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.
12. The “Bloody” Red Sox win eight straight games in 2004 to kill the “Curse” and finally win a World Series. The comeback from three games to zero, and from one run down with three outs to go, against the dreaded Yankees in the league championship series was the stuff of legend.
11. 1973 Sugar Bowl. Notre Dame beat Alabama for the national championship, 24-23, in the first-ever meeting between the two schools, on the back of an earlier two-point conversion by the Fighting Irish compared to a missed extra point by the Crimson Tide.
10. Jack Nicklaus’1986 Masters victory. “Yes, Sir!” It wasn’t just that Nicklaus was 46 years old, and it wasn’t just that he was minus-7 for the final ten holes. He also beat all of the world’s best at the tops of their games: The next eight finishers were Greg Norman, Tom Kite, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Price, Tom Watson, Jay Haas, Tommy Nakajima, Payne Stewart, and Bob Tway (en route to a four-win season), with Bernhard Langer also figuring heavily in the mix before a late fade.
9. North Carolina’s hoops title over Georgetown in 1982, Dean Smith’s first national championship. Not only was a superbly played, nip-and-tuck game the whole way, but consider the talent on the court: Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Sleepy Floyd — along with Matt Doherty, Jimmy Black, Buzz Peterson, Eric Smith, Fred Brown, and Bill Martin.
8. Secretariat winning the Triple Crown by 32 lengths, “like a tremendous machine,” in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. The single most dominating performance in a championship event in sports history. Would be number one, except that Secretariat is a horse, and I am a human-centric reviewer.
7. Rafael Nadal beating Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon tennis finals. The greatest tennis match. Ever. Awe-inspiring. Get a video and watch the whole thing again.
6. The Willis Reed Game. New York over L.A for the 1970 NBA title. On the court: Reed, Walt Frazier, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Cazzie Russell, Phil Jackson, Dick Barnett, Happy Hairston. Reed hobbled in to score the Knicks’ first two baskets. Frazier carried them from there with 36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds, and five steals.
5. The 1975 World Series. The greatest Series ever played. Reds over Red Sox. Bench, Rose, Morgan, Perez, Concepcion, Borbon, Foster, Yaz, Lynn, Evans, Cooper, Fisk, Spaceman Lee, Tiant, Petrocelli. Memorable characters, dramatic home runs, great catches, big controversy, iconic video images, Hall of Famers. Wow.
4. New York Giants over the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII in 2008. Considering the stakes, and considering the then-record 97.5 million viewers in the U.S. alone, and considering the multiple storylines, this was the greatest NFL game ever, especially when topped, as it was, with the single greatest play ever (in terms of timing, significance, acrobaticism, and sheer lack of believability), first with Eli Manning somehow shaking off what looked like a sure sack, followed by David Tyree’s miraculous ball-to-helmet airborne catch.
Speaking of miracles, okay, pause for dramatic effect. For the bronze, silver, and gold medals, a little more discussion is warranted. The conversation starts with the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Well, ever since 1980, we all have.
3. The Miracle on Ice. Probably the greatest upset in modern athletic history. There was no way on Earth a group of American college kids could beat the hardened, professional, disciplined Soviet hockey team, much less follow that up without a letdown in the gold medal game against Finland. People now may forget just how “down” the United States was at the time, in economics, in its morale, in its status as a world power. Malaise. Hostages in Iran. Afghanistan apparently falling to the Soviets. Nicaragua going Commie and El Salvador threatened with the same. Andrei Sakharov thrown into the gulag with little American response. Corruption in the U.S. House (Abscam). The beginning of a recession combined with double-digit inflation and double-digit interest rates. Into this slough of despond came Coach Herb Brooks, goalie Jim Craig, captain Mike Eruzione, and names we really should work to recall like Rob McClanahan, Mark Johnson, Jack O’Callahan, Mark Pavelich, Buzz Schneider, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsay, Dave Christian… These young men lifted a nation that night. Indeed, they lifted the free world. The Soviets weren’t invincible after all. Let freedom ring.
2. Tiger Woods, in 2008, playing with a double-stress fracture of his tibia and a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament, notching his 14th major professional title at the amazingly young age of 32, joining Jack Nicklaus as the only people to win each of the major titles at least three times, with some of the most dramatic shot-making in the history of golf, while likeable “everyman” Rocco Mediate refused to fold. Woods was grimacing in pain throughout almost the entire tournament, while Lee Westwood kept applying the pressure alongside of him and Mediate played the final round in a solid even-par. On the 72nd hole, right after Westwood missed a 15-foot birdie attempt to catch Mediate, Woods faced a sidehill-breaking 12-footer for birdie just to force a playoff, and found a way to lip it in via the side door as the crowd went ape. In the playoff, Woods led at even to plus-three after ten holes, but Mediate amazingly birdied 13, 14, and 15 as Woods played the next seven holes one over. Again, Woods thus entered the 18th hole down a stroke. Again, he made birdie to force yet another extension of play — and finally won in sudden death with a par on the 91st hole.
Some might say this Woods’ victory over excruciating pain was no more remarkable than Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open title in 1950 while still not fully healed from his near-fatal car accident the year before. Some might say Hogan’s 1953 sweep of the Masters, U.S. Open, and British Open (he could not play both the latter and the PGA due to scheduling conflicts) was, in context, every bit as impressive as Woods’ “Tiger Slam” mentioned earlier in this article. They might be right. But almost nobody saw those Hogan events live. They suffer unfairly in comparison without the live TV exposure. For sheer grit, with a vital record on the line, combined with the drama of the 18th-hole birdies, Woods’ televised one-legged victory stands in stark relief in the mind’s eye.
Number One: Michael Phelps and the 2008 U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team. Not only were Phelps’ eight gold medals an achievement of heroic proportion, but they came in the most exciting, mind-bending ways possible. Remember Jason Lezac notching the fastest relay split in world history and somehow catching and passing Alain Bernard in the 4×100 freestyle? It was a well-nigh impossible sprint to the finish. The 4×100 medley relay was also quite close, as was Phelps’ win in the 200 butterfly. On top of that, his “touch gold” moment in the 100 fly, to defeat Milorad Cavic of Serbia, was positively mind bending. I don’t think there is a human being alive who thought, watching it live, that Phelps hit the wall first — but the time-keeping equipment and the underwater photos were utterly conclusive. Somehow, some way, Phelps stretched for the victory. Words fail.
BONUS! Here’s one I just couldn’t figure where to rank, because my bias here is too strong. I probably would rank it at the very top of my list, but in terms of widespread impact and importance it probably, by semi-neutral standards, belongs only in the bottom half of the top 10. So as a pure cherry-on-top special, please consider the 1999 Ryder Cup victory by the Americans over Europe, with Justin Leonard’s 45-foot birdie putt nailing down the greatest team comeback in Ryder Cup history. The spontaneous, raucous celebration throughout the grounds of The Country Club at Brookline was greater, more exuberant, than anything I’ve ever seen in all my years of watching sports. The 1999 Cup was memorable also for Captain Ben Crenshaw’s almost spiritual (bordering on spooky) insistence that his team would indeed come back; for Payne Stewart’s prominent role that served as the last high-profile public appearance, after his exciting U.S. Open win over Phil Mickelson, before his death in an airplane accident later that year; and because, after two straight U.S. Cup losses giving the Europe bragging rights in five of the previous seven Cups, another American loss would have been devastating.
As it was, Leonard’s putt was such a sheer, sudden, unexpected, decisive blow that no single moment better encapsulates the wonder that sports can be. Other sporting events probably were more culturally or historically important; but if you ever want to remember what sheer athletic joy looks like, watch Leonard’s victory leap again and again and again. To quote Gentle Ben Crenshaw about his team’s comeback, “I’ve never seen such an indomitable spirit.”