Streaming Spotlight - In on the action

The best sports documentaries to watch online

by Jennie Kermode

If you're stuck indoors unable to participate in your favourite sport, or if you're simply annoyed that the tournaments you look forward to watching each year aren't happening, never fear. There are some great sports documentaries out there that you can watch instead. We've put together a list of some of the best now available to watch at home in the UK.

Time Trial
Time Trial

Time Trial - Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play

One of the hardest things to capture in a sports documentary is the sheer amount of effort that it takes to get to the top, and the addictive thrill of competing, or pushing to be the absolute best one can be. Time Trial not only achieves this but also takes in the flip side, the horror of inevitable decline. Following multiple championship winner David Millar through the final stages of his professional career, this is a film about mortality, about the challenge of trying to adjust to the fact that one will never again be among the elite, and about finding new ways to relate to a sport that has been everything. It’s visually immersive, carrying viewers along at a tremendous speed, introducing us to a world that is constantly in motion and asking how anyone can live any other way. Read our interview with director Finlay Pretsell.

The Founders
The Founders

The Founders - Cinema Paradiso

Once upon a time golf was strictly for the boys and the idea that television viewers would want to watch any kind of sport played by women was considered hilarious. All that changed thanks to the dedicated founders of the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association in the US. This film charts their story, interviewing all four of those still alive a the time when it was made. Archive footage provides context and helps us to appreciate the women’s sporting skill, whilst old newspaper headlines help us to appreciate what they were up against. Never self-aggrandising, focused more on the small actions that make big things happen, the film also looks at how this solid feminist foundation in turn allowed women of colour and openly lesbian and bisexual women to enter the sport when they were being rejected by others. Read our interview with co-director Carrie Schrader.

Senna
Senna

Senna - Netflix, Amazon Prime

A glamorous young hero full of raw talent; gripping action; fierce interpersonal rivalry and a constant sense of danger – Ayrton Senna’s story has all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster and Asif Kapadia brings it to life in thrilling style. Brilliantly edit archive footage put viewers right in the thick of it, on the track and in the studio where the larger than life personality of the Brazilian national hero makes him compelling to watch almost regardless of whether or not you like him. As documentaries about sports stars go, this is one of the best. It details the Formula 1 driver’s rivalry with sometime teammate Alain Prost and subtly captures the international political context of the time, with France highly influential in Europe and Brazil – just emerging from dictatorship – desperately in need of something to believe in. The shadow hanging over it all is the awareness of what Senna’s desire to fulfil this need will cost him – and even if you don’t know the story at the outset, it isn’t hard to figure that out.

In The Turn
In The Turn

In the Turn - Amazon Prime

Few people start out in sport as winners. As an adult, it can be all too easy to lose sight of the joy of simply taking part. Roller derby has a strong reputation as a sport that’s all about inclusion and one that makes room for girls and women to be fierce and physical in a way still frowned on elsewhere. This sweet-natured film explores the way it changed the life of a young trans girl who discovered it on the internet after being bullied to the point where she no longer felt able to enjoy sports at school. Through her journey (supported by her mother) we discover the community that has grown up around the port, hearing other stories of what it has done for outsiders, as well as watching games and learning something about technique, but the real pleasure of it is watching the kid recover her confidence and find her place in the world. Read our interview with director Erica Tremblay.

Ping Pong
Ping Pong

Ping Pong - Vimeo

If sport can be important early on in life, it can also retain that importance into the twilight years. This film follows eight players participating in the Over-Eighties World Tennis Championships, and you’ll be impressed by the standard of play they can still achieve. Travelling from diverse parts of the world and with very different motives, the contestants all have a lot to say about life, the ageing process, and what they still hope to get out of the time remaining to them. Director Hugh Hartford does a great job of drawing out their passion. Though his framing of the action isn’t perfect, it’s fascinating to see how the players accept and work around the difficulties caused by bodies that are gradually ceasing to function, and the knowledge that, in each case, this could be the last tournament they play brings added tension to the championship bouts.

Next Goal Wins
Next Goal Wins

Next Goal Wins - Sky, Amazon Prime

Amerika Samoa has a population of under 56,000 people, but if cinema has taught us anything, it’s that what matters is how big you dream. They have a football team. They have a passion for the sport. In 2014, they went all out to try and make it through the qualifying stages of the Fifa World Cup, and documentarians Mike Brett and Steve Jamison were with them as they did so. This affectionate portrait of what is undoubtedly one of the world’s least talented teams (they lost 31-nil to Australia in 2001) will strike a chord with everyone who has played simply for love of the game. Its heroes have overcome poverty, inspired by their deep religious faith, and they also broken down barriers with the only professional fa’afafine (a third gender) player in the world. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that they didn’t win the cup, but this endearing film makes them everyone’s favourite losers.

Free Solo
Free Solo

Free Solo - Chili, Amazon Prime

2018 was a year full of impressive climbing documentaries (The Dawn Wall follows a shot at the same piece of rock, El Capitan) and it’s hard to say which was the best overall, but one thing is for sure: Free Solo was the most terrifying to watch. it follows ambitious young climber Alex Honnold as he trains and psyches himself up to have a go at climbing the notoriously challenging cliff face all by himself – freehand, with no ropes and with no safety equipment. It’s shot by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who previously made (and climbed) Meru, so when they start to panic it’s difficult not to feel the same way. In the background, there’s a neurologist who tells Honnold that there’s something physiologically wrong with his fear response, and a new girlfriend who’s unsure if she can cope with loving someone who lives like this. When the slightest wrong move could be fatal, you’ll know what she means.

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