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World of Sport

24th Dec 2021

12 sports documentaries you must watch this Christmas

Daniel Brown

sports documentaries

Christmas is the perfect time for binge-watching sports documentaries.

There are so many options when it comes to choosing what to watch, we understand that. So, we have put together a list of twelve of the best sports documentaries, series and movies that are available to watch on a variety of popular streaming sites.

Enjoy yourself, it is Christmas after all.

Free Solo (2018)

Watch on: Disney+

Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Runtime: 100 minutes

IMDB Rating: 8.2

If your palms sweat when you watch people near the edge of the cliff or see them jumping between buildings, this documentary might not be for you – then again, you might actually enjoy the heart palpitations and extreme sweating.

Free Solo is based on the climbing style known as ‘free soloing’, which essentially is climbing without ropes or harnesses. While you’re not expected to get up from the sofa, grab your bag and find a nearby mountain, Alex Honnold’s climb does feature some incredible views in the backdrop.

The documentary follows Honnold’s life as he attempts to become the first person to ever free solo climb El Capitan, the 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park.

One of the most interesting aspects of Free Solo is filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi being completely transparent and open about the possibility of Honnold not attempting the climb.

While it would be understandable for the directors to opt against releasing the doc if he fails the attempt – or even chooses not to do it – it’s refreshing to see both directors express an obligation to show what happens, regardless of the result.

It’s somewhat rare to watch a documentary where the directors are open about the possibility of the star of the film not actually going for their target.

sports documentaries

The Short Game (2013)

Watch on: Netflix

Director: Josh Greenbaum

Runtime: 99 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.3

As sports fans, we are obsessed with phenoms. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Lionel Messi – the list goes on and on.

We are also fascinated about who exactly could be the ‘next’ great athlete. Usually, we focus on teenagers who might be playing at college level, high school or for some, competing at the top level already.

However, the brilliant thing about The Short Game is that it reminds us that there are competitors as young as seven who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders as they are put under pressure to become sport’s next big name.

The documentary follows the journey of young golfers from around the world as they compete on the world-famous Pinehurst golf course in North Carolina to play in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship. The Short Game focuses on eight players who are all vying for the crown – interviewing them and their families in the six months leading up to the tournament.

It includes interviews with golf legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Annika Sorenstam, who all discuss the pressure and demands of being a professional golfer.

If you’re a parent or guardian of an aspiring athlete, you will – without a doubt – be able to relate to this documentary. It shows the sacrifices that are required, from both the athlete and their support circle, in order to become the best.

sports documentaries

Undefeated (2011)

Watch on: WatchDocumentaries

Directors: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin

Runtime: 113 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.7

Undefeated follows the Manassas Tigers and coach Bill Courtney – a volunteer coach – in inner-city Memphis.

Courtney has the difficult task of attempting to piece together a winning team on the field, while also trying to keep his players out of trouble and off the streets. After years and years of underperforming and disappointing results, the Tigers are able to enjoy a winning campaign under their coach’s guidance.

Many of the scenes are emotional and motivating, but one, in particular, will *probably* have viewers signing up to their local American football team.

“Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character,” Courtney tells his players. Sign me up, coach.

It is very easy to forget that Courtney is a volunteer, working as a coach, as well as a mentor, purely because he wants to have a positive impact on these kids’ lives. He is a business owner with bills to pay, a normal guy with everyday stress and yet, he puts absolutely everything into the Manassas Tigers.

Up and down the country, there are volunteers who give up their weekends to coach and support children in a wide variety of sports. That is why so many people will relate to this film – it’s authentic, true and happens all over the world.

If, for some reason, you still don’t believe us – it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2012. So, give it a go.

sports documentaries

The Last Dance (2020)

Watch on: Netflix

Director: Jason Hehir

Runtime: 10 episodes

IMDB Rating: 9.1

Yes, you might have already watched it. Yes, you most likely finished it in the space of a couple of days. But if you haven’t, you’re going to want to stick around.

This docuseries takes you through the rise of superstar Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, showing never-before-seen footage of the team’s final championship-winning season in 1997-1998 – most of which is extremely entertaining. You’ll witness Jordan in the rawest fashion ever, accompanied by a cigar and a glass of Cincoro tequila as he relives those famous years.

It features exclusive footage from a film crew that had an all-access pass to the Bulls, as well as interviews of many other NBA legends including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson.

Jordan is the star of the series and it follows his timeline from when he was an emerging star on his high school team to becoming a worldwide marketing force and cultural figure – with many labelling him as the greatest player to grace the game of basketball.

The Last Dance takes its name from a phrase used by then-Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who was more than aware that the 97/98 season would more than likely prove to be the final one for the core members of that 1990s Bulls dynasty.

When it was released, the show was extremely popular. That interest continued for months and months, with even basketball novices giving it a go.

The show has won several awards since its release in 2020, including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards.

sports documentaries

No No: A Dockumentary (2014)

Watch on: Amazon Prime Video

Director: Jeff Radice

Runtime: 100 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.2

In 1876, George Bradley recorded the first official no-hitter recognised by Major League Baseball. Fast forward to the present day and more than 300 no-hitters have been thrown by pitchers. Oh, by the way, a ‘no-hitter’ is “a game in which a pitcher, or pitchers, gives up no hits while pitching at least nine innings”.

One of the most famous and memorable no-hitters is the 1970 “no-no” thrown by Dock Ellis of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The former All-Star admitted to being high on LSD during the game, so it’s no real surprise that he can’t recall much from it.

No No: A Dockumentary goes back in time to examine his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, as well as covering Ellis’ entertaining and successful career. It also focuses on his views on Black players’ rights in the Major Leagues and his addiction to alcohol and amphetamines.

One of the most heartwarming aspects of this documentary is Ellis’ attempts to provide support and guidance in order to help other addicts get clean.

Ellis did this until he died aged 63 in 2008. “For me, his sobriety is the story. I know he felt shame about the LSD no-hitter, so at the very least to honour him, we should remember both,” said Rhea Butcher, a comedian and baseball fan.

Even if you aren’t a baseball fan, this emotional film demonstrates the highs – and the lows – of professional sport.

All or Nothing: Manchester City (2018)

Watch on: Amazon Prime Video

Director: Manuel Huerga

Runtime: Eight episodes

IMDB Rating: 8.2

Amazon’s brand of sports documentaries – All or Nothing – is incredibly impressive, both in its variety and delivery.

Each season follows a different professional sports club or national team in action throughout a campaign. The series has seen a variety of teams covered, including the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New Zealand national rugby union team and Manchester City.

This series focusing on Man City is one of the best available for a number of reasons; notably, because it charted the progress of one of the best teams in Premier League history under the guidance of one of the game’s greatest managers.

Following the Citizens during the 2017/2018 campaign – in which they won two of four contested trophies and broke a series of Premier League performance-related records – you’re provided with behind-the-scenes content that’s never really been available from the Premier League club before.

The series, narrated by Ben Kingsley, features tactical information, pre-match conversations, in-game alterations and some hard-hitting words from Pep Guardiola.

Even if you’re not a massive football fan, All or Nothing allows viewers to immerse themselves in the most competitive league in the world.

Formula 1: Drive to Survive (2019-present)

Watch on: Netflix

Executive producers: James Gay-Rees, Paul Martin, Sophie Todd

Runtime: 30 episodes

IMDB Rating: 8.6

If you watched and maybe enjoyed the controversial ending to the 2021 Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi earlier this month, you will absolutely love Drive to Survive.

This documentary series provides viewers with a behind-the-scenes look at the drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship. Starting with the 2018 season, the popular show has been a hit with racing fans and novices alike as you learn more about the drivers, as well as the teams supporting them every step of the way.

As there are only 10 ‘teams’ in F1 – with two drivers each – it allows viewers to get to know individual ‘characters’ over the course of a season, and invest in your favourites – be that the driver, team managers or team owners.

With an entire season of racing distilled into ten 30-40 minute episodes, you don’t have to spend the full year following proceedings – even if it is full of twists and turns. This means that you can gradually immerse yourself into the racing world, or leave it alone if you decide it’s not for you.

It is important to note that while Lewis Hamilton doesn’t feature in the first season, he does appear in the documentary series. The Mercedes driver comes into Drive to Survive around halfway through season two, although sickness did limit how much he features in the remaining episodes.

The host of micro-stories within the series is incredibly interesting, too. You quickly learnt that, while much of the focus is put on the title challengers and where they finish in the race, mid-tier teams gain just as much pleasure when they finish fifth and sixth, as the need for points cannot be underestimated.

Icarus (2017)

Watch on: Netflix

Executive producers: Bryan Fogel

Runtime: 121 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.9

Most people will go through life never having to take a dope test, but for athletes, it is one of the most crucial steps – failing one can easily end their career. In sport, it happens more than we’d like, and Icarus depicts how one of the greatest controversies in sports came to light.

Filmmaker Bryan Fogale met with the Russian anti-doping centre’s Director Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, who was the whistle-blower in the famous Lance Armstrong dope test controversy. The initial plan was to film a documentary that would help unravel the irregularities in the Russian system of drug-testing for athletes.

However, it quickly turned into one of the biggest sports controversies in history.

Icarus shows state-sponsored doping efforts in Russia, Rodchenkov’s involvement in it and the International Olympics Committee’s plans for banning Russia from the 2016 Rio Olympics. The engaging story even sees Fogel become a pivotal character in his own film.

The stakes are incredibly high and lives are lost in the process, with Rodchenkov’s lawyer – Jim Walden – appearing briefly in the film to describe the threats to Rodchenkov’s life and the suspicious deaths of two of his associates. 

At the 90th Academy Awards, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager (2018)

Produced by: Torquil Jones, John McKenna, Victoria Barrell

Runtime: 98 minutes

IMDB Rating: 8.2

This feature-length film focuses on the life of former England manager Bobby Robson, using archive footage of Robson – such as home videos, interviews and footage from his managerial career at Barcelona, Newcastle United, Ipswich Town, and during his tenure as the Three Lions boss.

Many football fans will remember Robson’s homecoming at St James’ Park, and if you don’t, it’s worth watching for that moment alone.

The film moves throughout his life in football; from his first appointment at Ipswich Town to taking the England job and ending his career with the Magpies.

As well as focusing on his managerial career, it explains the prognosis of his cancer and the subsequent surgery he underwent. It’s well known that his surgeon – Dr Huw Davies – advised him to retire from the game, but Sir Bobby opted against that advice and became the manager of Barcelona nine months later.

The film showcases the many accolades Robson won throughout his time as a manager, as well interviews with Lady Elsie and Mark Robson, who discuss how Robson’s managerial career impacted his family life.

He was as close to a footballing god as you will ever see and much like the man himself, Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager is also as good as it gets.

Losers (2019)

Watch on: Netflix

Executive producer: Mickey Duzyj

Runtime: Eight episodes

IMDB Rating: 7.7

High-level sport is all about winning. But what happens to the athletes who don’t quite make it? More often than not, those athletes miss the mark by the smallest of margins, and yet, that makes all of the difference between success and failure.

This Netflix docu-series shows the life and struggle of eight “losers” who got lost in time.

From boxing legend Michael Bentt and French figure skater Surya Bonaly to English football club Torquay United and golfer Jean van de Velde, the series documents both the heartbreaks and the positives that have kept them going.

Losers features interviews with athletes that have experienced defeat and turned those losses into positive experiences, as well as speaking to their friends, family and reporters about how they dealt with the heartbreak of losing.

Failure is much more common than success, and yet it is discussed much less often. In sport – which is undeniably built upon a teetering narrative of victory against all odds – there are significantly more failures than victors.

So, in a “winning is everything” society, how do we really handle failure? Can you actually turn it into a positive?

Eddie – Strongman (2015)

Watch on: Netflix

Director: Matt Bell

Runtime: 98 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.4

Eddie: Strongman is a British documentary film which follows the life of English strongman Eddie Hall as he strives to become the World’s Strongest Man. Yep, imagine being able to tell your mates that.

The film provides a unique insight into the extreme lifestyle of an international strongman and the sacrifices he must make to achieve his goals. Hall, a husband, father of two and truck mechanic when he begins his quest, will stop at nothing – even if that means he has to train, eat, sleep and breath strongman.

Competing all over the world in hope of breaking records, Hall has to battle fellow competitors, but also some of his own inner demons as he strives to leave behind the scars of his younger years.

It includes appearances from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brian Shaw and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (Thor) – who Hall was once friends with, but whom he is now scheduled to fight in a boxing match in 2022.

One of the great things about this documentary is that you don’t need to be interested in strongman to enjoy it, mostly because Hall is one of the most charismatic people in sport and his drive to be the best is unwavering, and that is shown at various points throughout the film.

Behind the character of ‘Eddie Hall’ is a father and a man who struggles with everyday things. There is a husband who owes a lot to his wife. And all those things make the film memorable.

Tyson – The Movie (2009)

Watch on: Amazon Prime Video

Director: James Toback

Runtime: 90 minutes

IMDB Rating: 7.5

He was and still is a captivating figure. This documentary looks deeper into the life of former undisputed heavyweight world champion boxer Mike Tyson – both as a fighter and as a man.

Tyson reflects on his highly controversial public life, which started with a difficult childhood in Brooklyn. It then reflects on the father-son relationship he had with his first professional trainer, Cus D’Amato – a moment in the movie where Tyson has to hold back tears.

After an impressive start to his boxing career – which coincided with the death of D’Amato in 1985 – ‘Iron Mike’ was able to overcome adversity, even after losing the only real father figure in his life.

While his talent was there for everyone to see, his career was nothing short of sensational. Tyson solidified his position as an all-time great when he unified the WBC, WBA and IBF title championship belts to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. And yet, what did that mean for him as a person?

The former world champion opens about how it affected his mental wellbeing and impacted his immaturity, lust for women and overall fear. He explains that, while reaching stardom at the age of 20 was undeniably a blessing, it was also a curse, too.

So where did it all leave him? Well, he did overcome his fears and in the process developed a renewed respect for both life and his family.