The 12 Best Sports Documentaries on Netflix

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The 12 Best Sports Documentaries on Netflix

Netflix has made documentaries a priority in their movie selection, as you can see in our list of the 50 Best Documentaries on Netflix. The world of sports documentaries is no exception. From baseball and basketball to adventure sports like mountain climbing and base jumping, these movies and documentary series tell gripping, heartbreaking and just plain goofy tales that get to the heart of why we love sports. The athletes, adventurers and sports personalities here, along with the filmmakers who capture their stories are well worth celebrating.

Here are the 12 best sports documentaries on Netflix:

12. The Summit

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Year: 2013
Director: Nick Ryan
K2 might be overshadowed—in terms of height and the publicity it receives—by Everest, but many consider it an even bigger challenge. Traffic jams on the way to the summit can and do occur, and the results can range from frustratingly tedious to deadly. In 2008, a series of events unfolded on the mountain resulting in 11 deaths, one of the worst mountaineering disasters in recent history. Nick Ryan’s documentary, The Summit, attempts to dissect and explain what happened in painstaking detail through interviews with survivors, vividly shot recreations, and chilling footage from climbers who were on the mountain at the time. The descent is often the most dangerous part of any climb, and this proved especially true over a few days in August 2008. Twenty-two climbers set out for K2’s peak from Camp IV (at about 8,000 meters) in perfect conditions, but almost immediately a problem arose when a passage became clogged with people moving too slowly. This occurred in the “death zone,” the area on a mountain above 26,000 feet where the lack of oxygen can easily lead to disorientation, and where fatalities are most common. Ryan seamlessly blends together recreations shot in Switzerland with actual footage from the mountain, and intersperses fascinating and, at times, heart-wrenching interviews. Despite all of the tragedy and death that occurred on that dark August night in the death zone, there are moments when the viewer can get caught up in what drives someone to conquer a mountain like K2. When the image of the perfectly pointed peak shadowing the horizon across the Pakistani border into China appears on screen, shot on a climber’s video camera from the summit, one can understand, to at least some extent, what sends someone up the mountain. And if you enjoy mountain-climbing drama, Kevin McDonald’s Touching the Void is also worth watching on Netflix.Jonah Flicker


11. CT Fletcher: My Magnificent Obsession

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Year: 2015
Director: Vlad Yudin
Obsession is, necessarily, a major theme in films about athletes, as well as other artists, too. What else keeps people up all hours of the night? What else pushes us forward when common sense tells us to lay down, and give up? CT Fletcher, for many people, is the voice of that push some of us need to be more like those inspirational go-getters we look up to. A bodybuilder turned motivational fitness trainer, Fletcher’s story is one of a man obsessed with his own body and its abilities, who has worked tirelessly to pass along his seemingly endless energy to others. The doc introduces us to a guy who appears to be all muscle and matter, until it unfolds into a story about a distant father and those dysfunctional family lives (and the ensuing emotional responses) that often push us to the point of obsession. There’s a surprising darkness to the film that makes it difficult to watch at times, as Fletcher seems destined to fail as much as he succeeds. What makes him—and his story—so powerful, is his refusal to stay down, regardless of the weight hovering over him.—Shannon M. Houston


10. Sunshine Superman

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Year: 2015
Director: Marah Strauch
Sunshine Superman can be a problematic film to love. A thorough, intimate and often beautiful documentary about Carl Boenish and the BASE jumping movement that practically sprang single-mindedly from the endless font of his surreal enthusiasm, Sunshine Superman still can’t grasp the full splendor at the hearts of both the person and the extreme sport that serve as the film’s most plangent concern. And that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault—there is only so much excitement that can be conveyed regarding the freezing of a full-body rush into a small, albeit panoramic and easily gorgeous, picture—but it is something the film can’t get over. First-time filmmaker Marah Strauch spent years crafting something of a perfect eulogy to Carl Boenish—and her dedication to investigating his outsized life is palpable. It’s no real spoiler he dies, because although you don’t discover the details of Carl’s fate until the film’s final 20-minute stretch, his absence is heavy. His ghost is present everywhere else, though—in home recordings, in reel to reel recordings and even in answering machine messages, Boenish’s ebullient voice lives on righteously throughout the film. The way in which Strauch is able to weave the choicest moments from Boenish’s recordings into a larger narrative that neither betrays the freedom of what he was doing nor feels too formless speaks to a film that seems well-crafted beyond its years, despite the ghost that haunts it.—Dom Sinacola


9. Team Foxcatcher

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Year: 2016
Director: John Greenhalgh
Netflix released this original documentary just two years after Bennett Miller’s film on the same subject, but where Miller’s film stretched the truth into melodrama, Team Foxcatcher plays it straight. Working closely with Dave Schultz’s widow, Greenhalgh recounts the events leading up to Schultz’s murder at the hands of eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Even for the rare viewer unaware of the story’s tragic ending, Team Foxcatcher offers plenty of insight. In revealing home video footage and interviews with Schultz’s fellow wrestlers and friends, the film depicts life at the Foxcatcher estate, where champion wrestlers lived and trained together under du Pont’s financial support, a generosity fueled by a desperate desire for love and belonging. What begins as an athletes’ utopia becomes a strained, dysfunctional family: As du Pont’s paranoia grows, the wrestlers—concerned with their careers and livelihoods—do their best to placate him. Because in the end, Team Foxcatcher’s greatest asset is its heart—even in the face of bizarre and tragic events, the love this large, makeshift family has for each other (du Pont included) is incredibly moving.—Maura McAndrew


8. No No: A Dockumentary

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Year: 2014
Director: Jeffrey Radice
If you’ve ever heard of Dock Ellis, then you know the story: in 1970, pitching professional ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he threw a no hitter (a “no no”) while high on LSD. It’s a great story, especially told from Dock’s point of view—replete with crucial tidbits about how the catcher wore tape on his fingers so that the tripping Dock could see the signals, or how the level of Dock’s intoxication wasn’t exactly a rarity—but that story is only one page in the much broader account of Dock Ellis’s iconic tenure on this earth. A true-blue weirdo with an admirable proclivity to give practically zero fucks (not to mention becoming, in retrospect, an unheralded civil rights firebrand), Dock was a man of both radical shallowness and progressive steadfastness—one of addiction, salvation, dedication and devotion. And the story went: In 1970, pitching professional ball for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dock Ellis threw a no hitter while high on LSD—it was a sad reminder of how far out of control his life had swerved.—Dom Sinacola


7. Iverson

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Year: 2014
Director: Zatella Beatty
For some of us, a great sports documentary is the kind of film that makes you forget you’re not that interested in sports—or better yet, the kind of film that makes you wonder why you’re not that into sports. Iverson starts out as a portrait of a young black man nearly lost to a criminal justice system that seemed determined to derail his life. Allen Iverson would go on to survive this attempt on his life and become one of the greatest basketball players of all time, as well as a representative of the dangers of respectability politics, which seep into all American organizations, including the NBA. Iverson invites you to sit with the complexities of fame, especially for black men and women who are expected to represent much more than their individual selves, and it also demands that—even if you don’t fall in love with the great Allen Iverson by the end, you have to respect his game.—Shannon M. Houston


6. Happy Valley

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Year: 2014
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Why do we pledge allegiance to institutions? Why do we assign positive attributes to unfeeling organizations like sports teams, telling ourselves that our virtue is reflected in their greatness? Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley examines the scandal that engulfed the Penn State Nittany Lions after it was determined that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had molested children for years—and that the university (and beloved head coach Joe Paterno) had covered it up. Less a portrait of a sick soul than a chronicling of its repercussions among the Penn State faithful, Happy Valley starkly illustrates what happens when people simply refuse to acknowledge the moral rot in their midst.—Tim Grierson


5. Pumping Iron

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Year: 1977
Directors: Robert Fiore, George Butler
Behold arrogance anthropomorphized: A 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger, competing for his sixth Mr. Olympia title, effortlessly waxes poetic about his overall excellence, his litanies regarding the similarities between orgasming and lifting weights merely fodder between bouts of pumping the titular iron and/or flirting with women he can roll up into his biceps like little flesh burritos. He is both the epitome of the human form and almost tragically inhuman, so corporeally perfect that his physique seems unattainable, his status as a weightlifting wunderkind one of a kind. And yet, in the other corner, a young, nervous Lou Ferrigno primes his equally large body to usurp Arnold’s title, but without the magnanimous bluster and dick-wagging swagger the soon-to-be Hollywood icon makes no attempt to hide. Schwarzenegger understands that weightlifting is a mind game (like in any sport), buttressed best by a healthy sense of vanity and privilege, and directors Fiore and Butler mine Arnold’s past enough to divine where he inherited such self-absorption. Contrast this attitude against Ferrigno’s almost morbid shyness, and Pumping Iron becomes a fascinating glimpse at the kind of sociopathy required of living gods.—Dom Sinacola


4. The Battered Bastards of Baseball

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Year: 2013
Directors: Chapman Way, Maclain Way
There’s always been something romantic about independent minor league baseball teams, but that romance has never been quite in full bloom like the story of the Portland Mavericks, a team with no major league affiliation. Owned by actor Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad), Maverickdom spread from Oregon to the nation, beginning with Joe Garagiola’s NBC special. With characters like blackballed Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, the first woman general manager in baseball (age 24) and the first Asian-American (at 22), the inventor of Big League Chew, batboy Todd Field (Oscar-nominated screenwriter for In the Bedroom), and a ball dog, the antics of the team were as entertaining as the game itself. And yet the team’s run from 1973-1977 was one of the best in the minor leagues. Bing’s goal was to bring back the joy and fun of the minor-league teams of the first half of the 20th century, to embody that baseball cliché—for the love of the game. As Bouton says of his fellow $400-a-month teammates, “Our motivation was simple: revenge. We loved whomping fuzzy-cheeked college-bonus babies owned by the Dodgers and Phillies.” It’s an underdog story made for a documentary and Chapman and Maclain Way have given the story the doc it deserved.—Josh Jackson


3. The Epic of Everest

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Year: 1924
Director: John Noel
Restored in 2012 and 2013 by the British Film Institute, which recorded an intoxicating—sometimes even eviscerating—score and returned many segments to their original, alien color tint, The Epic of Everest is an unassailable landmark of documentary filmmaking, both a testament to and an unfortunate product of the colonialist spirit. Chronicling the third attempt to reach the summit of Mount Everest, which led to the deaths of two seasoned climbers, the film, like an early Herzogian experiment in naturalistic cinema, breathes with the same tension, endurance and shocking beauty of its subject. Also like a Herzogian epic, the documentary’s attitude toward the native Tibetans living at the foot of the mountain is sometimes dubious, at one point (almost hilariously) going to great lengths to describe the filthiness of a town’s inhabitants. (The title cards are a word or two from calling them “dirt people”…which: c’mon.) Yet, the documentary is astounding despite its length, and by the time we reach its closing shots—an exquisite time-lapse of a stark sunset over the Himalayas—we feel as if we’ve been given the privilege of witnessing human kind at its most empirically ambitious.—Dom Sinacola


2. Deep Water

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Year: 2006
Directors: Jerry Rothwell, Louise Osmond
Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s 2006 documentary Deep Water feels like an homage: to sailing, to the sea, to adventure, to vindaloo paste, but mostly to the unknown. In it, Osmond and Rothwell, with narrative help from friends and then—sure—Tilda Swinton, chronicle the 1968 round-the-world Sunday Times Golden Globe yacht race, wherein nine of the world’s best sailors, plus one large-hearted electronics engineer named Donald Crowhurst, pretty much the definition of a “weekend sailor,” set out to circumnavigate the globe. They started in the UK, went south and around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, around Cape Horn, and then back across the Atlantic to complete the loop. It was supposed to take about nine months. Instead, Crowhurst’s story found incomprehensible tragedy—and weirdness. While Deep Water often trumps melodramatic musical cues and interstitial vignettes even Errol Morris would call cheesy, pushing the narrative into heartrending territory the story itself could easily attain on its own, long passages of screen time are devoted, just as simply, to staring at the sea. Like Herzog’s seemingly interminable shots of whitewater on the Amazon in Aguirre, the viewer is expected to hold her gaze. It’s a hypnotic sight; it’s also simultaneously overwhelming and calm, vicious and passive, loud and susurrate to the point of silence. In that middle ground, between poles (or, rather, where two ends meet, at both the end and the beginning), there is the terror of the unknown. There is this ocean and that ocean and thousands of miles of incomprehensible vista between.—Dom Sinacola


1. Last Chance U


Netflix’s first sports-centric docuseries, like ESPN’s celebrated 30 for 30, makes its subject so gripping that even those typically apathetic towards any kind of physical activity will find themselves reeled in. Last Chance U shines the spotlight on the East Mississippi Community College Lions, a dominant football team based practically in the middle of nowhere, as they attempt to retain their national championship for a second consecutive year. The gifted but often troubled players who are given, and sometimes end up throwing away, their last shot at reaching the big time inevitably serve as much of the focus. But blustering coach Buddy Stephens and pleading academic advisor Brittany Wagner, the two authority figures given the thankless task of whipping the team into physical and mental shape, are just as eminently watchable. Exploring that fine line between victory and defeat, this six-parter is a riveting, inspiring and at times heartbreaking watch—whether you’re an NFL obsessive or someone whose knowledge of the game extends little beyond the Super Bowl halftime show.—Jon O’Brien

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