The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has stopped live sport all over the world. The Olympics and Euro are postponed by a year, Wimbledon is cancelled, and cricket looks unlikely to return anytime soon.
Although not as life-altering in comparison to what’s happening around the world, sports and supporting athletes is the one thing that provided great external comfort and joy universally. Sport is what unites people from all walks of life and provides respite during even the toughest of times.
But the absence of live action on our screens is no reason to miss out on the feeling sport can bring – the adrenaline rush, the nerves, the sheer joy and even poignancy – when we have so many great documentaries.
Unlike the sport biopics now made famous by Bollywood or the films that add the elements of fiction to a story, these sport documentaries are usually factual, use actual footage and are in the voice of the sportspersons themselves.
So whether it is a chance to see the legendary Ayrton Senna talk and race or go behind the scenes in the Australian dressing room post the ball-tampering scandal, these sport documentaries offer unique insights, usually absent from live sport. The framing for cinema gives it an edge that adds to the drama.
Here’s the list of the best sports documentaries to watch during this period of self-isolation, chosen by the writers at The Field.
Diego Armando Maradona, more than 23 years years after hanging up his boots, remains one of the most iconic sporting figures. What set the Argentinian apart from his peers was the ability to single-handedly drag his team to wins. Sometimes, it was the sheer might of his personality. On most other occasions, his mesmeric moves with the football at his feet was enough to leave defenders in a spin and onlookers bewitched.
Widely regarded as the greatest to play the game, Maradona’s enigma is captured brilliantly in Emir Kusturica’s 90-minute documentary which tracks the journey of a little boy from a shanty in Buenos Aires rising to the top of the world. It also delves into the complicated, and sometimes reckless mind of Maradona.
The 1986 World Cup-winning captain also opens up about his drug problems, which nearly took his life in the mid-2000s. For an avid football fan, the documentary is a treat. It sheds light on Maradona’s troubled stint with Barcelona and the god-like status he enjoys in his country and Italian club Napoli, with whom he enjoyed immense success in the late ‘80s. Kusturica’s documentary was released in 2008.
– Chosen by R Vishal
“Imagine an Olympic gold-medal-level athletic achievement that, if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die. That’s pretty much what free soloing El Cap is like. You have to do it perfectly.”
Free Solo (available on Disney+Hotstar), the 2018 Oscar-winning picture that documents Alex Honnold’s historic, ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan – is an edge-of-the-seat thriller. It is a stunning, intimate and unflinching portrait that lays bare the fears, the compulsions, the dangers and the triumphs of a solo, ropeless climb. To make it simple, there is no second take; there is no safety net and one wrong step can mean plummeting to a certain death. There is the added layer of all those who are watching Honnold’s during the movie – film-makers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi give voice to their disbelief as they watch Honnold’s ascent while presenting us with visuals that take us right inside the physical and mental complexity of what he is trying to achieve. It is a gripping and rewarding documentary to watch. The best climbing movie ever made.
– Chosen by Ashish Magotra
The Test – A New Era for Australia’s Team
It is by no means by a masterpiece but what The Test on Amazon Prime does is give fans a peek into the dressing room of a top international cricket side, an idea of the planning that goes on behind the scenes and more importantly, some genuine moments of vulnerability displayed by cricketers who are mostly trained to be machines in front of the media otherwise.
The overall narrative is clearly one of damage repair for Australia, after the ball-tampering scandal rocked the foundations of the sport so loved by so many in the country. This series is aimed at winning some of that respect back and in trying to do so, swerves into over-the-top PR machinery at times. But the greatness of the cricketing moments it captures during its run-time more than makes up for it. Especially The Ashes drama in the final few episodes is worth the wait.
– Chosen by Vinayakk Mohanarangan
Ayrton Senna, the legendary Brazillian Formula One Driver, was only 34 when he died in a racecar crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In his 10 years as a F1 racer, he had acquired the reputation of a genius because of his skill with a car. His untimely death gave him a cult status across sport.
But a whole generation of fans have not seem him race live. There are so many who can’t fathom the impact he created because of the talent to win with even sub-par cars or in impossible weather. For the legion of fans who were converted to the sport because of Michel Schumacher – who, incidentally, won his first title the year Senna died – the Brazillian’s three world titles don’t seem a lot.
That’s where Asif Kapadia’s brilliant 2010 documentary (available on Netflix) comes in, to plug the gaps.
A refreshing aspect of the documentary is that is largely uses only archive racetrack footage and home video clips provided by the family. There aren’t any frills, but just the portrait of a man who achieved greatness as an athlete and a sport that was changed by his life and death.
One of the criticisms is that it amplifies Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, which adds drama to the premise. But leave that aside, and the retrospective view at how Senna drove and won seemingly impossible races is thrilling. Even if you don’t know much about F1 and its technicalities, Senna’s story is intriguing and will keep you hooked.
– Chosen by Zenia Dcunha
When We Were Kings
Muhammad Ali is considered by most as one of the greatest athletes to have ever lived. With his mesmerising feats in the boxing ring across the 1960s and ‘70s, the American went on to earn a cult status. The 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, highlights Ali’s iconic ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ World Heavyweight Championship match against compatriot George Foreman.
The film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, shows the buildup to the 1974 fight between Ali and Foreman in Zaire. It contains interviews with Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, BB King, Thomas Hauser James Brown, Jim Brown and George Plimpton, with Ali himself talking in great detail about the African-American culture.
However, the most interesting aspect about the documentary is the breakdown of the fight itself. Ali’s use of the famous ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic – where he would use his quick feet to tire out his opponent – worked to perfection in his fight against Foreman. It helped him reclaim his world title with a knockout victory in the eight round.
When We Were Kings is regarded as one of the best boxing documentaries ever made and is a must-watch for those who want to get a closer look at Ali – arguably the most significant sportsperson in history.
– Chosen by Aditya Chaturvedi
Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story
For years, cyclist Lance Armstrong was the epitome of a human being’s ability to conquer all challenges to succeed. His seven Tour de France titles after recovering from testicular cancer, made him a worldwide icon, till one day it was proved that the American had doped his way through to winning those titles.
Alex Holmes’ documentary Lance Armstong – Stop at Nothing (available on Netflix) looks at the cyclists’ win-at-all cost mentality and how he started believing in his own invincibility by resorting to intimidating tactics against anyone who tried to question or expose him. The story is told through Armstrong’s friends-turned-foes and uses footage from his press conferences and depositions to show his fall from grace.
The documentary perfectly encapsulates how a person can be a legend one day and become a nobody the next.
– Chosen by Abhijeet Kulkarni
Football is the most popular sport for a reason. The Premier League is the most famous football competition for perhaps the same reason. Drama, pure drama.
The English top-flight has seen several moments that have thrilled football fans across the globe, but there was perhaps none more dramatic than the frantic finale of the 2012 season where Manchester City won their first Premier League title after scoring two goals in stoppage time against QPR to deny their neighbours United a record 20th crown.
Sergio Aguero’s 94th winner went down in history, so did Martin Taylor’s ‘Aguerrrrooooooooooo’ shriek after the goal during commentary. Emotions ran high as ecstatic City supporters had tears of joy at the same time as United fans were shell-shocked. Premier League’s most dramatic moment had unfolded in the space of 5-10 minutes of madness.
Revisiting that moment, and expanding it using perspectives of different people present at the venue, Manchester City produced a documentary series named 93:20; the title denotes the exact time of Aguero’s title clincher.
In each episode, the players, the fans, the staff at the stadium and the media provide their account of the historic day at the Etihad stadium and how they lived through the roller-coaster evening.
93:20 may not be your bread-and-butter sports documentary that dives deep into a sport’s intricacies or a player’s life, but it is an excellent documentation of the range of emotions during a game of football.
– Chosen by Kaushal Shukla
Pumping Iron is one of the most fascinating documentaries in the sports and fitness genre.
We all know about Arnold Schwarzenegger the actor, business, politician but Pumping Iron, released in 1977, gives a real insight into his life as a bodybuilder and a behind-the-scenes peek into the hard work, dedication and sacrifice that goes into the art of body-building. The documentary centres around the fight for 1975 Mr. Olympia title, which features an intriguing battle between Schwarzenegger, who is chasing his sixth title, and young rival Lou Ferrigno alongside a bunch of others.
Schwarzenegger is the toast of the documentary and his boldness, calmness, and confidence is what makes it appealing. He is so obsessed with bodybuilding that he even reveals missing his father’s funeral to attend a competition like it is no big deal.
Pumping Iron became such a hit that it not only changed the stereotype associated with bodybuilding back in the day, but also popularised fitness culture in the United States during the late 1970s and early ‘80s. This documentary is not only for health and fitness freaks but also for those who have never witnessed how fierce and competitive a sport such as bodybuilding can be.
– Chosen by Nicolai Nayak
What are the sports documentaries you’d recommend our readers to watch? Tweet to us @thefield_in or let us know in the comments section.