Sports documentaries cannot only spark motivation in an athlete, but they can also hint at how our pastimes bring out the human spirit. To help you spend your time well during this shutdown, we’ve compiled a list of the five top sports documentaries currently out on Netflix.
“Athlete A” poignantly breaks down the USA Gymnastics (USAG) sex abuse scandal where USAG team doctor, Larry Nassar, was accused of molesting more than 250 girls. The film explores the history of American women’s gymnastics. It connects how the “win at all costs” mentality evolved in the 1980s from former Romanian coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, who defected to America, cultivated a strict culture within USAG which ultimately allowed an abuser to hide in plain sight. This film places the first athletes who came forward to prevent further abuse at the heart of the story.
The story’s primary focus lands on the bravery of the 2016 Olympic hopeful Maggie Nichols. Overall, “Athlete A" exposes the surprising depth of corruption of a sport’s national governing body, the necessity of local journalism and the survivors’ remarkable resilience. Albeit sad, it is an inspiring watch.
“Icarus” is an Oscar-winning documentary that gives an insider’s look into the state-sponsored Russian doping scandal which caused the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to nearly ban all Russian citizens from the 2016 Rio Olympics. The scandal called into question the legitimacy of any sporting results. The film itself is quite the ride, as it begins as a somewhat lighthearted quest by the documentarian, Bryan Fogel, to see how much he can improve as a cyclist with performance-enhancing drugs.
However, that narrative takes a turn when Fogel’s expert adviser, the head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, gets caught in one of the biggest sporting scandals in recent history. Due to Rodchenkov’s aid to Russian athletes in evading anti-drug measures imposed by the IOC, he becomes a focal point. Rodchenkov begins to feel that he is not safe from the Russian government, so he flees his state and becomes a major whistleblower. Additionally, the film is unexpectedly funny because of Rodchenkov’s humor and eccentricity even amid the backdrop of the doping scandal; his amusement with life is oddly thought-provoking in an existential sense.
Another Oscar-winning documentary on Netflix, “Undefeated" follows in-depth the experience of the Manassas High School football team of North Memphis as they try to win a playoff game that could potentially lead to college scholarships for the team members. The kids come from a low-income and depressed area, so scholarships could make or break their chance at a higher education.
“Undefeated" is more about navigating the hurdles in life than it is about football; the film highlights that being on a team is an advantageous experience, as it can be an ideal medium for learning life skills. The charismatic coach of the Manassas High School football team wears his heart on his sleeve and actively demonstrates his love for his athletes and football. “Young men of character, discipline and commitment win in life" is the coach’s mantra. Even with the team’s losses, they will not quit pushing forward. “Undefeated" is ultimately rich with very human drama, and the film meaningfully stresses how success is far from the only, or even most important, take-away from athletic involvement.
The Short Game
“The Short Game” is a hilarious documentary that gets to the heart of what it means to be a person and a competitive athlete by way of the lively child golfing phenoms that are featured. Even if you have no interest in golf, you will find yourself rooting for these eight pint-size prodigies as they work tirelessly to prepare for the World Championship of Junior Golf.
A few of the parents are achievement-obsessed and seem to live for caddying for their child. However, the parents of Zama, a cheerful eight-year-old from Johannesburg, just enjoy the experience – calling into question what makes for the most effective parenting style.
Through Jed, a painfully shy boy from Manila; Avery, a California girl that struggles with her temper; and Allan, a returning champion from Florida who has to be reminded not to cheer for his competition’s failures, we can see that this game is about much more than golf. It’s about navigating life and growing up.
The Game Changers
“The Game Changers,” which before its Netflix debut became the bestselling documentary on iTunes of all time, features an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter who embarks on a mission to discern the optimal diet for peak athletic performance and good health.
That mission leads to a pro-vegan narrative that focuses on Olympic-level athletes that saw notable gains after switching to a plant-based diet. This pro-vegan documentary is especially appealing because it focuses on the athletic improvements many athletes have observed after going vegan, rather than more prevalent graphic illustrations of animal rights arguments.
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