifying footage and interviews, Stevan Riley conveys the racial angst at the heart of the West Indies rise.
They were vilified in Australia in 1975 and crumbled. When England captain Tony Greig, a heavily accented South African, promised to make them "grovel" in 1976 it all changed.
Erudite skipper Clive Lloyd, a Guyanan, unleashed a battery of fast bowlers – Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner – who would become known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse and instead bring England to their knees.
10. Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)
The danger when a film is directed by one of the protagonists is that it becomes self-serving tosh (see: Bra Boys: Blood is Thicker than Water ), but Stacy Peralta, one of the original Z-Boys, skilfully avoids this.
This is the story about a dirty, unloved beach and the mean streets around it. It's a story about kids from broken homes rebuilding their sense of identity through skateboarding.
It's also about the birth of a competitive sport and, more importantly, an entire cultural movement.
It's a lot of fun, occasionally sad, and has a cracking soundtrack. Sean Penn narrates.
9. Pumping Iron (1977)
It is a measure of the film's enduring quality that whenever you think of the sport of bodybuilding or the superstar it begat, Pumping Iron remains the reference point.
It's a story of two halves, the first concentrating on the mechanics and (hokey) philosophy of bodybuilding, the second concentrating on the 1975 Mr Olympia tournament held in South Africa, which pits Arnold Schwarzenegger against Lou Ferrigno.
It's a character study of contrast: Schwarzenegger comes across as self-made, dazzlingly confident and manipulative, while Ferrigno, who has severe hearing loss, is under the cosh of his driven father, looks doleful and appears naïve.
Both have suits of muscles and would become stars of the screen to varying degrees.
A great written companion piece to this film is Paul Solotaroff's Dawn of Huge , which more closely examines the seedier side of the movement.
8. Icarus (2017)
It is worth remembering that Icarus started out as filmmaker Bryan Fogel's rather clichéd, gonzo look at the effects of sports doping.
Through an uncanny set of circumstances it became a riveting geopolitical thriller.
As such it is accidentally brilliant, but brilliant all the same.
The plot twists are too many to explain but the story is essentially lit up by Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia's sports anti-doping laboratory. He has a strangely magnetic screen presence and could easily pass as a character in Stranger Things , but the strangest thing is he belongs to real life.
The key line: "There never was anti-doping in Russia – ever."
7. Tokyo Olympiad (1965) / Olympia (1938)
This is a big cheat but it is unlikely Kon Ichikawa's Olympiad would have existed but for Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia .
Both are highly stylised retellings of the Olympic Games and are in their own ways controversial.
Ichikawa, who was a late replacement for Akira Kurosawa of Seven Samurai fame, was forced to re-edit his movie when he first presented it to the Japanese government and Olympic Committee, who financed the project. They wanted a journalistic document of the Games; instead Ichikawa unveiled an artistic portrayal with the athletes at the centre of the room.
Riefenstahl's Olympia was released in two parts, Festival of Nations and Festival of Beauty .
Riefenstahl's relationship with Adolf Hitler and his inner circle is troubling to say the least and the film, for all its beauty, was widely considered Nazi propaganda, and it really doesn't get much more controversial than that.
Some point to the camera's fascination with American sprinter Jesse Owens as evidence that Riefenstahl did not buy into the Aryans-as-Herrenvolk principle, though her actions in the lead-up to war and during wartime make this a thin argument.
Many consider Tokyo Olympiad to be the greatest sports film of all and from a purely aesthetic point of view, it's a convincing argument, while Olympia is acknowledged as a technical masterpiece, using groundbreaking techniques that would later become industry standard, such as tracking shots, smash cuts and underwater filming. Riefenstahl also used balloons to elevate cameras, like a modern-day drone.
6. When We Were Kings (1996)
The great skill of WWWK is the way it creates manifest tension as Muhammad Ali and George Foreman step into the ring, even though the vast majority of the audience know not only the result of the fight, but the famous rope-a-dope strategy that led to the win.
Legal difficulties meant the 1974 footage had never been seen by the public but if anything it gives Leon Gast's film a sense of urgency that might have been missing had it been made two decades earlier.
By the time of release, Ali was long ravaged by Parkinson's and Foreman had undergone a "spiritual rebirth" and had commenced a second act as a fighter, winning a heavyweight title in his 40s.
For posterity's sake, WWWK is a useful tool for future generations who perhaps otherwise would not understand the sheer size and significance of Ali's celebrity.
He is the star of the film and so he should be; he was for a while, after all, the star of the world. Foreman is very much second billing but the character study of a proud and angry man – far at odds with his reborn persona – is rich enough to remind you that the 70s was the golden age of heavyweight boxing.
It is also an interesting rendering of post-colonial Africa and in particular Zaire (formerly Belgian Congo) under the leadership of Mobutu Sese Seko, described by Norman Mailer as "the archetype of a closet sadist".
As a companion piece, Mailer's The Fight is an indulgent, yet entertaining, read.
5. Touching the Void (2003)
At times almost unbearable to watch, Kevin Macdonald's film about two British climbers who get it wrong in the Peruvian Andes ratchets up the suspense in ways that are thrilling and terrifying.
It's become a bit of a cliché to say a director has managed to make the environment one of the characters but in this case, with the sheer face of the imposing Siula Grande, it's true.
As Joe Simpson and Simon Yates contemplate their predicament, Macdonald examines parts of the human condition that can only be accessed in times of high stress.
If I hadn't imposed an arbitrary one film per director rule, Macdonald's One Day in September that documents the terror attack on the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics would have been a strong contender for this list.
4. Senna (2011)
Asif Kapadia has made films about two of the most charismatic sportsmen to have walked the planet, Diego Maradona and Ayrton Senna.
Some prefer Maradona to Senna but as the architect of this list I can only say I haven't seen the former yet... and I find it hard to believe it can be better than the latter.
Ayrton Senna tragically died at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix but this is much more than a tribute film and thankfully something less than a biography.
It beautifully meshes race, newsreel and homemade Senna family footage to create a picture of a motor-racer, with all his genius and flaws on display.
The rivalry with the more measured Alain Prost is examined and it is to the Frenchman's credit that although he doesn't always come across as a good teammate (or opponent), he willingly collaborated on the project.
3. Hoop Dreams (1996)
Steve James' documentary, which follows the lives of basketball prodigies Arthur Agee and William Gates as they try to progress from inner-city Chicago playgrounds to an NBA career, is three hours long but every minute feels richly rewarding and occasionally excruciating.
James shot more than 250 hours of footage over five years. Perhaps he was hoping his story would become a classic triumph of the human spirit story as Agee and Gates pursue the one-in-a-million dream of getting into the NBA, but what is eventually delivered is far more affecting.
This film is about inner-city American life. It is about a corrupt system that uses and abuses young, mainly black, athletes. It is about family dysfunction.
At its core, it is simultaneously held together by threads of hope and hopelessness.
The scene where Arthur's absentee father plays hoops with him on a derelict court before shuffling off to buy crack as his son looks on still gets me all these years later.
I'm not crying, you're crying!
2. Hillsborough (2016)
Talk about tears. This is two hours of the most harrowing "sports" viewing ever created.
Daniel Gordon's documentary unashamedly sides with those seeking justice for the 96 Liverpool football fans who went to a match and never came back, but loses none of its power in doing so.
The bereaved families have been beaten down by the system and are nakedly angry, but the interviews also shine a light on their pride and dignity in the face of systemic injustice.
Some of the most powerful moments in the documentary are interviews with South Yorkshire police who were unwittingly used to "cover up" the true causes of the disaster where fans were crushed after flocking to already overcrowded pens.
Bring a box of Kleenex.
1. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
This film works on every level, from the micro such as using Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" as the title track, to the macro of opening your eyes to the America nobody wants you to see.
In reviewing the film and speaking to its cultural significance, the New York Times wrote: "The trial of OJ Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L Goldman touched every exposed nerve in the American body politic and forced Americans to confront matters we often prefer to cloak in euphemism and denial: racial division, domestic violence, the hyperactivity of the news media and the toxicity of celebrity culture."
I cannot improve on that but I would also add, as trite as it may seem in the circumstances, that it is also about sport and it is wildly entertaining.
The film is nearly eight hours long and ran across five instalments but even when it feels intensely troubling and claustrophobic, you never want it to end.
Directed by Ezra Edelman, who had previously directed the well-received Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals , and Brooklyn Dodgers: Ghosts of Flatbush , O.J.: Made in America will stand as his magnum opus.