The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were supposed to be the crowning glory of the Nazi regime. Certain that German athletes would dominate on native soil, Adolf Hitler had earmarked the event as an ideal propaganda platform that would drive home his message of Aryan superiority to a global audience. Instead, the Nazis were left red-faced as Jesse Owens, an African American, single-handedly rubbished Hitler’s ideology with four gold medals. To this day, Owens’ triumph in the 100m and 200m sprints, 4 x 100m relay, and the long jump – and his lap of honour with Germany’s Luz Long – remains one of the great symbolic blows to racism in not only sport, but society as a whole.
If there is a single instance in sporting history that defines the cultural rivalry between Australia and England, it is the 1932-33 Ashes tour – a.k.a. the ‘Bodyline’ series. Desperate for a plan to stymy Don Bradman, English cricket captain Douglas Jardine resorted to stacking the leg-side field and ordering his quicks to bowl short-pitched deliveries at the batsman’s body. This caused uproar among Aussie players and spectators alike, especially after England paceman Harold Larwood fractured Bert Oldfield’s skull in the Adelaide Test. Besides instigating a number of changes to the laws of cricket (notably fielding restrictions to prevent leg-theory tactics), the Bodyline controversy was so intense it brought Australia and the UK to the brink of severing their political ties.
It was supposed to be ‘The Happy Games’, but the Munich Olympics will forever be remembered for tragedy and despair rather than peace and unity. On September 5, 1972, Palestinian extremists infiltrated the Olympic Village and captured nine members of the Israeli delegation, killing two more in the initial struggle. The botched rescue attempt saw all hostages killed, as well as a West German police officer and five members of the Black September terrorist organisation. It was the darkest day in the history of the Olympic Games, and the direct cause of the heightened security measures seen at every major sporting event since.
There had been rumblings about doping in sport since as early as the 1936 Games in Berlin, along with scandal surrounding Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen’s death at Rome 1960 and question marks over many East German athletes of the 1970s and ’80s. But it was all speculation and innuendo until Seoul 1988, when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. The news opened the world’s eyes to the issue of drugs in sport, and Johnson’s 100-metre sprint final is remembered as one of dirtiest races in sport as no less than six of the eight runners – including Carl Lewis and Linford Christie – would later be embroiled in drug scandals.
South Africa was all but extinct from world sport when five decades of Apartheid finally came to an end in the early ’90s. Barring a few highly controversial tours – such as the Springboks’ protest-riddled visit to Australia in 1971 – the South Africans had been isolated since their ban from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Hence, the 1995 Rugby World Cup on home turf was an enormous opportunity for the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to prove itself to the world – and didn’t it just. The last-gasp win over New Zealand in the final was a moment that united all South Africans, and the image of Nelson Mandela presenting the Webb Ellis Cup to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar – a white Afrikaner – has become a powerful symbol for racial reconciliation all over the globe.
Human rights protest at Mexico 1968 – USA athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, sharing the podium with Australia’s Peter Norman, raise their fists in a ‘black power’ salute at the Mexico City Games in 1968. One of the most politically charged moments in Olympic history, and an enduring emblem of the American civil rights movement.
Ping pong diplomacy – The US table tennis team visits Beijing in 1971, becoming the first American delegation to do so since 1949. A landmark moment in political relations between China and the United States, which paved the way for President Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong in the People’s Republic the following year.
US boycotts Moscow 1980 – Team USA withdraws from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. More than 60 nations joined the American boycott, including heavyweights China, West Germany, South Korea, Japan, and Canada. The USSR would go on to boycott the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, in what was one of the tensest phases of the Cold War.
1989 Hillsborough disaster – During an FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield, 96 Liverpool supporters are killed in a stampede due to overcrowding in the Hillsborough terraces. One of the bleakest moments in modern British history, caused by negligent police, inadequate emergency services, and anti-hooligan fencing. It led to sweeping changes in UK football culture and legislation, including the introduction of mandatory all-seater stadiums.