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Sports Documentaries Are the Drama

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: ESPN Films,©Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection, Netflix

Whether or not you consider yourself a sports fan, you have to admit the industry has a hold on pop culture. Elite athletes, like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, have been celebrities in their own right for decades — and the ability to leverage their star status off of their respective playing fields to make them bona fide entrepreneurs has only made them more popular. And with social media, the masses now get a sense of the inner lives athletes wish to share themselves, not just the stories others wish to tell about their victories, defeats, and legacies.

Those stories are high drama. Not just the kind we assume will happen on reality television these days, but a genre that spans the expanse of human emotion, from uproarious laughter to full-out sobs to seething anger. Sports is its own universe, where societal norms about the presence of emotion (or lack thereof) are turned on their head. You’ll often see not only top athletes but their fans and onlookers steeped resolutely in their feelings throughout an entire match, whether it’s a court-pounding basketball game or the methodical strokes of golf.

I was under the impression that I didn’t care much about sports. But quickly after diving into documentaries around different kinds of athleticism, I realized I really do enjoy them. I’m just more of a sports history girlie than someone who could be captivated by watching a game from start to finish. You might be too, so here’s a list of some of the best docs out there that will help boost your sports knowledge while keeping you on the edge of your seat.

The Last Dance

Even if you’ve never owned a pair of Jordans, you definitely know who Michael Jordan is. And though he hasn’t played for quite some time, his legacy is undeniable — he went on to win six NBA championship rings with the Chicago Bulls in the early to late ’90s. The crying meme that boasts his face shares just a smidge of the emotion he, his teammates, his rivals, and other notable sports figures touch upon in this ten-episode series. Prepare to be entertained, because the tea is being spilled here and it’s HOT.

Where to watch: Netflix

30 for 30: The Price of Gold

The Nancy Kerrigan versus Tonya Harding feud is undoubtedly one of sports’ most infamous disputes, and this installment of ESPN: 30 for 30 documents how it all played out before Kerrigan was attacked. Though she doesn’t give a one-on-one interview in the episode, Harding does — revealing just how much there was to learn about the talented athlete before 2017’s fictional profile I, Tonya sweept awards shows. This doc will take you right back to the ’90s and your figure-skating obsession.

Where to watch: Prime Video

Free Solo

There are few things that compare to the way your heart races watching someone climb the face of rock formations that are thousands of feet tall with absolutely no equipment whatsoever. That’s what free soloing is, and world-renowned climber Alex Honnold stars in this doc that showcases him scaling El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. This film has intrigue, love, peril, and so much more. You’ll never look at rock climbing the same way again.

Where to watch: Disney+

Athlete A

Two hundred and sixty-five women have come forward to speak about the sexual abuse they endured at the hands of Larry Nassar, the longtime doctor of the U.S. gymnastics team. But this harrowing film goes in depth about the system that protected him and ignored many of these gymnasts’ cries for help as they continued to win top medals for the team all over the world.

Where to watch: Netflix

Under Pressure: The U.S. Women’s World Cup Team

Though we know in real life that the U.S. Women’s World Cup team was eliminated from the tournament in a Round of 16 game against Sweden, it doesn’t make this four-part series any less thrilling or intense. Starring iconic players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, along with interviews from all-time greats including Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, you’ll walk away with so much respect for what these athletes have done, including fighting for equal pay.

Where to watch: Netflix

We Are Ayenda

When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban returned to power in Kabul, it immediately affected the lives of many, including the teenagers on the Afghani girls’ soccer team. This story documents how the team’s coach, fellow soccer player and activist Farkhunda Muhtaj, used WhatsApp to communicate with the team and help them evacuate to safety, and how they are faring now while still fighting to be seen on the world stage.

Where to watch: YouTube

Over the Limit

Bearing uncanny similarities to the Academy Award–nominated film Black Swan, this documentary centers Russian rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun on her journey to the 2016 Olympics. Equal parts beautiful because of the sport’s grace and emotion, and painful because of the mental anguish and intensive training Mamun undergoes, you will be riveted by this story from start to finish.

Where to watch: Prime Video

The Other Shore

A decade before Annette Bening starred in the critically acclaimed Nyad, this documentary showed just how badass groundbreaking swimmer Diana Nyad is in real life. Swimming from Cuba to Florida for 53 hours nonstop and facing dangerous sea creatures like box jellyfish along the way, Nyad is truly one of a kind, and her power and bravery is showcased here. I haven’t looked at swimming in the ocean the same since.

Where to watch: Prime Video


You know him for his good looks and fashion sense, but David Beckham was nothing to play with on the pitch during his time as one of the biggest soccer players in the sport’s history. This documentary not only chronicles his lifelong love of the game, but goes into depth about his love story with fellow icon Victoria Beckham, his edgy sartorial choices and all-around indulgent Taurus behavior, and the bonds he’s built with his teammates that last until this day.

Where to watch: Netflix

When We Were Kings

After more than two decades perfecting this doc, director Leon Gast brought forth a masterpiece about the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in then-Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) between legends Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. We know there were few athletes as confident and smooth-talking as Ali, so there’s a ton of his glorious shade, along with the cultural significance of having these powerful Black competitors have this major fight on the continent, with interview cameos from pop-culture icons like Spike Lee.

Where to watch: Max


If you’ve ever watched golf, then enough said about Tiger Woods. When he entered the sport, he changed it forever. His journey is legendary but also painful. A powerful chronicle of his relationship with his father, the ills of rising to fame as a young person, and a dizzying downward spiral that culminates with a return to the course, there’s so much more than meets the eye.

Where to watch: Max

Sports Documentaries Are the Drama