Against all the odds, Tokyo is on.
The world’s in an Olympics frenzy right now, but if you find yourself needing a break from the endless stream of slow-mo replays set to swelling, inspirational music, these might tickle your fancy. From basketball to AFL, here’s some of the best sports documentaries—I said some, don’t come for me if I missed your favourite—you can watch in the meantime.
Before I start yapping on about this film being Oscar-nominated and lauded as one of the best sports documentaries of its time… how good’s that trailer? Anyway, Hoop Dreams: it was originally intended to be a 30-minute short film for PBS, but when the filmmakers realised they were onto something, they spent the next five years following the two protagonists, William Gates and Arthur Agee. And, like all good sports documentaries, it’s about so much more than basketball itself. It’s about race, class, the education system, and what talented Black students and athletes have to go through to make it to the top. Hoop Dreams is rough and ready in exactly the way you’d expect from a mid-90s documentary, but it’s also a reminder that you don’t need slick editing and fancy camera gear to make a great film—you just need a good story.
Over the Limit
This documentary floored me harder than a Simone Biles Yurchenko double pike. You can guess how much pressure athletes are under from the outside, but to see it uncomfortably up close in Over the Limit is another thing entirely. This documentary follows Russian gymnast Margarita Mamun in the lead up to the pinnacle of most athlete’s career, the Olympics, and it’s insane. Berated and abused constantly by her coaches, Mamun is forced to train and compete through injury and mental breaking point in a sport where perfect still isn’t good enough. Variety called this ‘the Black Swan of sports documentaries’ for a reason. Watch this and feel grateful for all those times you played shit and your mum or dad still said ‘good game’ and got you McDonald’s on the ride home.
Minding the Gap
You either loved or hated skateboarding’s first-ever inclusion in the Olympic Games, but guaranteed you’ll love this. Filmed over six years, Minding the Gap follows a group of friends as they deal with family trauma, adolescence and adulthood, mental health, and identity, in what Monster Children described as ‘one of the best on-screen depictions of skateboarding’ of all-time. High praise indeed, but very much warranted. Filmmaker Bing Liu started religiously filming his friends at all their local spots in Illinois, and it morphed into an incredible patchwork of stories held together by a love of skateboarding. Skateboarder or not, give this one a go.
Girls Can’t Surf
Because you’ve already seen Endless Summer (you have, haven’t you?) here’s what you should be watching in ’21. Girls Can’t Surf tells the story of women’s surfing throughout the 80s and 90s, as a group of talented female surfers struggled to get a foothold in a male-dominated industry—an industry that didn’t even try to hide the fact that they weren’t welcome in the boys club. But surfers like Jodie Cooper, Freida Zamba, Wendy Botha, Pam Burridge, and Pauline Menczer weren’t giving in that easy—they battled through years of getting paid next to nothing, with zero support from a booming industry, and having to compete in the worst waves, to come out on top. It’s an incredible documentary with a ton of recognisable faces, and aside from gaining an insight into how cooked attitudes were towards women’s surfing only a couple of decades ago, it’s a fun ride through surfing history thanks to the old archival footage, VHS vids, and questionable fashion choices.
I Am Bolt
It’d be hard to make a dull documentary about someone as enigmatic as Usain Bolt. I Am Bolt does a fantastic job of showing not only the extroverted public persona the world expects from the world’s fastest man, but his quieter, more contemplative side, as he battles nerves and motivation to be the athlete everyone expects him to be. Great flick to watch alongside the Track and Field events at Tokyo.
Andy Irons: Kissed By God
This painfully honest doco about the late Andy Irons was revelatory when it came out in 2018, and for all the right reasons: Kissed by God revealed that the three-time world champion surfer struggled with bipolar disorder and opioid addiction, internal battles that tragically led to his early death. While it’s a fascinating story of his rise to success in a golden era of surfing, the way that the film confronts the myths surrounding mental health and addiction are equally as important to its impact.
The Australian Dream
A hugely important story about race and identity in Australia today, told through the eyes of Indigenous AFL great, Adam Goodes. For those unfamiliar, Goodes found himself at the centre of heated and racist national debate when an incident at an AFL match snowballed: a 13-year-old called Goodes an ape, and after being pointed out by him, was ejected from the stadium. The media coverage would go on to reveal the ugly racism bubbling just under the surface of modern Australia. The film centres around this incident and Goodes’ experiences in the aftermath, and it’s a fantastic but uncomfortable watch.
A look at the ugly side of the Olympics—and there’s a lot of them. The Fall is a story of the story at the ’84 Olympics: the women’s 3000-metre race. The most hyped rivalry of the Games that year, the drama centres around American Mary Decker and South African Zola Budd, the latter of which ran in bare feet and was just a teenager thrown into the middle of an international press frenzy. As the title of the film itself reveals, there’s a very famous, very controversial trip, which paved the way for even more spectacle after the race had wrapped. The Fall reunites the two bitter rivals for the first time almost three decades after the ’84 Olympics, to finally confront the race that’s haunted them every day since.
The Dawn Wall
As someone who gives the edge of any cliff a wide berth at all times, watching these climbers claw their way up a sheer rock face feels like having someone place a few bricks on your chest. You know a documentary is good when you couldn’t give a toss about the sport itself but can’t tear your eyes away from the screen, and The Dawn Wall is exactly that. If you haven’t already been pushed to watch this from its prominent spot atop the Netflix algorithm a while back, take this as your sign.
The Last Dance
To the 10% of the population who are yet to watch this: Do it. Do it now.