There’s nothing quite like sports when it comes to bringing people together. Whether it’s a fierce rivalry, the Olympic games, or simply a small showing of sportsmanship, sports can solve conflicts, provide universal inspiration, or simply deliver distraction and entertainment if just for a small moment in time.
Stacker investigated some iconic moments in history when sports brought people—and nations—together. There are incredible instances to celebrate, whether countries ending wars, players combating racism and sexism or people being lifted out of poverty. Disasters also play a role: from finding community in our shared grief, such as after 9/11, or showing solidarity and resolve when the unthinkable happens at a sporting event, as with the Boston Marathon. Looking at different athletes, sports that range from soccer and basketball to tennis and boxing, and events that transformed the world, Stacker dug deep to bring you the some of the most inspiring moments in sports history. The list itself comes from news archives, athletic publications, and historic reels that delve into the true power of sports to galvanize people.
Whether you’re a fan of sports, follow an individual team or a player, or just casually watch from time to time, these stories will bring out your team spirit and provide inspiration or hope in untold ways. If you want something uplifting during difficult times, these stories will most certainly be a bright spot in your day.
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Matthew Webb swims the English Channel
British captain Matthew Webb in 1875 became the first person to swim the English Channel. Webb was known for water stunts, but it wasn’t until the famous swim that he became an international celebrity. The whole world wanted a piece of the captain as he was celebrated with parades, speaking engagements, and other stunt competitions around the globe.
Modern-day Olympic Games commence
After 1,500 years, the Olympic Games were officially reborn in 1896 and featured 12 countries around the world. Taking place in Athens, Greece, the games were filled with nearly 300 athletes competing in 43 events that included wrestling, track-and-field, gymnastics, and more. The competitors were all men, though women officially joined the ranks four years later at the 1900 games in Paris. Crowds were estimated at 60,000 for opening day, but the international spirit of sport took hold; today, billions around the world watch the games.
Togo the sled dog saves lives
The Iditarod is a legendary annual Alaskan sled dog race, but part of its history has a much deeper meaning still relevant today. Known as the Great Race of Mercy, back in 1925 there was a shortage of antitoxin in Nome, Alaska, and a diphtheria outbreak was beginning to spread. At the time, it was impossible to reach the area by plane or ship, so Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian huskies, led by his #1 dog Togo, raced hundreds of miles to Nome to deliver antitoxin and stave off a mass outbreak and likely save thousands of lives. Most know the more famous Balto, who completed the final stretch, while Togo completed the most mileage.
Luz Long and Jesse Owens defy Nazi sentiments
The 1936 Berlin Olympics took place against the backdrop of an impending world war and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. At the same time, America’s best athlete was African American track star Jesse Owens. In one of the most selfless acts of the games, German long-jumper Luz Long helped Owens qualify for the final by giving him tips to avoid a foot fault. Owens went on to win the gold and credited Long for the help.
Jack Nicklaus concedes a putt at the Ryder Cup
The Ryder Cup is a prestigious biannual team golfing event between America and Europe. In 1969, the American team was led by Hall of Fame 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus. The Cup came down to a final singles match between The Golden Bear and Britain’s Tony Jacklin. On the last hole, with the score tied, both players faced short putts. Nicklaus sank his first, leaving Jacklin with a short putt to tie. In one of the greatest moments of sportsmanship, Nicklaus picked up Jacklin’s ball, conceding the putt and guaranteeing a tie for a share of the Ryder Cup.
Ping-pong diplomacy changes US-China relations
During the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, a small encounter between two ping-pong players helped bridge a massive divide. In 1971, American ping-pong player Glenn Cowan was late for his team’s bus, so he hopped on the Chinese bus instead and struck up a conversation with the Chinese team’s best player Zhuang Zedong. The two became friendly, exchanged gifts, and it led to Chairman Mao Zedong inviting the American team to play in China. President Richard Nixon also welcomed the Chinese team to a reception. The goodwill ultimately led to official diplomatic relations between the two countries.
50 countries tune in to the ‘Fight of the Century’
The Fight of the Century pitted Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Both fighters were undefeated heading into the match, which was a first for a heavyweight championship. Upwards of 20,000 fans attended the fight, but globally, Frazier’s 15-round victory was broadcast to 50 countries, in multiple languages, and was estimated to have been seen by more than 300 million people.
Billie Jean King takes on Bobby Riggs in tennis’ ‘Battle of the Sexes’
In 1973, Billie Jean King was attempting to put women’s tennis on the map and agreed to a match against male tennis star Bobby Riggs for $100,000 and to prove that women’s sports deserve their own respect. King beat Riggs in three straight sets, while around the same time the Title IX law was passed in the United States. The combination of the two events led to an explosion of women’s sports participation around the world.
Jamaican bobsled team wins over hearts and minds around the globe
The Jamaican bobsled team is one of the biggest underdog stories in Olympic history, and also one of the most unlikely. In a country known for its track and field stars, the Jamaican bobsledders were forced to practice near a soccer field. The team competed in the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 and, while they didn’t win any medals, they won the hearts of fans worldwide. The story of the team was ultimately turned into a 1993 Disney movie called “Cool Runnings.”
The Dream Team shows the world next-level hoops
The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona marked the first time NBA players were allowed to participate in the Summer Olympics. Basketball was already a global game, but the international competition had yet to compete against the best players in the world from the NBA. Led by Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird, the Dream Team (as they were known) plowed through the competition for a gold medal—but along the way, they forged relationships with players and fans from around the world. The Dream Team is widely credited for bringing wider access to global basketball and for the immense amount of international talent in the NBA today.
Nelson Mandela taps rugby diplomacy
Memorialized in the film “Invictus,” newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela used rugby to help bring his country and the world together. The Rugby World Cup took place in Johannesburg in 1995 and the sport had typically been viewed as all-white. Mandela, needing to calm a nation in the new post-apartheid era, donned his country’s team colors and strutted onto the field to chants of “Nelson” from the crowd. Team captain Francois Pienaar also gave a speech to the crowd on the merits of Mandela, and an entire country’s powder keg was diffused through sport.
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Players honor 9/11 heroes, pay tribute to lives lost
After the Twin Towers were attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, the entire world mourned the thousands of lives lost. But the sports community came together in solidarity to grieve and celebrate the first responders who saved countless more lives. Players donned helmets with NYPD or FDNY emblazoned on the front. Famously, Mike Piazza famously hit a go-ahead home run for the Mets in the first New York sports event following the attacks. Today, at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, there’s an exhibit dubbed the “Comeback Season: Sports After 9/11” which celebrates how sports brought people back together and gave fans a reason to cheer again.
Basketball Without Borders uses hoops to brighten kids’ lives
The National Basketball Association first formed its global development and outreach program in 2001, Basketball Without Borders, as an international camp for kids to help improve their lives through sport. The camps have been so successful, that many current and former NBA players were once participants, including Pascal Siakam, Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, and many more.
Giants of Africa makes basketball accessible to African children
Led by Masai Ujiri, the president of the NBA champion Toronto Raptors, Giants of Africa has been bringing basketball to the African continent since 2003. The organization runs camps for teenage boys and girls, in addition to building basketball courts and conducting outreach programs to communities in need. Giants of Africa has worked in more than 17 countries and its participants have gone on to play professional basketball all over the world or have become young doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs.
Iraqi soccer team becomes the feel-good symbol of Athens Olympics
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 after the George W. Bush administration convinced the world that Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. At the 2004 Summer Games, and after the ouster of Hussein, the Iraqi soccer team made a historic run and became the feel-good story of the games (although Iraqi players—and fans—were quick to say they the team was being used as a political pawn). Although the team didn’t medal, the players finished fourth overall and inspired a country that had been held under a brutal dictatorship for decades.
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World Cup helps end Ivory Coast violence
The Ivory Coast was in the midst of a civil war in 2005 when its soccer team was playing in Sudan for its first-ever spot in the World Cup. With an entire country watching anxiously, the team, led by international football star Didier Drogba, defeated the Sudanese squad, providing hope to his home country. After the contest, Drogba spoke to his countrymen through the media, imploring them to lay down their arms and hold elections. Sure enough, within weeks, a ceasefire was brokered and the two sides of the war came together to negotiate.
The Indo-Pak Express defies border conflicts
India and Pakistan have been involved in numerous conflicts since the British partitioned their borders in 1947. But in 2007, tennis stars Rohan Bopanna of India and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan joined forces as a doubles team. Their biggest triumph came in 2010 when the pair made it to the U.S. Open doubles final and were cheered on by their respective UN ambassadors who sat together at the match. Qureshi has since gone on to start a foundation called “Stop War Start Tennis” where he takes his message of peace all around the world.
Turkey vs. Armenia match improves diplomacy between countries
One of the biggest sticking points in the ongoing war of words between Turkey and Armenia is over Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide that claimed around 1.5 million during World War I. In 2008, the two teams were set to play a World Cup qualifying match, and the Turkish president accepted an invitation from the Armenian president to watch together. In another gesture of goodwill, Armenia loosened visa restrictions so Turkish fans could come to the game in Armenia as well. The match opened new diplomatic channels between the two countries.
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Yao Ming saves animals
Yao Ming was the best Chinese basketball player in the world and an inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame. But beyond creating a billion new basketball fans in China, his animal activism made him a global icon. His work as a WildAid ambassador helped raise awareness around the conservation of elephants, sharks, rhinos, and more. Yao’s efforts helped end the ivory trade in China and brought awareness about animal conservation to the entire world.
‘Boston Strong’ unifies a grieving city and world
On April 15, 2013, terrorists set off a number of bombs at the Boston Marathon, injuring hundreds and killing three. As the competition includes a massive international following, the effects were felt around the world. But in the first Red Sox home game following the attack, star David Ortiz made his way onto the field at Fenway Park for one of sports’ proudest moments. Ortiz took the microphone and exclaimed: “This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston.’ We want to thank you, Mayor Menino, Governor Patrick, the whole police department for the great job that they did this past week. This is our f—ing city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
FIFA World Cup serves as touchstone for a planet full of fans
It’s the biggest sporting event on the planet, connecting countries, nationalities, languages, and dissolving borders every four years since 1930. The average number of viewers for the FIFA World Cup tops out at more than 3 billion people, and the most-watched match was more than 1 billion when Germany played Argentina in the 2014 final.
Little League Baseball and Softball program represents 80+ countries
Although it started as an American-only event, today Little League Baseball and Softball is the biggest youth sports program internationally. Teams represent more than 80 countries around the world for 10- to 12-year-old boys and girls. The Little League World Series, held in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is broadcasted around the world and represents one of the biggest annual sporting competitions. The series serves as a major platform for global sportsmanship and cultural education.
Pin-down diplomacy brings together Iran, US
With the election of Donald Trump toward the end of 2015, United States-Iran relations grew colder by the day. When the Trump administration issued a travel ban against several Muslim countries (including Iran), Iran retaliated by denying entry to American wrestlers for the Freestyle World Cup. When U.S. courts halted the ban, the Iranian wrestling federation took an opportunity to lobby the government to allow the wrestlers to compete. The Iranian team beat the Americans, but new bonds were formed between all the wrestlers in what was hoped to trickle up to the respective governing regimes.
1 billion people tune in for legendary India-Pakistan match
India-Pakistan relations have long been hostile, but when it comes to cricket, the two sides share the field in a legendary rivalry, the pinnacle of which is the Cricket World Cup. The typical TV audience for the matches hovers around 400 million people, but when India played Pakistan in 2015, more than 1 billion people watched.
Hockey briefly unites North and South Korea
In 2018, South Korea played host to the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. At the time (and still now), tensions were high with North Korea. But for a brief moment, global geopolitical issues subsided as the two countries came together to form a united women’s hockey team. Though it wasn’t successful on the ice, it did help bring the two countries together as Kim Yo-jong (the sister of the North Korean leader) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in watched a match together and sparked a series of in-person summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Moon.
The world celebrates as Thai soccer team is rescued from a cave
After a practice in 2018, the Thai soccer team went on an outing to check out a nearby cave. A monsoon flooded the entrance, trapping the team. The harrowing story of the boys and their coach brought the globe together. An international rescue team made up of Thai Navy SEALS, Brits, Australians, Americans, and Chinese, searched the dark, wet tunnels until they found the team alive nine days later.
The Tour de France unites countries, riders, and fans
One of the most-watched sporting events on the planet is the Tour de France, the 21-stage road course that stretches over 23 grueling days. The race first started in 1903 and is still considered one of the most prestigious events in the world. Its international popularity is mostly due to the extremely difficult course that takes riders from all over the world around France covering more than 2,000 miles.
The world cheers for North Korean figure skaters
At the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, the North Korean figure skating team represented the country’s only athletes to qualify for the games solely on merit. Welcomed into the Olympic fold like any other athletes, the team was cheered on and celebrated by all countries in a bout of international sportsmanship—the very ethos of the Olympic games. The team didn’t medal, but the goodwill was evident as crowds of fans applauded their performances on the ice.
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Kobe Bryant’s death unifies global sports fans amid their grief
NBA and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s death—along with his daughter Gigi and seven others—brought together an entire planet in the grief it brought. The tragedy reminded people of the sports world’s interconnectedness, as well as the importance of family and loved ones. After the news sunk in about the fatal helicopter accident on Jan. 26, 2020, athletes and celebrities united with fans as soccer players, tennis stars, music legends, basketball greats, and golfers donned Kobe jerseys and collectively mourned the loss of one of the greatest athletes of all time.
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‘The Last Dance’ unifies fans during COVID-19
In the midst of the global pandemic, in which most sports were paused or cancelled, one ex-athlete brought international fandom together: Michael Jordan. ESPN decided to move up its long-awaited documentary series, “The Last Dance,” about the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls and the dynasty’s final title run. The airing of the first two episodes was the most-viewed documentary in ESPN history, averaging 6.1 million viewers. For a world itching for sports of any kind, Michael Jordan is still scoring in every way possible.
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