In honor of the Olympics’ opening.
The opening of the Olympic Games reminds us that athletic competitions are an international language and that they provide some of the few cross-cultural touchstones in the modern world’s collective memory. Herewith, one man’s view of the greatest individual sporting “moments” (with a slightly expansive definition of “moment”) in the modern world, which I arbitrarily begin in 1920, after the world had a full year to recover from the “Great War” (and after Major League Baseball abandoned the “dead ball era”). The bias here is in favor of the era after widespread television use, if only because events have greater “impact” when more people watch them live.
Note that this is not a list of the events whose results I liked the most. (If so, almost the whole list would consist of events from the careers of Jack Nicklaus, Willie Mays, the New Orleans Saints, Boston Red Sox, Georgetown Hoyas, or various Mannings, and it probably only grudgingly, if at all, would include Tiger Woods or, say, Muhammad Ali). Instead, the highly subjective judgments here involve assessments combining sheer excitement, sport-historical significance, and the level of athletic attainment or amazingness of the back-story or the odds overcome. One of my top choices, which comes at the end, featured a winner for whose opponent I was strongly rooting — another signal that I tried to view these events from the standpoint not of a partisan fan, but of as neutral an observer as somebody can pretend to be.
(Note: I came up with the list entirely from memory; I fact-checked later, before publishing it.)
With apologies to all-time greats who didn’t make the list, like Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, John Unitas, Joe Montana, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson… well… Drum roll, please. (Ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-boom!)
Honorable Mention: Novak Djokovic’s epic, six-hour victory over Rafael Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open; Tom Watson’s near-victory in the 2009 British Open just shy of age 60; Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in speed skating in the 1980 Winter Olympics; Mark Spitz’s seven world records for seven gold medals in Olympic swimming in 1972; the Rams’ Super Bowl victory over the Titans via a last-play tackle on the one-yard-line in Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
Highest Honorable Mention: Dave Wottle’s stunning come-from-behind gold-medal run in the 1972 Olympic 800-meters; the Bear Bryant-led Alabama Crimson Tide’s national-championship-winning Sugar Bowl goal-line stand against Joe Paterno’s Penn State on Jan. 1, 1979 (although I think Matt Suhey may actually have crossed the plane of the goal line on his second effort on third down); Bjorn Borg’s Wimbledon victory over John McEnroe (despite the near-endless tiebreaker won by Mac) in 1980; the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2010 (elevated in importance in light of Hurricane Katrina); and Franz Klammer’s breathtaking downhill ski race to gold in the 1976 Winter Olympics.
Now, the numbered list, counting down:
20. Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam in 1930 deserves to be much higher on this list, but it was pre-TV.
19. Ditto Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics.
18. Rafer Johnson’s hair’s breadth victory over C.K. Yang to take the 1960 Olympic Decathlon. Early in the TV age, this same performance might move up if it had been seen by billions in today’s media world.
17. The Ice Bowl. Perhaps no other sporting event in the 20th century has spawned such a rich mythology as this 1967 NFL title win by Green Bay over Dallas.
16. Rod Laver’s second Grand Slam (1969). This might be the single most underappreciated accomplishment in all of sport: For Laver to win the Slam as an amateur and then be forced to wait seven years and do it again as a pro was nothing short of astonishing.
15. The Tiger Slam. Nobody else has ever held all four professional major golf titles at once. People take Tiger Woods almost for granted, and so probably respect this achievement far too little.
14. Nadia Comaneci’s seven “perfect 10s” in the 1976 Olympics.
13. The Thrilla in Manila. I hate boxing — but the only thing keeping this from a top-3 ranking was that Joe Frazier’s trainer kept him from coming out for the 15th round of his brutal fight with Muhammad Ali in 1975. This fight tested the absolute limits of human endurance and will.
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