20 Most Important Events in Sports History

Throughout history, sports have been both a uniting and a dividing force. The Olympic Games, for example, have long welcomed world pioneers in sports, but the global event has also been a place of symbolic protests and boycotts. Thus, it’s no wonder some sports milestones have altered the course of history and become embedded in the collective consciousness. So, let’s look at the twenty most significant moments in sports history.

20. New Zealand’s Rugby Team Performs the Haka

In 1888, as a preparation for the game, the New Zealand rugby team, All Blacks, performed the haka for the first time – a pregame ritual that serves as homage to the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Traditionally, Maori warriors performed the haka to prepare for battle, but the ceremonial dance has become one of the most prominent pregame rituals in the world of sports.

19. World War I Christmas Ceasefire

In December 1914, just before Christmas, an unofficial ceasefire was declared along the Western Front between British, French, and German soldiers so they could tend to the wounded and dead. After leaving the trenches, soldiers from two opposing sides of the Front exchanged greetings and played football on Christmas night. Although fleeting, the moment stands as a reminder of unwavering humanity amidst one of the worst conflicts in world history.

18. Jesse Owens Dominates Hitler’s Olympics

Shortly before World War II, Adolf Hitler wanted to advance his Nazi propaganda and demonstrate German force and Aryan racial superiority at the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. But his plan fell through when Jesse Owens, African-American sprinter, ended up winning four gold medals, and consequently, disproving Hitler’s theory. Not only that, but Owens also broke nine Olympic records and set three new ones.

17. The “Blood in the Water” Match 

In October 1956, the Hungarian Uprise took place, a nationwide revolution against Soviet oppression. However, the uprising was quickly crushed, and thousands of protesters got killed. That same year, in December, Hungary played a water polo match against the Soviet Union at the Summer Olympics in Australia. The game quickly erupted in violence, blood filled the pool, and the Hungarian team won 4-0.

16. Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, the issue of civil rights outshone the event itself as John Carlos and Tommie Smith took the victory stand after finishing third and first in the 200-meter sprint and gave the black power salute during the U.S. national anthem. The photograph of the two men, with their fists in the air, became one of the most influential images of the civil rights movement.

15. A Diplomatic Match of Ping-Pong

After World War II, the Chinese and U.S. relations grew cold because China’s economy was turning towards the Soviet Union’s. The relations got even more high-strung as the Korean War escalated. However, China and the Soviet Union didn’t click with each other after all, so the spark between the U.S. and China reignited. And a well-publicized ping-pong match between the two countries, held at the World Table Tennis Championship in 1971, pushed the things in the right direction.

14. The Rumble in the Jungle

In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused the Vietnam War draft. As a result, he was suspended from boxing, sentenced to prison, and stripped of all boxing titles. His conviction was overturned in 1971, and three years later, he won a match against George Forman, undefeated world heavyweight champion. The boxing event, also known as the Rumble in the Jungle, solidified Ali’s legendary status and went down in history as one of the greatest sporting events of the 20th century.

13. The Miracle on Ice

At the 1980 Winter Olympics, hockey took center stage when a bunch of college kids from the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union’s four-time gold medal champions at the peak of the Cold War. Not only that, but the U.S. team was also the youngest to participate, and they eventually ended up winning the gold medal after defeating Finland in the finals. The match is popularly dubbed as the “Miracle on Ice” and it remains one of the greatest moments in modern sports history.

12. “The Shot” in Air Jordans

In 1989, Michael Jordan made the iconic shot for Chicago Bulls that secured the win in playoffs against Cleveland Cavaliers. Soon after, Air Jordan IV sneakers were globally released by Nike. Aside from Jordan’s spectacular shot, the moment went down in history because of Air Jordans’ stellar popularity amidst NBA’s ban on shoes that weren’t white enough. The sneakers, representative of Jordan’s individualism, were a global revolution in sports marketing and business.

11. The Other Dream Team

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained its independence and participated in the 1992 Summer Olympics as a sovereign country. However, the Lithuanian national basketball team couldn’t afford the expenses of going to the Olympics. Inspired by their story, the Grateful Dead, American rock band, stepped in and funded the team’s trip. The Lithuanian team, popularly called “the other dream team”, won a bronze medal, and became a symbol of hope reignited for the country that spent 50 years under the Soviet fist.

10. The 1995 Rugby World Cup

In 1990, apartheid – the system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa – was ended. Five years later, in 1995, the country was a host to the Rugby World Cup as it was permitted to compete for the first time after being banned due to apartheid. South Africa ended up winning the Cup and the event was immortalized in a photograph of Nelson Mandela, country’s first black president, presenting the trophy to the team captain, François Pienaar.

9. Iran vs. U.S at the 1998 World Cup

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the relations between the U.S. and Iran crumbled. Two decades later, in 1998, the countries played against each other at the FIFA World Cup. Amid growing political tensions, Iran defeated the U.S. 2-1, causing ripples of wild celebrations in Iran, which were regarded as destabilizing for the government.

8. George W. Bush Throws the First Pitch

Following the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush threw the ceremonial first pitch at the 2001 World Series in NYC. A lot of U.S. presidents had the same honor, but Bush’s throw went down in history as a symbol of optimism amidst the emotional turmoil that arose in the aftermath of the national trauma.

7. Cricket Diplomacy

India and Pakistan have had a complicated and violent relationship since the separation of Pakistan in 1947 that was based on religious issues. To this day, conflicts over Kashmir borderlands are still present. But in 2004, India’s cricket team toured Pakistan to bring the conflict closer to resolution, despite the decades-long disagreement of the two countries.

6. Turkey and Armenia Bury the Hatchet at World Cup

The 1915 Armenian genocide in Turkey caused a deep rift between the two countries, and their relationship remained cold for almost a century. Until 2009, when Armenian and Turkish heads of state attended and sat together during a World Cup qualifier match to initiate diplomatic relations between the two countries. Shortly after, Abdullah Gul (Turkey) and Serge Sarkisian (Pakistan) have publicly ended animosity between the two nations, citing their shared love for sports.

5. The Arab Spring and Soccer Fans

2011 was the year of Arab Spring, a wave of anti-government protests that occurred across the Middle East. Amidst the political turmoil, repressive forces aimed to close soccer stadiums to prevent members of radical communities from meeting in the stands. This sparked outrage among soccer fans that ended up playing a pivotal role in the uprisings.

4. NBA and Basketball Diplomacy

Dennis Rodman, an infamous NBA star, played a significant role in the release of Otto Warmbier, an American citizen who was detained in North Korea after crossing the border in 2012. Later, Rodman had a few meetings with the North Korean leader and is said to contribute to facilitating diplomatic relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

3. Refugee Olympic Team

In 2016, Refugee Olympic Team was established by the International Olympic Committee so the athletes that are a part of the population of 68.5 million displaced people could compete at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The decision brought attention to the growing issue of the refugee crisis, and consequently, athletes from Ethiopia, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan were able to compete along with other teams in Brazil.

2. South and North Korea Play as One Team 

At the 2018 Winter Olympics, North and South Korea competed together as one team in ice hockey. This was particularly significant because the two countries have never reached a formal agreement regarding the Korean War, except the ceasefire that was pronounced in 1953. Therefore, the Korean War is still officially deemed as an ongoing conflict.

1. The “Chinese Dream”

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently established a program on a national level that aims to boost the soccer status of the country around the world. The program is a part of Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”, which sees China as a prominent world power of the future. Jinping’s decision is significant because it mirrors the U.S. strategy of exporting its politics and power through international sporting events. 

After going through these twenty historical milestones, it’s obvious that sport has been a powerful agent of change throughout history. It has both united and divided nations and continues to be an important stage for addressing political and social issues.

[1] “Sports Moments That Changed the World.” Stadium Talk [Online] Available at: www.stadiumtalk.com/s/sports-diplomacy-power-history-cf0ff4f603e44085 [Accessed on: 19 May 2020]

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