TV

13 best sports documentaries on Netflix

Posted by
Chris Sayer
Published

The Christmas Limbo period – not exactly a time for partaking in strenuous physical activity. But a hell of a time to sit down, feet up, and watch others doing a whole load it.

What the Dickens are we on about? Sports documentaries. Netflix is fit to burst with some real genre bangers, and your post-Xmas pre-NYE wormhole is the perfect time to make a dent in their glorious offerings. What’s more, the streaming service has an incredibly wide range of interests covered, as you’ll see from the 13 best we’ve pulled out from their holy menu. 

You like rugby? Oh we got some rugby alright. Bit of a gnarly snowboarder? Open wide for a slice of rad pie, dude! Think it’s time you made rodeo your “thing”? Hey, what’s that? Some bloody rodeo, mate! So lock the door, dim the lights, remove your trousers (if present company allows it), and hit play on any one of these ace sporting docs before Netflix cruelly tears them from us…

1. Barkley Marathons

Things that we’ll pass on, thanks: spending 60 hours running five marathons back-to-back through the everything-wants-to-kill-you wilderness of Tennessee. Such a heavy whack of self-flagellation is the endurance race known as The Barkley Marathon that, assuming you know how to enter the super secret event and manage to pass the stringent exam to earn a place on the starting line, you then get a letter of acceptance that reads, “Sorry to inform you you’ve been selected to run The Barkley”. Torture for the athlete’s legs, but a bloomin’ riot for Netflix users’ lookyballs. The real heroes of this doc aren’t the hardcore competitors, but the utterly bonkers organisers “Lazarus Luke” and “Raw Dog”, and their batshit, just-go-with-it ways of doing things. Mad, the lot of ‘em.   

2. The Resurrection of Jake the Snake

By Christ, if ever there was a time to risk giving a giant muscular man a pull-yourself-together slap around the chops, or bat a bottle of booze from his hands, this is it. So frustrating in places is this tale of iconic WWE wrestler Jake the Snake Roberts’ fight with alcoholism and his casting off of the support of his friends that you’ll need to pry your nails out of your thighs after the first four-fifths of this. Things get a little better towards the end, thankfully, but prepare to invest a whole lotta emotion into this genuinely sad tale. 

3. All This Mayhem

Hold on… yep, it’s still there. Etched into our eyes, the footage of little brother Ben Pappas, once the second-greatest skateboarder on the planet, whacked out of his head on heroin, the vice grip of self-destruction having reduced him to skin and bones. In the 1990s, Ben and his older brother Tas – who was the FIRST best skater in the world at the same time as his brother’s second spot and sits at the centre of this insanely affecting documentary about success, failure, family and death – were more successful than Tony Hawk in the halfpipe. Here’s how it all, absolutely all of it, went so tragically wrong. 

4. Team Foxcatcher

You already know creepy John Du Pont thanks to Steve Carell’s unsettling prosthetic nose in Foxcatcher - the tale of the stinkin’ rich weirdo who wriggles his way into the role of head coach for the US Olympic wrestling team by opening a top-drawer training facility on his giant farm, before he gets dark. Really dark. Carell and awesome Mark Ruffalo’s retelling was shocking enough, but seeing and hearing the story through previously unseen home video just takes everything up to cheek-slapping levels of disbelief. 

5. Iverson

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Proper American Dream stuff, now. Allen Iverson grew up in a crushingly impoverished broken Virginia home, and ended up earning more than $200m as an 11-time NBA All-Star and universally recognized sporting icon. BOOM, inspirational. But there was more than enough nightmare in his rise to the top, too. BOOM, juicy documentary fodder. On the basketball court, a hip-hop swagger and “prison attitude” that triggered spats with coaches and skipped training sessions. Off it, arrests, bowling alley brawls and prison time. Iverson may be the epitome of ‘bad boy charm’, but a hella talented bad boy at that. 

6. The Short Game

One that’s really going to get that meaty vein in your temple bulging. Especially thanks to the galling pint-sized human rash that is Allan ‘brother of Anna’ Kournikova. Yes, they’re all 7 years old, but that doesn’t make you resent these goddamn talented, impressively hard-working and dream-achieving little ball whackers any less. Eugh, look at them, being better at a thing than you are at any of the things you’ve tried in life. Do your very best to sideline your irritation and actually make the most of this little gem, all about the bonkers cut-throat sub-culture of junior World Championship golf.

7. T-Rex

T-Rex: not exactly a nickname you want to earn yourself in boxing. Little arms, see. Little tiny nubs for arms, with tiny laughable claws at the end. Shitty for guarding your face from a pummeling. Crappy for painting your opponent’s face bruise blue. Well, try explaining that logic to Clarissa ‘T-Rex’ Shields, the boxing heroine at the centre of this coming-of-age winner. “Back when I was younger, I was very skinny and I had short arms,” she told ESPN. “But I used to always be swinging.” This is how all that swinging landed her at the London Olympics in 2012, and in the ring battling for gold. 

8. The Battered Bastards of Baseball

Portland, Oregon is a life-affirmingly weird and do-it-your-own-way kinda place at the best of times (watch Portlandia and see). No surprise, then, that it’s home to the strangest story in US baseball history. This is the colourful tale of the Portland Mavericks, an independent ragtag team of “furry, hairy, funny” underdogs founded by, oh, only Hollywood star Kurt Russell’s’ dad, obviously. And did we mention that their star player, rapid outfielder Reggie Thomas, was rumoured to be an FBI informant and has been missing without a trace since 1984? Yep. And FYI, they might have invented chewing gum. See? Weeeeird.  

9. Pacific Warriors

Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are our kind of rugby nations: good-time underdogs fuelled by whiskey and KFC. But big bastards, and all. Watch them throw their fast food-induced weight around on the pitch as they absolutely steamroller, batter, snap and pummel greater-yet-lesser egg-chasing nations on the way to the Rugby World Cup. Phwoooooar.

10. Higher

Ten-time Big Mountain Rider of the Year and revolutionary backcountry snowboarder Jeremy Jones completes his trilogy of pow-slaying, avalanche-dodging, gnarly movies (Deeper and Further coming before this) with a journey to the Himalayas and Alaska, as well as some bombing lines on his hometown mountains too. Even if you’ve never felt the rush of alpine air through your hair as you charge/utterly stack it down a frosty slope, this is a legendary name you’ll want to become acquainted with – even Barack Obama’s a fan. And he’s cool!

11. Town of Runners

 “Why, oh why, haven’t I bathed in the glory of winning an Olympic gold medal in long-distance running yet?” you ask yourself. First, because you never run, mate. Gotta run to be good at running, bozo. Can’t just buy yourself a new pair of Nike Flyknits and instantly be sick at running. And second, because you weren’t born in Bekoji, an Ethiopian highland town that’s birthed some of the world’s greatest champion runners. Find out why this impoverished African settlement is such a hotbed for talent in this. 

12. Fearless

Just watch this to see how that big brave American guy ended up laying in the dirt at 0:06 and whimpering like a torn-from-its-mother puppy. Clue: it’s big, it’s slobbery, it's well pissed off, and it probably whacked its giant horns up inside this guy’s body.

13. Last Chance U

You don’t have to know the rules of American Football to enjoy this. You don’t have to get the college draft system to know what’s going on. Nor do you need to be able to know the difference between a running back and a tight end. All you need to enjoy this absolute stonker of a doc, about some real troubled school kids with an incredible talent for tossing the pigskin, is a heart that’s ready to be broken, and a whole lot of free time – this six-parter gets reeeal addictive.