Sportspersons have always been fascinating personalities, and their fans want to know every detail about their idols. How did they play the sport? What motivated them? How do they manage stress? Their highs and lows, among many other things. Many among us want to revisit those moments for either their grit or for a good cinematic experience. This is where sports documentaries come in.
Although many sporting events and tournaments have resumed after last year’s shutdown on live events and sports tournaments because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can still partake in a bowl full of popcorn and some of the best sports documentaries on streaming platforms.
Delve into the minds of some of the top players and teams; watch how they prepare; stories of underdogs, the biggest controversies or even those who got lost in time. Witness the thrill as you go behind the scenes and get a glimpse of some lesser-known details of these sports icons.
Here are 10 of the best sports documentaries you must watch
After his brain injury in December 2013, the world gasped as there was no news about former Formula One (F1) champion Michael Schumacher’s health. Having been tight-lipped about his health since the incident, the family, especially his wife Corinna, opened up about the caring and loving man behind the wheels in a Netflix documentary.
“He’s simply the most lovable person I have ever met,” she says, adding, “He was really funny, that’s what I saw in him.” Later in Schumacher, Corrinna is heard saying, “Michael is here. Different but here. He still shows me how strong he is every day.
Directed by Hanns-Bruno Kammertöns, Vanessa Nöcker and Michael Wech, the film celebrates Michael Schumacher’s life — a personality who had a great impact on everyone who came in touch with him, including agencies, engineers, mechanics and others.
Know little about F1? The documentary will take you through all the details, which linearly chronicles the legend’s journey. Through his archived interviews, flashbacks and family videos of a kid who gathered used tyres and went on to win go-kart races and become one of the greats of the sport, you’ll get to know the man both on and off the track.
Last Chance U (2016–2020)
It is a proud moment for anyone to represent their university or college, but with it comes fierce competition and a matter of reputation and honour.
This sports docu-series on Netflix takes us to Mississippi, US, with an insight into the football programme of the East Mississippi Community College and Jones County Junior College in the first two seasons. Whereas, seasons 3 and 4 take us to Kansas’ Independence Community College, followed by Laney College in Oakland, California.
Battling academic pressure, personal struggles and family problems, the college athletes give their heart and soul to football to carve out a name for themselves. The gripping series documents the passion of each of the college teams and the selfless effort and hard work of coach ‘Buddy Stephens’.
Trust us when we say every minute of this Emmy Award-winning sports documentary is worth the watch. Be assured to sit on the edge of your seat with every nerve-wracking match.
Passing a dope test is probably the most crucial step for every athlete, failing which can end their career. The Netflix documentary film won an Academy Award and depicts how one of the greatest controversies in sports came to light.
Filmmaker Bryan Fogale met Russia’s anti-doping centre’s Director Dr Grigory Rodchenkov who was the whistle-blower in the famous Lance Armstrong dope test controversy. What was initially planned to be a documentary to unravel the irregularities in the Russian system of drug-testing for athletes, soon snowballed into one of the biggest sports controversies.
The film traces state-sponsored doping efforts in Russia, Rodchenkov’s involvement in it, and the International Olympics Committee’s plans of banning Russia from the 2016 Rio Olympics — the stakes are high and even cost lives. At one point, Fogale himself becomes a pivotal character in his film.
Athlete A (2020)
American artistic gymnast Simone Biles and many other renowned athletes raised their voice against sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor Larry Nassar, who pleaded guilty to his crimes in 2018. The heart-wrenching documentary film centers around Nassar who is accused of sexually abusing over 250 girls over his decade-long career.
Netflix’s synopsis of the film says: “This documentary focuses on the gymnasts who survived USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse and the reporters who exposed USAG’s toxic culture.”
Through many interviews of survivors and investigative journalism of reporters, the documentary shows how a heinous crime as such was fostered for so long. It sheds light on what an arduous task it was to bring Nasser upfront with the law.
Filmmakers Bonni Cohen and John Shenk ripped apart a sports society, which did not take any action despite complaints from star gymnast Maggie Nichols who is allegedly the first person to bring forth the matter.
Whether or not you have an interest in F1, Asif Kapadia’s Senna will captivate your mind like an action movie. With the camera rarely moving away from the racing tracks and an almost hagiographic narrative of the late Brazilian F1 driver, Ayrton Senna, the documentary takes us on a speeding drive through his life.
Catch a glimpse of the soft-spoken, handsome, three-time F1 world champion dominating the tracks. The documentary, available on Amazon Prime Video and on rent on YouTube, seamlessly weaves hours of exclusive footage from the minicam attached to Senna’s car, archive footage, interviews and race videos, making it a must-watch documentary.
Sports are not solely limited to the game but encompass all that is associated with it. This statement rings true for this Netflix documentary on Navarro College’s competitive cheer squad. Sporting bright, fancy outfits, dancing and cheering at a grand moment on the field, cheerleading goes deeper than what meets the eyes.
From dazzling dance moves, glittering pompoms to jaw-dropping stunts, cheerleaders have an intense routine to adhere to. While competition is equally intense, the urge to look perfect and be in control of every move adds to the pressure.
The docu-series by the maker of Last Chace U, Greg Whiteley, shows various college cheerleading teams preparing for the Daytona Beach event to win the National Cheerleading Association’s championship title. Watch out for the Navarro College team, as they are some of the toughest athletes out there.
The Last Dance (2020)
This ten-part docu-series on Netflix is a treat for all basketball fans and anyone who’s in for a good watch. Charting the journey of the Chicago Bulls and the rise of Michael Jordan, the Jason Hehir directorial comes across as a reverence for the basketball legend.
With the final cuts and edits directed by Michael Jordan himself, the 1990s era of the Chicago Bulls takes centre stage with his narration and interviews. His wizardry on the court, the incredible interlocking tactics, passing, dribbling and smooth athletic precision make Michael Jordan the star that he is. All of this, along with rivalry and nerve-pressing matches and other teammates on the sidelines, makes this ESPN co-produced series.
Among the many awards it won, The Last Dance bagged an Emmy in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series category in 2020.
Maradona In Mexico (2019)
It came as a real shock to football fanatics when Argentine legend Diego Maradona, who also played for Tottenham in the Premier League, went to manage Dorados, the second division team in Sinaloa cartel’s Culiacan, Mexico. The local club was at the bottom of the rankings when the football legend arrived. While the coach has a warm side to himself, he also has a ruthless temper.
However, Maradona’s decision to coach the team becomes noteworthy also because of the city and the footballer’s history with drugs. In a twist of events and a miracle of sorts, Maradona turned out to be a completely different person contrary to what was anticipated.
“It was too crazy to be true,” “Maradona, a coke addict, going to the world capital of cocaine.”. ”Maradona, a coke addict, going to the world capital of cocaine.”
The same article quoted Oycé Leal, the club’s assistant press officer, saying at a charity dinner, “When we heard Maradona was coming, everyone thought the obvious would happen, regarding the city’s reputation for organised crime, drug trafficking and Diego’s past history but he’s turned out to be completely different. He’s identified with a city that people thought would be the death of him. Culiacán is rescuing Maradona in an unimaginable way.” Watch the man in action in this Netflix documentary.
Pumping Iron (1977)
The documentary gives an insight into the world of professional bodybuilding. With men showing their carved physiques on a global platform, the George Butler and Robert Fiore documentary focuses on the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe and 1975 Olympia competitions held in Pretoria, South Africa. The film is based on the book by the same name written by Charles Gaines and George Butler.
In fact, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-American actor-turned-politician, among other prominent bodybuilders feature exclusively in the documentary to share their experiences. Schwarzenegger, the then five-time Mr. Olympia champion, is seen preparing for the contest for his sixth win. It is his beaming, charismatic appearance in the film which helped popularise this otherwise niche sport.
This one-and-a-half-hour film tells the details of bodybuilding — a sport that has remained confined to only a small audience and fitness enthusiasts.
In a world where all hail the Michael Phelps and the Michael Jordans of sports, this Netflix docu-series breaks the norms to highlight those who were successful but missed the mark by a hair.
Directed and produced by Mickey Duzyj, the eight-part series shows the life and struggle of eight such “losers” who got lost in time.
Netflix’s synopsis reads: “In a ‘winning is everything’ society, how do we handle failure? This series profiles athletes who have turned the agony of defeat into human triumph.”
From boxing legend Michael Bentt and French figure skater Surya Bonaly to English soccer club Torquay United and golfer Jean van de Velde, the series documents both the heartbreaks and the positives that have kept them going.
Hero Image: Courtesy Chris Chow/@chris_chow/Unsplash; Featured image: Courtesy Norio Koike – © Norio KoikeASE/ IMDb