Why do we love watching sports? Well, there are many reasons. It’s escape, it’s community, it’s low-stakes warfare and it’s a reason to drink beer.
But most of all, it’s theater. It’s live storytelling about larger-than-life, often tragic figures in the most high-stress situations imaginable.
Nowhere is this more true than so-called “extreme” sports. While you could easily lose yourself in great 30 for 30 episodes about golf or tennis stars, those athletes often aren’t risking their lives. The sand trap on a golf course isn’t quicksand, and you don’t play tennis with a hand grenade. On the other hand, extreme sports are characterized by one thing: truly insane levels of risk.
That’s why we find extreme sports documentaries so thrilling.
These are more heart-pounding, tense and even emotional than some of our favorite movies. They’re also character studies of, frankly, bizarre people.
While all of us may have dalliances with risk, especially when we’re young, we don’t choose to live in it.
Here are my top picks in five different sports. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the spoilers light!
While director Jimmy Chin’s Free Solo was far more famous (it won the Oscar, after all), we actually preferred Meru, his 2015 film. Why? Because as a feat of filmmaking, athletics and endurance, it’s even more astonishing.
Now, Alex Honnold in Free Solo is clearly a genius rock climber - probably the greatest of all time. But he only has one thing to worry about: going up. Granted, this is a rather large concern, but he doesn’t have to worry about the camera crews, who work arduously to cover him from every angle, hauling hundreds of pounds of gear up a sheer cliff face.
In Meru, three expert climbers (Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk) all film themselves while ascending one of the most treacherous routes in the world: the Shark Fin route off Meru peak in the Indian Himalayas.
There’s no crew, no support system and no one to call if anything goes wrong. You’re watching only the three of them carrying all their heavy equipment, shooting themselves while doing an insanely technical, difficult climb at ultra-high altitude, in weather as erratic and dangerous as Everest. The slightest mistake won’t just lead to one tragedy, but to all three men pitching off the rock. With altitude, stress, hunger, cold, fatigue and injury, mistakes become easy.
While there’s an abundance of great surfing documentaries, this new series was too good not to include.
This six-part series chronicles master surfer Garrett McNamara on his quixotic quest to surf the legendary 100-foot wave.
This journey takes him from his native Hawaii to the at-the-time remote, unknown town of Nazaré, Portugal where massive breakers pound a desolate rock face in a deadly cross-sea.
While this is a thrilling documentary with all the shocking wipeouts and exhilarating rides you might expect, it’s also a great primer for the surfing world in general, with a revolving door of famous surfers like Laird Hamilton, Maya Gabeira and Kai Lenny offering their insights. You’ll come through with a much richer understanding of the sport as well as big wave surfers themselves. Not all people who are wired for risk are the same. Some know when to stop, others… not so much. But the latter sometimes achieve incredible things.
While some may balk at the idea of racing being an “extreme sport,” we believe that high-speed racers are more than crazy enough to qualify, especially in the 80’s (try looking up “Group B” for some real madness).
This film about racing champion Ayrton Senna and his rivalry with another racer, Alain Prost, is a thrillingly edited and composed adventure, feeling much more like a blockbuster racing film than a traditional documentary.
Because there are no “talking heads,” the action keeps moving. As with the other films here, even if you have no interest or understanding in the sport, you’ll walk away appreciating it much more.
While many great ski/snowboarding films (like The Art of FLIGHT) are sumptuously shot, there’s not always an interesting character at the heart of it. McConkey follows legendary skier and adventurer Shane McConkey and explores his unique personality.
Unlike Alex Honnold quietly climbing El Cap, McConkey tries to turn skiing into entertainment with increasingly mad stunts like a skiing Evel Knievel.
So far, these four films also explore the issues of turning risk-taking into a career. When your industry directly rewards risking your life with fame and money, it can muddle your judgment.
This last documentary is a little different. Now, we know what you’re thinking. Sailing, 99% of the time, is not an extreme sport. It’s something you do, ideally on a friend’s boat, in between napping and beer. However, that 1% of the time is a real doozy. It goes from “leisure activity” to “man versus nature” real fast. That’s not an equation anybody likes to find themselves in.
Deep Water is about the first solo nonstop sailing race around the world - the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. We’ll just say things don’t go according to plan for the nine people involved.
Specifically, the film follows Donald Crowhurst, a failed businessman-turned-yachtsman, who finds that the ultimate challenge in this sport is really with yourself. He has a very different personality from the people chronicled above, but assumes no less extreme risk.
We know, this isn’t a traditional extreme sport, or a typical documentary, but season 6 of the show Alone was insanely fun.
Alone is not your typical reality television show. It’s not a cavalcade of drunks in a resort arguing with each other about who loves each other more, while gleeful producers zoom in on awkward expressions. Alone is, as far as we can tell, actually real.
The hook of Alone is that ten survivalists have to survive for as long as they can in the wilderness.
Anyone who has backpacked, or even camped, will find sympathy with these expert survivalists trying (and failing) to light a fire, catch fish, hunt, set up a lean-to and so on. It’s humbling and often hilarious, though fraught with real peril when temperatures drop.
The reason it’s actually dangerous? They film themselves, and any help is hours away. Fall into a frigid lake, get gored by a moose or bear or eat some spoiled meat and you’re on your own.
Without anyone to talk to or strategize with, what follows is a fascinating psychological look at how different people deal with solitude, failure and hunger.
Where some break down after the first day, others are seriously living their best life. We’d recommend starting with season 6, partially because the show got a much bigger budget by then, but mainly because the contestants are quite varied and impressive survivalists. That particular season also takes place in the Canadian arctic by Great Slave Lake, a remote, ruggedly beautiful place.
Now that you’ve got hours of good film queued up, I wouldn’t recommend spending too long in front of the tv… get out and try a sport (extreme or otherwise) yourself!