For nearly all of human history, one of our favorite pastimes has been watching sports. And although watching your favorite team play might seem like just fun entertainment, sporting events have been the setting for many culturally and historically important moments. From advances in civil rights to Cold War political maneuvers, here are six memorable events in not just sports history, but world history.
Jesse Owens wins gold at the Berlin Olympics
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were supposed to be a glowing showcase of Nazi Germany. The whole world was attuned to the Olympics; the 1936 Games were the first to be televised, and radio broadcasts reached 41 countries. Adolf Hitler, who had risen to power just three years earlier, recognized the Games as the perfect opportunity to promote his ideas of Aryan supremacy. He ordered the construction of a massive stadium and commissioned director Leni Riefenstahl—already famous for her 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will—to document the Games.
Jewish athletes were banned from competing on the German team. Although the Germans performed well, the breakout star of the Berlin Olympics was American track and field athlete Jesse Owens. He won four gold medals and was the most successful athlete at the Games. During an event that was supposed to highlight white supremacy, a Black athlete stole the show.
Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers and changed baseball forever. Baseball had been racially segregated since the 1880s, with Black players only allowed to participate in the separate "Negro leagues". After serving in the Army, Robinson played one season for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro league team. In 1945, he was scouted by Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who had been looking to add a Black player to the team.
Rickey signed Robinson to the Dodgers’ Minor League team, the Montreal Royals, where he played for one season before being called up to the Majors. On that day in 1947, Robinson played in front of a crowd of over 26,000 spectators, over half of whom were Black. He would go on to have an extremely successful career, winning multiple awards, playing All-Star Games for six seasons, and playing in six World Series, including the Dodgers’ 1955 championship win.
Despite all his talent and success, Robinson routinely faced racial discrimination and bigotry. Before he took the field with the Dodgers, several of his teammates threatened to sit out any games they would have to play with Robinson, but their efforts were shut down by management. When the team played in the South, Jim Crow laws also prevented him from staying in the same hotels as everyone else. Robinson’s bravery and perseverance in the face of years of racial abuse made him a civil rights icon and one of the most influential baseball players of all time.
By the early 1970s, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union had become increasingly sour. China began to consider re-opening diplomatic relations with the United States, with which it had severed diplomatic ties after the 1949 Communist Revolution. The US was also receptive to the idea, as a relationship with China would allow them more influence in peace negotiations in Vietnam. Both nations saw the perfect opportunity to re-establish friendly contact in the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan.
During the competition, American ping-pong player Glenn Cowan missed his bus and had to board one with the Chinese team. He was approached by Chinese team member Zhuang Zedong, who shook his hand, spoke to him using an interpreter, and gave him a silk cloth depicting the Huangshan Mountains. The two were then photographed together after they got off the bus and the story became international news. Two days later, the Chinese government invited the US team to travel to China for an exhibition match.
Beginning on April 10, 1971, the teams played a series of “friendship matches” across China, with the Beijing match attended by 20,000 fans. The US team also toured many famous sites like the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. This “Ping-Pong Diplomacy”, as it became known, successfully began the thaw of US-China relations. Just 10 months later, Richard Nixon would become the first US president to visit Communist China.
The Battle of the Sexes
In 1973, retired tennis player and self-described male chauvinist Bobby Riggs argued that female tennis was a lesser sport and that even at 55, he could beat any of the top female players. After Riggs beat then-number one ranked Margaret Court, Billie Jean King—who had already turned down Riggs’ challenge—knew she had to step up and play him. The media dubbed the match “The Battle of the Sexes”, and spent the months leading up to the match covering Riggs and King extensively. Riggs spent most of his time partying and taking jabs at women in press interviews while King continued playing in tournaments.
The match was held in the Houston Astrodome on September 20 and was watched by over 90 million people on television. Riggs and King played into all the media hype, staging grand entrances and presenting each other with mocking gifts—he gave her a “Sugar Daddy” lollipop while she gave him a squealing piglet. In the first set of the match, King fell behind, but quickly bounced back and beat Riggs in three sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. King’s victory was a pivotal moment in legitimizing female presence in professional sports.
The Miracle on Ice
No one had high hopes for the American ice hockey team going into their match against the Soviets during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet team had not lost a hockey game at the Olympics since 1968, and the Americans were a group of amateurs with an average age of 22. Before the games had even started, the Soviets had already crushed them in an exhibition game, winning 10-3. The Americans had surpassed expectations in their early Olympic matches, but the Soviets were still seeded at number one.
During the match, which was held on February 22, the Soviets had the lead for most of the game, but the Americans held on. With only 10 minutes left in the game, the Americans took the lead and managed to prevent the Soviets from scoring again until the final horn sounded. Their stunning upset victory was celebrated not just by the players and spectators, but by nearly all Americans at a time when Cold War tensions were high. The “Miracle on Ice” got its name from ABC sportscaster Al Michaels who, in his coverage of the final seconds of the game, declared: “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
South Africa wins the Rugby World Cup
Until the early 1990s, South Africa had been banned from nearly all major international sports competitions because of its brutal apartheid system of racial segregation. Rugby had long been entangled with the nation's racial politics. In 1995, South Africa was set to host the third Rugby World Cup after being readmitted to the International Rugby Football Board following negotiations to end apartheid. Newly elected President Nelson Mandela, the first Black South African head of state, saw an opportunity to help heal the divides in his country via the sport.
Mandela threw his full support behind the rugby team and urged his fellow Black South Africans to support them as well in the spirit of coming together. The championship game was between South Africa and their longtime rival New Zealand. South Africa went on to beat New Zealand in overtime, and the entire country celebrated. The moment that Mandela handed the trophy to white team captain Francois Pienaar became a symbolic moment for a country beginning to heal from its deep wounds.