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Gardner's top 10 sports docos

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Former Herald Sun sports editor and Sunday Mail editor Phil Gardner loves a good sports flick – here is his top 10.

Australia is obsessed with sport, yet we produce few quality sports documentary films.

Compare this to the US, where ESPN’s “30 for 30” series is story-telling of the highest order, made by the likes of Spike Lee among other notables.

Two weeks ago I watched two unforgettable sports docos – one at the cinema and one on TV – that only reinforced my opinion and prompted me to create this list of 10 sports documentaries you should watch, in no particular order.

Most are on YouTube, so feel free to comment and share.

1. The Other Dream Team: A captivating story about the 1992 Lithuanian men’s basketball team, whose members made up most of the 1988 gold-medal winning USSR team. Months before the 1992 Games, Lithuania broke away from the USSR amid bloodshed and great anguish, so for these players it was more than just a game. Trailer.

2. Senna: He won three Formula One titles in an era when great drivers abounded and sometimes died. He was fearless and the reason why we all watched F1. This epic reminds us that he was more than a driver, he was also a man of profound conscience. Trailer.

3. The Armstrong Lie: Even though I have read and watched everything I can about The Biggest Liar In The History of Western Civilisation, the brazen nature of his lies and perfidy on display here still stunned me. The doco has great new footage from his bike, from inside the team car, from his home when the drug testers turn up (just classic stuff). The final few frames are both corny and very effective. Trailer.

4. Murderball: Wheelchair rugby at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The title is apt – this is sport at its primeval best. These guys hit hard, play hard and have great stories to tell. It’s also uplifting, without the mawkishness that could have drowned it. Trailer.

5. Bra Boys: The only Australian offering worthy of mention. Sports as a metaphor for society, it’s a fascinating portrait of the Maroubra surf gang (Koby Abberton’s rise to pro surfing is part of the narrative). Unapologetic, frank, riveting and very un-PC, even though it tends to be hagiographic here and there. Russell Crowe’s narration also gives it a nice little edge. Trailer.

6. When We Were Kings: Muhammad Ali has launched some of sports’ greatest story-telling – you could easily do a Top 10 list of Ali documentaries. But, for me, this one is the pinnacle. Witty, self-deprecating, great new footage. In part told through two literary masters, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton, and they just nail it. Trailer.

7. White Rock: I was drawn to this movie after stumbling across Rick Wakeman’s stunning soundtrack in a friend’s LP collection in Cape Town. The official movie about the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, it marries Wakeman’s (electronic) music with James Coburn’s dramatic (and breathless) narration and exotic (for then) camera work. To a winter sport neophyte, it was endlessly watchable. A few years later I went to Innsbruck specifically to stand at the top of the ski jump and get the view framed in the opening sequence. I still don’t know how those guys do it.

8. One Day in September: I’ve always liked docos about a time I can remember. This one tells the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre – from both sides – with journalistic precision. Moving, brutal, challenging, sad, infuriating. And just masterful. That’s all one needs to say. Movie. 

9. Endless Summer: Watching it now, the scenes and narrative are almost quaint. But as a celebration of a sport it has few equals. Many years ago I watched it in conjunction with Big Wednesday, and it was almost better then. You don’t even have to like surfing, this doco is escapist and it’s fun. Many have tried to emulate Endless Summer, but they will be endlessly trying. Trailer.

10. Fire in Babylon: Proof that cricket can be a rich well of content for documentary makers, although it will be hard to top this offering about the West Indies cricket teams of the 70s/80s. The political tone adds a powerful subtext to a story about a bunch of blokes who played cricket the way Brazilians play soccer – with imperious swagger. And if you have the time and inclination, read CLR James’s Beyond A Boundary as a companion. Trailer.

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