Documentaries for staying in the sports mood

Although most sports are currently on hold, staying engaged with the world of sports has never been easier. Here are some of The McGill Tribune’s favourite sports documentaries that will tide you over to the next season.

Athlete A

Content warning: Graphic descriptions of sexual violence

Athlete A is a powerful and important story about the behind-the-scenes abuse that continued for decades at USA Gymnastics (USAG). The Netflix Original documentary highlights not only the abuse by team doctor, Larry Nassar, but also USAG’s ongoing and active participation in concealing it.

Maggie Nichols, or Athlete A, was the first gymnast to report abuse by Nassar, but investigative reporting by The Indianapolis Star encouraged over 150 more women to come forward. 

Watching the gymnasts testify during Nassar’s sentencing is empowering and heartening. When Nassar receives his 175-year sentence, it feels as though these athletes finally get some semblance of the justice that they deserve. This documentary sheds light on the corruption of an internationally recognized organization and the power of the athletes’ fight for justice.

The Dawn Wall

In this unbelievable tale of perseverance and determination, directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer regale the audience with the life of rock climber Tommy Caldwell. The film follows him through his younger years as he becomes one of the best rock climbers in the world. It is a documentary that tells the story of a man determined to do the impossible: Climb the treacherous Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park in an effort to leave the problems of his life behind. The Dawn Wall is one of the most difficult climbs in the world, and before Caldwell finished his 19-day climb, many had dubbed it insurmountable. In those 19 days, the documentary puts everything on display: The intricacies of rock climbing, the drama between Caldwell and his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson, and Caldwell’s sheer will and determination––or borderline insanity––required to complete the gruelling climb. 

Women of Troy

Cheryl Miller never got to play in the WNBA, yet she is often considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Miller led a stacked University of Southern California Trojans team to two NCAA Championship wins in a row. When a team is that good, the stories follow. Director Alison Ellwood deftly tracks Miller’s career along with her talented teammates, like four-time WNBA Finals MVP Cynthia Cooper, as well as Paula and Pam McGee, to highlight their influence on both the men’s and women’s games. Women of Troy is a 2020 basketball documentary worthy of attention—it will only take a fraction of the time it took to watch The Last Dance, and audiences will enjoy it just as much.

John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection

French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Cinema lies. Sport doesn’t.” The quote serves as the opening to director Julien Faraut’s poetic film about 1980s tennis superstar John McEnroe, and the sport of tennis. The first few minutes of the film are thrilling, with McEnroe setting a serve to the loud sounds of the band Sonic Youth. The film does not let up either, as its use of found footage—reels and reels of 16mm film that did not make the cut for an old instructional video—helps Faraut tell the story of a superstar athlete and his personality. Through innovative techniques, this documentary makes the audience reconsider the way that we watch sports altogether.

Take Us Home: Leeds United 

Leeds United are the quintessential controversial club of English football. A hard-nosed physical program, their success in the 70s earned them the title of the country’s most hated club. Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa is a legendary manager whose charged personality and obsessive work ethic has given him a near mythical reputation in football. In Take Us Home: Leeds United, program and manager combine to create a storyline, the likes of which no screenwriter could script. 

From the Spygate Affair—which followed Bielsa’s covert surveillance of rival team’s training sessions followed by a 70-minute impromptu press conference on their tactics—to the bizarre moment when Leeds deliberately scored an own goal following a controversial decision against their opponents, the six-part docu-series has it all. 

Take Us Home is the culmination of a club’s 100 years of success and misery, all showcased in a single season. Follow along as Leeds United soar to the top of their championship, only to crash and burn as they once again fail to secure a promotion to England’s top division. 

Cheer

Cheer follows the competitive cheerleading season of the Navarro College Bulldogs from Corsicana, Texas as they attempt to defend their championship title. Cheerleading is not a sport that traditionally gets mainstream coverage on major broadcast networks or news sites. Cheer, however, illustrates that the physical demands and hard work necessary for success in cheerleading make it as legitimate a sport as any other.

When Netflix released this docu-series in January 2020, it launched the cast into immediate stardom, with many of the cast members rapidly gaining impressively large followings on social media. It is easy to understand why viewers wanted to know more about these athletes: The series presents heartwarming backstories and characters that, while imperfect, remain relatable. These personal narratives, combined with impressive tumbling and baskets, make for entertaining lockdown watching. 

QB1: Beyond The Lights

This exciting docu-series follows three football stars through their senior year of high school as they vie for championships and Division I scholarships. 

This series provides a deeper look into practices, film sessions and the conversation on the field during games. However, the focus is not only on football, but also on the daily lives of each athlete. As the documentary follows the players through their school day and home life, the audience learns about the struggles that go on behind the scenes. QB1 humanizes these star athletes and unravels the stuck-up jock stereotype that football players often receive. Whether it’s the anxiety that comes with knowing that without a full-ride scholarship some players cannot afford to go to university or the pain associated with losing a brother, the series captures the emotions of life outside of football.

You do not need to know anything about football to start watching this real-life Friday Night Lights series. By the end, though, you just might become a football fan.

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