strength

25 Amazing Sports Documentaries to Watch This Off-Season

best sports documentaries hero
Netflix

Professional sports are on hold for the foreseeable future, but die-hard sports still have a lot of content options to choose from. In addition to catching re-broadcasts of old games or honing your skills in NBA 2K20, there are countless sports documentaries to explore. Whether you’re in the mood for a spotlight on a specific player or a breakdown of how certain country’s politics and its sports programs intertwine, 

 

Like any movie genre, there are a select few sports documentaries that stand head and shoulders above the competition. Some of the entries here, covering everything from soccer to international cycling, are even Oscar-winning features for best documentary. Put on your cheese heads and get the bean dip ready, ladies and gentlemen, because we have some films to check out.

'Icarus' (2017)

What started out as director Bryan Fogel’s personal journey to game the doping system and perform better in a cycling race turns into one of the most ground-breaking sports documentaries ever made that pulls all professional and Olympic results into question. Fogel develops a close relationship with Russian doping scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, who instructs Fogel on how to take steroids over a year and pass a drug test, right as international investigations break the news of the Russian state-sponsored doping program and Rodchenkov’s central position in it. The Netflix original and Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature is full of twists and turns that will leave any fan of athletics or geopolitics thoroughly entertained.

'Pumping Iron' (1977)

No athlete put bodybuilding on the map quite like Arnold Schwarzenegger. This inquisitive look into the world of bodybuilding and what it takes to be a top athlete is both inspiring and hilarious thanks to the star’s antics with his fellow competitors. Behind the scenes footage is certainly illuminating for any fans of bodybuilding as an art form, but, most importantly, it also broadcast images of Schawrzenagar as a charismatic jokester to general audiences for the first time. Without this movie’s success, it’s unlikely that the future Terminator would have made such a big splash in Hollywood. It is currently available to rent or buy on Vudu.   

'What’s My Name: Muhammed Ali' (2019)

The two-part HBO original gives fans of Muhammed Ali one of the most in-depth looks at his legendary life and career from his perspective. Composed of old interviews, television show appearances and fight footage, director Antoine Fuqua weaves together a thorough examination of Ali that is narrated by the fighter’s own voice. With the greatest and loudest fighter of all time breaking down his own highs and lows, this is a must-see for anyone interested in what made this particular athlete such an icon both on and off the mat.

'Facing Ali' (2009)

Muhammed Ali may do a good job describing his own story in What’s my Name, but the documentary doesn’t examine or study the mind-set of the fighters who had to face the world champion. Featuring the perspectives of classic Ali opponents like Joe Frazier and George Foreman, “Facing Ali,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime, does a great job exploring the mindsets of people preparing for extremely challenging situations.  It’s one thing to watch someone get knocked out by Ali, or watch someone put the legendary fighter on his butt, but it’s another thing entirely to hear the boxers describe those moments and the hours that followed once the cameras turned off.

'Hungry' (2014)

We all eat, but only a select few individuals eat for sport. Hungry, rentable on YouTube and Amazon, is all about the world of competitive eating and its roots in American patriotism. Featuring interviews with some legendary eaters and the history of the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating tournament that spurred the whole sport into being, Jeff Cerulli and Barry Rothbart’s Hungry is a good look behind the curtain for anyone curious how these athletes get motivated and train to eat so much damn food.

'Free Solo' (2018)

There are a lot of adrenaline-inducing sports, but few things are as risky and pulse-pounding as free climbing a boulder. Following climber Alex Honnold’s insane journey to free climb the notorious 3200 foot-tall El Capitan rock wall in Yosemite, Free Solo is an anxiety-inducing, must-watch film.

 

Currently streaming on both Disney+ and Hulu, the Oscar-winning picture is one of the most stunningly and complexly shot documentaries ever made. Not only is Honnold up there risking his life, but the documentary makers are right there next to him, perfectly capturing each new emotion on the daredevil’s face. 

'Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns' (1994)

When Ken Burns sets his sights on a topic, audiences expect the passionate director to create extremely detailed pieces of work. Baseball, an 11-part series currently streaming on Amazon Prime and on PBS’s website, begins its journey when the sport was first created in the United States and tracks its progression to becoming America’s past-time. Not only does the film do a great job weaving through the sport’s complex, racist history, but it tells a powerful story about what sports can do for a people when a country is going through difficult times. 
 

'Senna' (2010)

Ayrton Senna was one of the most successful and famous Formula One racers in the world until an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix led to his death. Senna, currently available on Netflix, tells the three-time Formula One World Driver’s Championship winner’s story and touches on his own advocacy to make it a safer sport. Rather than rely on contemporary interviews, most of the film focuses on archival footage and home video clips provided by the racer’s family that illuminate him in a new light. 

The 2016 Oscar Winner for Best Documentary Feature, O.J. Made in America, is a dense, thorough look at the former NFL player’s life. The film, which started out as a multi-part entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, does spend a fair amount of time on his trial for murder and his later conviction for robbing sports memorabilia he used to own in Las Vegas, but it spends a lot of time examining the larger structural issues and building to those points rather than immediately unloading them on the audience. It’s impossible to comprehensively talk about the case and the public’s reaction without discussing the power of racism in Los Angeles, and Made in America doesn’t shy away from tackling the issue and how it intertwined with O.J.’s life ever-since he stepped onto the public stage as a USC football star.

'No No: A Documentary' (2014)

Pitching a perfect game is one of the hardest things an athlete can do in professional sports. That’s why the fact that Dock Ellis did it while tripping on LSD makes his accomplishment even more noteworthy. No No, currently streaming on Amazon, is an entertaining look at the troubled pitcher’s memories of that day as well as a larger commentary on substance abuse in the 60s and 70s. Funny and heart-warming, the film also explores Ellis’ own civil rights work and how he used his celebrity to speak to societal evils.

'McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice' (2011)

Few sports rivalries are as fierce as the one between tennis icons Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. The HBO original film McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice examines the differences between the American and Sweedish players both on and off the court that digs into both of their character flaws in a surprisingly raw fashion. Neither player shies away from their explosive behavior in the past, and yet the film succeeds at making both individuals, who are displayed somewhat negatively throughout, feel human and likable.

'No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson' (2010)

One of the most intense entries in the ESPN 30 for 30 series is Steve James’ No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Before Iverson became one of the NBA’s most notorious players, he was a high-school star in Hampton, Virginia who was charged and convicted alongside a few friends with striking some individuals in a bowling alley. The documentary does a great job covering the emotional episode, including handheld camera footage of the event and a detailed look at his pardon from the Governor, and examining how the incident heightened the community’s pre-existing racial tension. Iverson may be one of the most iconic basketball players of the 21st century, but this chapter in his life is unknown to most of his fans and this documentary covers the emotional era in an extremely sensitive, thought-provoking manner.  

'Tyson' (2008)

Arguably, no professional or amateur fighters are “soft,” but ferocious barely scratches the surface when describing Mike Tyson. Tyson is extremely self-reflective in the documentary he shares his name with and his willingness to discuss his past behavior, even the self-destructive bits, makes this one of the most emotionally raw films on the list. Tyson, rentable on Vudu and Amazon, is a must-watch for anyone interested in a peek behind the curtains for one of the most notorious professional fighters who ever lived. 

'At the Heart of Gold' (2019)

Lawrence Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and the osteopathic physician at Michigan State University will die in federal prison. Nassar’s arrest is related to one of the most high-profile and disgusting cases of the Me Too era and the HBO original documentary At the Heart of Gold is an unflinching look at the multiple cases. While Nassar’s actions are despicable and disgusting, the film takes a deeper look at the system that allowed Nassar to rise to such heights and potentially even turned a blind eye to his illegal behavior.

'A Normal Life: Chronicle of a Sumo Wrestler' (2009)

Few countries have a sport that is uniquely their own, but sumo wrestling is primarily associated with Japanese culture. A Normal Life follows Takuya Ogushi after he finally gives into his father’s wishes and enrolls in a sumo wrestling academy. Not only is this an intense look at the first nine months of someone’s sumo training, but it is a careful look at the substitution of individuality that takes place in these group-oriented training facilities. Currently rentable on Amazon and YouTube, A Normal Life is a must-watch for any die-hard or newly curious fans of the sport. 

'Hoop Dreams' (1994)

A lot of feature films start as ideas for shorts, but this full-length documentary was originally supposed to be a 30-minute program for PBS. Instead, director Steve James and his team stuck around collecting footage for five years to tell the stories of William Gates and Arthur Agree, two Chicago high school students who both have their sights set on becoming professional basketball players. Currently streaming on HBO, Hoop Dreams examines the personal commitments both young men made, commuting 90-minutes to a predominantly white high school with a prestigious basketball program, and the pressures that come along with wanting to make it as a sports professional. 

'The Scheme' (2020)

This recently released HBO original documentary takes a closer look at the pay-to-play controversies that recently rocked the world of college basketball. The Scheme is structured around interviews with Christian Dawkins, a life-long sports businessman who was prodded along by undercover FBI to funnel money to college coaches and ultimately charged by Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. The documentary is a brutal indictment against the NCAA’s structure and its stringent rules around not compensating athletes because they are technically considered amateurs.

'Jackie Robinson' (2016)

As if Ken Burns didn’t say enough about the sport in Baseball, the director stepped back onto the plate to talk about the infamous Jackie Robinson. Full of interesting archival footage and analysis of media from when Robinson was first making a name for himself, it’s impossible to walk away from this film feeling anything but admiration for this inspirational American. Moving beyond his revolutionary career on the field, the documentary, available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes, also does a great job examining his life after professional sports as he continued fighting for civil rights in a divided country. 

'The Two Escobars' (2010)

Pablo Escobar was one of the most ruthless drug lords Colombia and the world has ever known. Andres Escobar was the country’s biggest soccer star until he was murdered for costing the national team its shot in the 1994 World Cup. The two men weren’t related but The Two Escobars shows the unspoken bond between the two of them and the inexplicable power dirty money had over the country’s sports. An entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, the film is a compelling film about corruption and two extremely interesting individuals.

'Dogtown and Z-Boys' (2001)

Skateboarding is essentially universal at this point. In small towns and major cities around the world, people are skating, but that wasn’t always the case. Tony Hawk may be the most well-known skater, but the Zephyr Skateboard Team (aka the Z-Boys) influenced the X more than anyone else. An entertaining mix of footage of the crew skating in the 70s and 80s intermixed with interviews of the skaters in new lives, the documentary does a good job exploring the sports’ evolution as well as the ground-breaking role the Z-Boys played in that history. Rentable on Amazon and YouTube, Dogtown and Z-Boys is a must watch for anyone curious about the history of skateboard culture and its place in Los Angeles. 

'Unmatched' (2010)

On the complete opposite end of the rivalry spectrum from Borg/McEnroe are legendary tennis players Christine (Chris) Evert and Martina Navratilova. Unmatched, another ESPN 30 for 30 production, examines the two players' lengthy careers, including their many times facing each other throughout the 70s and 80s, but focuses on the supportive relationship the players had off the field. A beautiful story about the power of friendship, both players talk about the important role the other one played in their lives and in boosting their careers.  

'Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson' (2004)

Obviously Ken Burns was going to appear on this list one more time, but the prolific documentarian didn’t only talk about baseball. In Unforgivable Blackness, Burns tells the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and builds the case that he was one of the most famous people on Earth. A scathing look at American racism during the Jim Crow era, the film is an unflinching look at one of the most notorious Americans to ever live.  

'Long Shot' (2017)

A brief Netflix original documentary, clocking in at only 40 minutes long, Long Shot tells Juan Catalan’s improbable tale. Arrested for a murder he didn’t commit, Catalan was eventually proven innocent thanks to a random coincidence: raw footage of him at a Dodgers game appeared in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Featuring interviews with Catalan, his lawyer and Larry David himself, Long Shot is an emotional roller-coaster that could make any wrongly convicted individual wish they had an alibi this strong. 

'A League of Ordinary Gentlemen' (2006)

There are a few athletes, individuals like Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods, who were so iconic that even people who didn’t follow sports knew who they were. Unfortunately, bowling doesn’t necessarily have stars whose names have broken through the pop culture sphere. A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, available to rent on Amazon, follows a group of professional bowlers after the Professional Bowlers Association goes through a dramatic rehaul. Bowling’s popularity has slowly dwindled in the states, but these player’s personalities and their passion for the game should be enough to draw anyone back to the sport.

'In Search of Greatness' (2018)


Exercise and a good diet are obvious necessities for any aspiring athlete, but In Search of Greatness connects the creative abilities of some of the world’s best athletes with their iconic careers. Featuring interviews with sports icons like Serena Williams and Michael Jordan, the film emphasizes each athlete’s own creative sparks of genius that made them unique on and off the field. Currently available on Hulu, even people who have no desire to become professional athletes or ever play at the amateur level for fun can learn something about determination and problem solving from watching this movie.  

Did you like this article?
Thumbs Up
Liked
Thumbs Down
Disliked