Across every inch of the globe, humanity appears obsessed with sports. Looking back through history, there have been many moments where the world seemed to stop, if only for a few brief minutes, as everyone turned their gaze to some stupendous spectacle.
It comes as no surprise then that many of mankind’s most dramatic achievements have centered around the athletic field. The curious part is, however, that we seem to constantly find ourselves united through competition. It is with that focus in mind that we bring you the most important moments in sports history.
#10 – India versus Pakistan (2011 Cricket World Cup Semifinals)
Ever since Britain divided the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 there’s been conflict in the region. The borders that were drawn in the late 40’s would eventually lead to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which left the area split into three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While the English left the locals with a lot of pain, they also left them with a love of cricket.
When the 2011 Cricket World Cup started, the Indian and Pakistani national teams had not faced each other since the 2008 terrorist attacks Mumbai. Only three years had passed since a group of Pakistani militants killed 164 people in coordinated attacks across Maharashtra’s capital city. As the tournament moved forward, it became increasingly clear that India and Pakistan would square off in the semifinals.
The two teams had face each other many times before, but few match-ups were as hyped as this one. The event took place in Mohali, India; tickets sold out quickly and there was a massive boom in TV-sales as thousands of sets were installed nationwide. In both countries, businesses closed for the day so people could watch the match.
In the end, India beat Pakistan 260 runs to 231. But there was a greater victory:
Indian Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) and Pakistani Prime Minister (Yousuf Raza Gilani) publicly watched the showdown together. While no single act could resolve the nations differences, the gesture made a significant impact and helped to strengthen India-Pakistan relations going forward.
#9 – West Germany versus Hungary, 1954
After World War 2 ended, the German people were completely demoralized. The country was divided and the economy was destroyed; families from each side of the conflict had lost relatives and their cities lay in rubble. There was no national pride left in Germany; in fact, there was hardly even a nation.
A decade later, when the West German team struggled their way through to the World Cup Finals, the country finally had something of which they could be proud. Unfortunately, the Germans were about to face a Hungarian national team that had been undefeated for 32 straight games. Worse yet, the last time West Germany had face Hungary, they lost 8 to 3.
Still, somehow, the German team defied the odds and managed to fight there way into a one goal lead at the end of 90 minutes. Together, the West German team claimed the Jules Rimet trophy. The nation had once again found their pride (this time, non-violently) and, soon after, their economy began a great resurgence.
#8 – 1992 NBA All-Star Game
On November 7, 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced that he had HIV. When this happened, much of the world had no idea how to process the information. The HIV virus outbreak had only been first observed in 1981 and the early exposures were limited to a small group of gay men and intravenous drug users.
The prevalence of HIV infections has been slowly spreading across the United States since 1985. In 1989, the New York Times was describing the AIDS crisis as an epidemic that had “the children of the underclass dying in the inner city”. By 1990, the Center for Disease Control was desperately trying to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS, but there was still a major stigma.
The disease was primarily seen as something that only affected marginalized populations. The only thing that outweighed the public’s fear of HIV was their lack of understanding.
When Magic Johnson told the public that he had contracted the virus, basketball fans were shocked. The Lakers superstar announced his immediate retirement and it seemed, for a moment, that the former champion would become just another prominent victim of this terrible illness.
Then something wonderful happened: Even though he had publicly retired, fans voted Magic Johnson into the 1992 All-Star Game.
There were many critics, including several NBA players, who said Johnson should not play. Players feared they would get infected during the game and some fans were vocally against the idea, but the critics would all be silenced when February 9 rolled around.
Magic came back from retirement with the fury of a hurricane. A game that was meant to be a farewell performance turned into one of the greatest returns in all of sporting history. Johnson was playing against an Eastern All-Star team that featured Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen, yet Magic managed to make them all look like foolish children.
The Eastern All-Stars scored 113 points, but Magic’s team scored 153.
With fourteen second left on the clock, Magic hit a three pointer, but the game was already well over by that point. As the clock ran down, players from both teams ran onto the court and began hugging Johnson.
The AIDS epidemic would continue to ravage a large number of people across the globe, but Magic showed people that there was still hope. From that moment forward, Earvin Johnson became one of the HIV awareness movement’s most outspoken activists.
#7 – Dave Kopay Comes Out
Until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association still considered homosexuality a mental illness.
The put that in context, by 1973 the Beatles had already formed, recorded all of their albums and broken up. The first video game console had been released to the public. Humanity had been exploring space for over a decade. Somehow, we could put a man on the moon, but we couldn’t understand a man falling in love with another man.
When professional football player Dave Kopay came out in 1975, he was taking a very large risk. Kopay he became not only one of the first openly gay professional athletes, he became one of the only openly gay football players ever.
The NFL is often been criticized as a haven for anti-gay bigotry and, to this day, only four other NFL players have come out as gay. Not only is Dave Kopay one of the only NFL players to come out of the closet, he did it at a time when homosexuality was still widely rejected by mainstream America.
Kopay’s announcement showed LGBT youths that they were not alone, and for that it’s one of the most important moments in sports history.
#6 – Jackie Robinson Gets Called Up to the Majors
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play major league baseball.
At the time, baseball was the only major sport in the United States. Other sporting leagues existed, but they lacked the type of mass market audience that baseball had attained. The NFL may have signed black players as early as 1920, but football didn’t gain real popularity until the early 1950’s.
When Robinson first played in the big leagues, more than 14,000 black fans filled the stands to watch Jackie and the Dodgers compete against the Boston Braves. Even though Robinson didn’t get a hit in the game, he made a bigger impact on the sport than the league’s greatest players. Slowly, the MLB became an integrated league, and the segregated teams of the past began to disappear.
Throughout his career, Jackie would face racism from players and fans alike, but his endurance forever changed baseball and professional sports as a whole.
#5 – US Plays China in Ping Pong
In the United States, very few people think of Ping Pong as an important sport; however, the game played a vital role in US-Chinese relations.
While the American Table Tennis Team was visiting Japan for the 1971 Championships, they received an invitation to come play a game in China. The American squad accepted the offer and, consequently, became the first US delegation to enter the Chinese capital since 1949.
The match represented a major turning point for US-Chinese relations. The following year, President Nixon visited China and met with Mao Zedong. These actions began a new era in American foreign policy, and diplomatic relations with China were established before the decade was over.
#4 – Nelson Mandela, 1995 South African Rugby match
The Apartheid in South African lasted from 1948-1994. During this time, South Africa was ruled by a minority government made up of Afrikaners, the White descendants of Dutch settlers. This period of segregation was fought against by a group called the African National Congress (ANC).
In 1943, a young Nelson Mandela graduated from University, began to study law, and started working with the ANC. At the time, the organization would only accept Black members, but that slowly changed during the early years of Mandela’s membership.
A few years later, South African government held a general election and permitted only Whites to vote – this was the beginning of the apartheid.
By 1953, Mandela was running the only Black-owned law office in Johannesburg, but the situation had not improved for most non-Whites. By the mid-50s, Mandela began to believe that only a violent uprising would change the status-quo. For several years, helped lead a guerrilla war against the sitting government before he was eventually arrested.
Mandela was in prison from 1962 until 1990. Upon leaving prison, he immediately returned his focus to ending apartheid. Another general election was held in 1994, and this time Mandela was chosen to be President.
This was the setting as the 1995 Rugby World Cup began. The South African Springboks were not highly favored by analysts, but they had a mission. United behind the slogan “one team, one country”, the Springboks burned a path through the bracket. Group by group they demolished their opponents until only one more obstacle stood in their path. Unfortunately, it was the most ferocious of them all.
The New Zealand All Blacks have held the top position in the World Rugby Rankings more times than any other team. They are a force to be reckoned with, physically and mentally. Before every match, they perform the “Haka”, a traditional war dance of the Maori tribesman to intimidate their enemies.
As the Finals began, the All Blacks chanted into the faces of the rivals, but it made little impact. Lead by an Afrikaner player named François Pienaar, the South African team wasted little time getting to work. By the end of the first half, South Africa was leading the match 9 to 6 – but New Zealand were never one to roll over easily.
As the second half began, the All Blacks leveled the score, 9-all, sending the match into extra time. The game was on the line and could go either way, but then Joel Stransky, a half-Jewish South African, scored again to send his team to victory.
At the end of the match, Nelson Mandela walked out in a Springboks jersey and hugged François Pienaar. It was merely a symbolic gesture, but that moment helped bring a wounded nation back together after years of turmoil.
#3 – USA vs USSR, 1980 Olympic Hockey Match
For many years, there was one national hockey team so fierce that they dominated the entire sport. From 1953 to 1979, the Soviet Union’s National Hockey team won 13 world championships and 7 Olympic gold medals. They were called “The Red Army” and no one could stand in their way.
The Soviets were known to inspire anger and frustration in their enemies. So much so that, in 1987, a meeting with the Canadian National Team ended in violence. A brawl broke out between both teams and the game ended with the lights cut out inside the arena. This level of tension was a regular part of playing against the USSR.
On the other end of the spectrum were the Americans. When the US National Hockey team entered the 1980 Olympic Games, they had only won two gold medals in the last sixty years, and the last one was two decades old. When the Americans found themselves set to play against the USSR in the final round, they were clearly the underdogs.
At the time, the Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan. Though the United States had established diplomatic relations with China, we’d also lost the Vietnam war only a few years earlier. Now the US were covertly engaged in suppressing Soviet-sponsored communism in South America. This was the political climate as the American team faced-off against the mighty Red Army.
The game was fast and furious, but the third period, the score was tied. America was barely holding on before a late match goal from Mike Eruzione gave the US a one-goal lead. For the first time, the USSR’s player became desperate; the Red Army began recklessly firing the puck toward the American goal but it was no use. The mighty Soviets had fallen.
Before the match, Dave Anderson of the New York Times had said that USA were destined to lose unless the team could perform “a miracle” – and that’s how the game came to be known as “The Miracle on Ice“.
While the tournament was not technically over yet, the victory was already the highlight of the Olympics and, for the first time in hockey history, the US stood up to Soviet aggression.
#2 – The 1936 Olympic Games
When the 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, Hitler was there to make a statement. For the Nazis, these competitions were a chance to showcase the volkische ideal that was the core of their propaganda. As Nazi spin-doctor Joseph Goebbels put it:
“German sport has only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence.”
In the lead up to the Olympic games, upset with Germany’s increasing policies of discrimination, many people argued that the US should boycott the host city. But Hitler’s PR people, being rather good at their job, attempted to assuage the public’s growing fear. The Germans removed their “Jews Not Wanted” signs and began increased diplomatic pressure. Unfortunately, they also “cleaned” up the city in several other ways, including a round up of all the Romanis, who were then put in concentration camps.
Hitler’s stunt had worked; ticket sales for the Berlin Olympics were quite high, and the event created a huge influx of cash for the National Socialists. For a moment seemed as though the entire plan would go off without a hitch; of course, everything changed when Adolf’s Aryan athletes found themselves being demolished by Jewish and black athletes of all nationalities.
During the games, 13 Jewish athletes and 18 black competitors went on to win medals. The most famous example, though, was the American Track and Field team-member Jesse Owens. In less than an hour, Owens broke three world records and tied another one. In a matter of minutes, the Nazi’s illusions had been shattered, and Hitler refused to shake the hands of any non-German participants after the events ended. In the words of ESPN’s Larry Schwarts: “When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy”.
The games, meant to be a showcase of German might, had become a damning condemnation of the Nazi Party’s core philosophies.
While these victories made quite a statement, the United States still attempted to remain friendly. Two Jewish sprinters on the US team were told they would not compete, because their victories would embarrass the Germans. Luckily, the damage had already been done. As the games came to an end, Goebbels Ministry of Propaganda began a hasty attempt at damage control.
While many view the events as a tragic part of history – a time when America seemed to support the Nazis – others see it as a PR victory. Hitler’s big lie had begun to unravel.
#1 – Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling
In the 1930’s and 1940’s there were two heavyweight boxers whose names were on everyone’s lips; these men were Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.
Schmeling was born in Germany, near the Baltic Sea. From 1930 to 1932, he was the heavyweight champion of the world. As the Nazi Party took over his homeland, Schmeling became one of the athletes championed by Hitler. They called him “The Black Uhlan of the Rhine”, and he perfectly represented the “fighting spirit” Goebbels had so often mentioned.
In 1936, as the German Army pushed west towards Belgium, Schmeling was sent to New York to face one of America’s greatest fighters: Joe Louis.
Joe Louis was a black kid from Alabama who grew up in Detroit. His parents were the children of former slaves and his brother worked at the Ford Motor Company. Joe was about as American as people come.
In their first meeting, Schmeling caught Louis with right that knocked him to the ground. The crowd gasped as Louis had never before fallen in all 28 of his past fights. The contest continued for several more rounds, but Louis was eventually knocked out. There were only two months left until the Olympics in Berlin, and the loss was devastating to many Americans.
Schmeling returned home a hero, and the Nazi party continued their expansion across Europe. “I have seen no Jews suffer,” Schmeling told one interviewer. “Whatever pain they are undergoing they have brought on themselves by circulating anti-Nazi horror stories in New York and elsewhere.”
The Nazis seemed unbeatable. To many, it seemed as if Hitler would go on, unchallenged, as sweep his way across the entire globe. Then, in 1938, a rematch was schedule. Schmeling would once again face Joe Louis in New York, but this time Joe Louis entered the bout as the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Before the boxers faced off, President Roosevelt told Louis: “we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.”
During the action, Louis landed 31 punches and Schmeling was only ever able to throw two. The fight ended with Schmeling’s cornerman throwing in the towel; and it was a good thing he did, because it turned out that Joe Louis had literally broken the German’s back. Three years later the United States entered World War 2 and the rest is history…
Of course, these stories tend to get exaggerated as time goes by. Schmeling wasn’t the bad guy that many people said he was; in reality, he had a Jewish trainer and he refused to fire him, even when the Nazis threatened him. Schmeling wanted nothing to do with Hitler’s agenda and was never actually a member of the Nazi Party. In fact, he publicly denied his reputation as the Aryan ideal, saying: “I am a fighter, not a politician. I am no superman in any way”. Still, it was a big moment for anti-Nazi sentiment, and showed the world that the Nazis were by no means invincible.