The 1980s Sports: Topics in the News
The 1980s Sports: Topics in the NewsBASEBALL: STILL AMERICA'S PASTIME
BASKETBALL: MAGIC AND BIRD AND A ROOKIE NAMED JORDAN
FOOTBALL: LAWSUITS AND LABOR DISPUTES
GOLF: NICKLAUS RETURNS AND THE GAME GOES INTERNATIONAL
HOCKEY: THE "GREAT ONE" APPEARS
TENNIS: THE GENIUS OF MCENROE AND THE POWER GAME
BASEBALL: STILL AMERICA'S PASTIME
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about major league baseball in the 1980s is that it survived. Although the decade witnessed superb individual and team performances on the field, professional baseball was probably more noted for its labor disputes, strikes, threats of strikes, owner-collusion scandals, many substance-abuse revelations, and allegations of gambling by players. But despite these and other serious problems, baseball somehow remained vibrant and popular.
In 1980, for instance, a record forty-three million people paid to see major league baseball games, income from baseball television contracts accounted for a record 30 percent of the game's $500-million revenue, and television ratings for the World Series had never been higher. Over the course of the decade, all of these leading indicators continued to improve. Contrary to the claims of some critics, baseball's place as the national pastime did not diminish.
Several teams won more than one pennant in the 1980s: The St. Louis Cardinals won three, while the Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, and Philadelphia Phillies won two apiece. No team, however, was able to win the World Series back-to-back. Some observers suggested that the ability of players to become free agents, signing with teams willing to pay their high salaries, contributed to the equality among the teams. Others believed the expansion of major league clubs helped even out competition. No matter what the reasons were, the decline of baseball dynasties clearly did not hinder the game. In fact, it probably contributed to baseball's popularity by giving fans genuine hope that the next year would bring their team a championship.
Labor disputes, however, almost killed baseball's popularity. In 1981, the baseball season was marred by a bitter player strike that lasted from June 12 to the end of July and led to the cancellation of 713 games, a third of the schedule. The strike resulted from a dispute over compensation for players who switched teams as free agents. Several public opinion polls suggested widespread hostility toward the players, whose average salaries had ballooned with the emergence of free agency in the late 1970s. The crisis, brought about by the owners to alter or put an end to player free-agency, left a very sour feeling throughout the nation. Just four years later, proving that neither management nor the players' union had learned much from their previous conflict, another baseball strike was called. Thankfully, though, that midseason work stoppage lasted only two days.
For all its problems, baseball provided fans with a great deal of pleasure in the 1980s. Many ballplayers performed brilliantly and established some remarkable single-game, regular-season, postseason, and career records and achievements. Len Barker, Tom Browning, and Mike Witt each pitched perfect games during the decade. In all, the 1980s witnessed seventeen no-hitters, including Nolan Ryan's record-setting fifth. In 1986, Roger Clemens set a major-league record by striking out twenty hitters in a single game. That same season, Bob Horner tied a major-league record by slugging four home runs in a game.
From a single-season perspective, there were more than a few performances of historic note. George Brett hit a phenomenal .390 batting average in 1980, which remains the highest major-league batting average since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. In 1982, Rickey Henderson destroyed Lou Brock's single-season stolen base record by swiping 130 bases. Pitcher Dwight Gooden's 1985 season ranks among the greatest of all time: he led the National League (NL) in wins (24), ERA (1.53), and strikeouts (268). In 1988, Orel Hershiser set a major-league mark with 59 consecutive scoreless innings pitched, and Jose Canseco became the first player ever to steal forty bases and hit forty home runs in the same season.
World Series Champions
|Year||Winning Team||Losing Team|
|1980||Philadelphia Phillies (NL) 4||Kansas City Royals (AL) 2|
|1981||Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) 4||New York Yankees (AL) 2|
|1982||St. Louis Cardinals (NL) 4||Milwaukee Brewers (AL) 3|
|1983||Baltimore Orioles (AL) 4||Philadelphia Phillies (NL) 1|
|1984||Detroit Tigers (AL) 4||San Diego Padres (NL) 1|
|1985||Kansas City Royals (AL) 4||St. Louis Cardinals (NL) 3|
|1986||New York Mets (NL) 4||Boston Red Sox (AL) 3|
|1987||Minnesota Twins (AL) 4||St. Louis Cardinals (NL) 3|
|1988||Los Angeles Dodgers (NL) 4||Oakland Athletics (AL) 1|
|1989||Oakland Athletics (AL) 4||San Francisco Giants (NL) 0|
Over the course of the decade, milestones were passed and dominant players emerged. Rollie Fingers set an all-time mark for saves with 341. Ferguson Jenkins become only the fourth pitcher to win one hundred games in both leagues. Steve Carlton became the all-time left-handed strikeout leader, ending up with 4,136. Wade Boggs won five American League (AL) batting crowns and had seven consecutive 200-hit seasons. Tony Gwynn won four NL batting titles. Rickey Henderson led the AL in stolen bases nine times, and Ozzie Smith won all ten NL Gold Glove awards at shortstop. Jack Morris was the decade's winningest pitcher with 162 victories.
BASKETBALL: MAGIC AND BIRD AND A ROOKIE NAMED JORDAN
As the National Basketball Association (NBA) staggered toward the close of the 1970s, attendance was down and television ratings were declining. The public had become fed up with players' bouts with alcohol and drug abuse and their uninspired play. But in game six of the 1980 league finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers, basketball began a remarkable comeback in America. The televised game showcased the talents of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the Lakers rookie who, along with the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird, had riveted public attention in the NCAA finals a year earlier.
Johnson, filling in for injured veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, put on a tremendous show. He collected 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. It was a performance that foreshadowed the Lakers' nearly decade-long hold on the championship. From 1980 to 1989, the Lakers played for the title eight times, winning the championship five times. In the decade, clashes between Johnson's Lakers and Bird's Celtics revived fan interest and inspired fellow players toward remarkable individual and team accomplishments. In addition to the Lakers' success with Johnson, Boston with Bird in the lineup made it to the finals in 1981 and each year from 1984 to 1987, winning three titles. The level at which Bird and Johnson played and the heights to which they took their respective teams enthralled the American public. By decade's end, the league had reached new financial and popular heights.
Looking to spice up the NBA, the league's board of governors voted to introduce a three-point shot into the game at the start of the 1980 and 1981 season. The shot had worked well in the old American Basketball Association (ABA), leading to higher scores and last-second drama. The NBA was in need of both elements and was willing to alter the shape of the game in order to get them. Although teams and players alike were slow at first to utilize the three-point shot, fans were excited by the new rule and its potential to inject drama into the game at any moment. By the end of the 1980s, teams had collectively attempted more than 13,400 three-point shots a season, hitting nearly one-third of them. Efficient three-point marksmen like Dale Ellis and Danny Ainge managed to extend their careers well into the 1990s because of their ability to "knock down the trey" consistently.
The 1984 college draft featured some amazing future stars of the NBA: Hakeem Olajuwon (picked by Houston), Charles Barkley (picked by Philadelphia), and John Stockton (picked by Utah). However, the player picked third in the first round by the Chicago Bulls would become a superstar: North Carolina junior Michael Jordan. His impact on the league was immediate and long-lasting. Jordan won the NBA Rookie of the Year award in 1985. The following year, he averaged 37.1 points per game and became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to score more than three thousand points in a season. He signed unprecedented shoe contracts with Nike and established an amazing career in commercials within his first two years in the league. More important, he transcended the game and transformed the fortunes of his franchise. By the early 1990s, Jordan had the Bulls poised to win three consecutive NBA championships.
The NBA was revived not only by the playing exploits of Johnson, Bird, and Jordan but also by keen marketing changes. Borrowing ideas from the ABA and Major League Baseball, the NBA turned its All-Star game into a fanfriendly extravaganza, complete with slam-dunk and three-point-shooting contests and an old-timers' game. By the end of the 1980s, it was clear that the changes had paid off. The league broke its attendance record seven straight years. Player salaries rose 177 percent (from an average of $325,000 to $900,000 by decade's end), and television fees skyrocketed from $22 million per year to more than $150 million. The NBA was back in business.
FOOTBALL: LAWSUITS AND LABOR DISPUTES
Similar to professional baseball, the National Football League (NFL) suffered through two significant labor disputes during the 1980s. Both led to the suspension of play. In 1982, a fifty-seven-day strike resulted in the cancellation of seven weeks of play. The strike occurred after the league signed a five-year, $2.1 billion contract with the three major television networks. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) responded by demanding a larger cut of the guarantees, 55 percent of the league's gross revenues. NFL team owners kept camps closed throughout the strike in the fear that a series of makeshift games conducted with replacement players might tarnish the league's image. After a mediator was finally brought in, the NFLPA agreed to a contract in which the team owners guaranteed to spend $1.6 billion over four years on players' salaries.
Two games into the 1987 and 1988 season, a second strike occurred. This time, teams reloaded their rosters with replacement players immediately, and the league determined that any games played during the strike would count in the final league standings. The NFLPA initially demanded unlimited free agency for league players; they later proposed freedom of movement after a four-year tenure in the league. Despite the fact that the average NFL career is less than the four-year minimum proposed, the
owners rejected the condition outright. Failing to reach a new agreement, the players' union ended the strike after twenty-four days and three weeks of replacement games. The owners did pay for their unyielding position, at least in the short term, by losing over $100 million in potential revenue due to the suspension of play.
Further disruption in the NFL in the 1980s was largely due to the actions of the Oakland Raiders' managing general partner, Al Davis. He decided to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles for the start of the 1982 football season because Los Angeles offered a larger venue and the opportunity to operate in one of the country's media capitals. Davis's decision, though, violated the league constitution, which required the approval of three-quarters of the league's owners before a franchise could relocate. When the NFL tried to block the move, Davis, the Raiders, and the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission sued the league. Following a five-week trial, a jury ruled against the NFL, and the Raiders went on to win the 1984 Super Bowl under their new name, the Los Angeles Raiders.
Super Bowl Champions
|Year||Winning Team||Losing Team|
|1980||Pittsburgh Steelers 31||Los Angeles Rams 19|
|1981||Oakland Raiders 27||Philadelphia Eagles 10|
|1982||San Francisco 49ers 26||Cincinnati Bengals 21|
|1983||Washington Redskins 27||Miami Dolphins 17|
|1984||Los Angeles Raiders 38||Washington Redskins 9|
|1985||San Francisco 49ers 38||Miami Dolphins 16|
|1986||Chicago Bears 46||New England Patriots 10|
|1987||New York Giants 39||Denver Broncos 20|
|1988||Washington Redskins 42||Denver Broncos 10|
|1989||San Francisco 49ers 20||Cincinnati Bengals 16|
Davis's legal triumph opened the way for further movement. In the early morning of March 29, 1984, Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay stealthily moved all of the Colts' possessions to Indiana with a fleet of moving vans, thus establishing the Indianapolis Colts in a sleek new domed stadium. Irsay's abandonment of Baltimore left a sour taste in the mouths of true Colts fans. Finally, in 1988, the St. Louis Cardinals moved to Phoenix, thanks to the efforts of team owner Bill Bidwill. The move, however, was justified. St. Louis, long acknowledged as a baseball town, consistently had trouble attracting a substantial football crowd.
In spite of the various lawsuits and legal disputes off the field, the NFL thrived because of some marvelous performances on it. In particular, Chicago's Walter Payton, known as "Sweetness," erased the bitterness of league turmoil with his unique blend of grace, agility, and power. When Payton did not stutter-step a lineman off his feet or beat the linebacker to the corner, he simply flattened an unsuspecting cornerback with a stiffarm or a lowered shoulder. In 1984, Payton broke Jim Brown's all-time rushing mark of 12,312 yards, and by the time he retired in 1987, he had tacked another 4,000 yards onto the standard.
Without a doubt, the dominant team of the 1980s was the San Francisco 49ers. They crushed the opposition with a precise, nearly unstoppable offense. Designed by their innovative head coach, Bill Walsh, and mastered by quarterback Joe Montana, the San Francisco system depended on short passes and players who could run after they caught the ball. It did not hurt that Walsh coached two of the best players ever to play their positions, Montana and receiver Jerry Rice. In 1982, using an assortment of trick plays and new formations, the 49ers confused the Cincinnati Bengals from the beginning of the game and won their first Super Bowl. In 1985, Montana simply outgunned the Dolphins' Dan Marino in Super Bowl XIX, hitting on 24 of 35 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns. Then, after four years of missing the Super Bowl, the 49ers returned in 1989 and 1990 to win the first back-to-back titles since the great Pittsburgh teams of the 1970s.
GOLF: NICKLAUS RETURNS AND THE GAME GOES INTERNATIONAL
At the beginning of the 1980s, legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus was, by many accounts, growing old and losing his competitive edge. At forty, his drives were not as long as they once were and his legendary concentration often seemed to lapse at critical times. But at the 1980 U.S. Open, after a two-year winless streak and endless tinkering with his swing mechanics and short game, Nicklaus unexpectedly seized control with an Openrecord 63 in the first round. He went on to lead the tournament from start to finish, wrapping up his fourth Open championship. The title was Nicklaus's eighteenth major championship, five more than anyone else in history. But he was not through that year.
In August, the rejuvenated Nicklaus routed the field in the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Championship, winning by seven shots on the treacherous Oak Hill course in Rochester, New York. By claiming two major titles in 1980, Nicklaus accomplished an incredible feat. He had won majors in four different decades dating back to his 1959 U.S. Amateur Championship. His feat confirmed what many knew: He was the greatest golfer the game had ever known.
If Nicklaus's victories in 1980 surprised those who thought his best golf was behind him, then his winning the 1986 Masters Tournament at the age of forty-six must have seemed unthinkable. Nicklaus began the final round five shots behind the leader, Greg Norman, and had eight players ahead of him on the leader board. Having missed a series of relatively easy putts on the front nine, Nicklaus suddenly caught fire, shooting a phenomenal 30 on the back nine for a round of 65 to win his sixth green jacket.
PGA Player of the Year
Despite Nicklaus's stunning comeback, the early years of the decade belonged to Tom Watson. In the mid-1970s, Watson endured a reputation as a choker (performer who collapses under pressure.) after letting two U.S. Open titles slip from his grasp, but in 1977 he bested Nicklaus in two thrilling matches at the Masters and the British Open. By the 1980s, Watson was in contention nearly every week. Each year he seemed to set a new season-earnings record, gathering PGA Player of the Year honors in 1977 through 1980, 1982, and 1984 (more than any other golfer in history), and winning a total of eight major championships between 1975 and 1983.
During the decade, golf increasingly became an international game as the customary dominance of American players began to fade. On the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour, England's Laura Davies and Sweden's Liselotte Neumann won U.S. Opens in 1987 and 1988, and Ayako Okamoto of Japan was selected as the 1987 LPGA Player of the Year after leading all female golfers in earnings. South Africa's Sally Little continued to win frequently on the women's circuit, capturing three different major championships during the decade. On the men's tour, the presence of international players was even more pronounced. European players won nearly half of the Masters and British Opens contested during the 1980s. Australians David Graham and Greg Norman each captured one major during that span. At age twenty-three, Seve Ballesteros from Spain became the youngest champion ever at the Masters when he won the tournament in 1980.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the European rise came in the Ryder Cup series, a biannual team competition pitting an American squad against a contingent of golfers from Europe. When the Europeans captured the cup in 1985, it was their first victory since 1957. They proved the feat was no fluke by winning again in 1987, and after a tie in 1989, retained the cup into the 1990s.
HOCKEY: THE "GREAT ONE" APPEARS
In the 1980s, the National Hockey League (NHL) achieved new heights of popularity. This stemmed in part from the interest in the sport generated when the U.S. hockey team shocked the world by upsetting the mighty Soviet Union and later winning the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The U.S. hockey team's victory brought the sport to millions of viewers who were caught up in the excitement of the unfolding national drama but who had no previous knowledge of or interest in the game.
As the American public tuned in to the NHL, they saw the beginning of the New York Islanders' dynasty. During the first half of the decade, the Islanders' combination of offensive firepower and defensive ruggedness proved to be too much for their opponents. Like the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s, the Islanders of the early 1980s thoroughly dominated the league. With perennial all-stars such as forward Mike Bossy, center Bryan Trottier, defenseman Denis Potvin, and goalie Billy Smith, the Islanders won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983. Noted for their fierce competitiveness and poise, the aging and injured Islanders reached the Stanley Cup finals yet again in 1984, but were over-whelmed four games to one by the speedy Edmonton Oilers, whom the Isles had swept in the finals the year before. With that victory, the Oilers began their own dynasty, emerging as the best team in hockey for the rest of the decade. They were led by "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky.
When Gretzky joined the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1978, he was seventeen years old, the youngest player ever in professional hockey. At the end of the season, he was named WHA Rookie of the Year. The next season the Oilers merged into the NHL and Gretzky became the youngest player to ever win the Hart Trophy, the league's MVP award. During his nine years in Edmonton, Gretzky won the Hart Trophy eight times. In his third year in the NHL, he led the league in goals (92), assists (120), and total points (212), all of which were single-season records. He established more than fifty other regular-season and career scoring records. In playoff action, Getzky became the all-time points leader. In two of the four years in which he led the Oilers to Stanley Cup titles in the 1980s, Gretzky was voted MVP of the playoffs.
Stanley Cup Champions
|Year||Winning Team||Losing Team|
|1980||New York Islanders 4||Philadelphia Flyers 2|
|1981||New York Islanders 4||Minnesota North Stars 1|
|1982||New York Islanders 4||Vancouver Canucks 0|
|1983||New York Islanders 4||Edmonton Oilers 0|
|1984||Edmonton Oilers 4||New York Islanders 1|
|1985||Edmonton Oilers 4||Philadelphia Flyers 1|
|1986||Montreal Canadiens 4||Calgary Flames 1|
|1987||Edmonton Oilers 4||Philadelphia Flyers 3|
|1988||Edmonton Oilers 4||Boston Bruins 0|
|1989||Calgary Flames 4||Montreal Canadiens 2|
As Gretzky continued to rewrite the record book and win championships, his popularity and legend grew. It therefore came as a tremendous surprise to the sporting world in 1988 when Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in a multiplayer, multimillion-dollar deal the summer after he led the Oilers to their fourth Stanley Cup. With the Kings, Gretzky continued his unparalleled success. In his first season in Los Angeles, he scored 168 points and earned his ninth Hart Trophy. Early the next season, he broke hockey legend Gordie Howe's all-time scoring record of 1,850 points. Howe had set the record over the course of twenty-six seasons; Gretzky broke it in less than ten.
TENNIS: THE GENIUS OF MCENROE AND THE POWER GAME
John McEnroe dominated tennis during the first half of the 1980s like few before him. After losing the 1980 Wimbledon title to Bjorn Borg in a match many consider one of the best ever played, McEnroe bounced back with the second of three consecutive U.S. Open titles. Between 1980 and 1984, he won seven Grand Slam singles titles (including three at Wimbledon), nine doubles championships with Peter Fleming, and was ranked as the world's number one male player at year's end four times. By the end of his career in the early 1990s, McEnroe had won seventy-seven tournament titles to finish third on the all-time list.
As is often the case, however, numbers tell only part of the story. In a world of hard hitters, McEnroe played finesse tennis, reminiscent of Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, two legendary Australian players. His command of the men's tour inspired critics and colleagues. McEnroe's game was instinctive, inventive, occasionally overpowering, but always captivating for fans and frustrating for opponents.
For all his brilliance, McEnroe also represented what many considered to be the worst of tennis in the 1980s. A trend toward crude and loud behavior, initiated by Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors in the 1970s, was continued by McEnroe and others in the 1980s. Sometimes unable to control himself during key matches, McEnroe criticized officials for what he deemed to be missed calls. He loudly complained about fan noise and movement during matches. Many thought such behavior was destroying the game. In an era when the public was quick to criticize athletes, the men's tennis tour provided critics with a great deal of ammunition. Fearing the loss of tennis fans, United States Tennis Association began leveling fines and enforcing policies of conduct on a more regular basis beginning in 1983.
Another change in the 1980s was the way tennis was played on the professional level. Due to the development and introduction of stronger composite and graphite rackets, tennis became a power game. In the latter half of the decade, several players had fashioned their games to fit the new technology and were claiming titles and high rankings. Many were impressed by the new punch the game offered, but others were concerned. While Ivan Lendl, the world's number-one ranked male player from 1985 to 1987, and Boris Becker, the men's Wimbledon champion in 1985, 1986, and 1989, played tennis at a high level and were excellent shot makers, other players were winning without as much skill. Their strategy was to pound their opponents into the court. By the close of the 1980s, some in the tennis world called for the return of wood rackets, particularly on the men's tour. Those calls were largely ignored, though, and the boom-or-bust game continued to thrive well into the 1990s.
The 1980 Winter Olympics, held in Lake Placid, New York, featured 839 male and 233 female athletes representing thirty-seven nations. It was the second time the Winter Games were held in the tiny upstate New York town, the first time being in 1932. American athletes finished third in the final medal standings, winning twelve medals, half of which were gold. Most importantly, they provided the Games with two of its most extraordinary, memorable, and historic performances.
U.S. Open Tennis Tournament Champions
|1980||John McEnroe||Chris Evert Lloyd|
|1981||John McEnroe||Tracy Austin|
|1982||Jimmy Connors||Chris Evert Lloyd|
|1983||Jimmy Connors||Martina Navratilova|
|1984||John McEnroe||Martina Navratilova|
|1985||Ivan Lendl||Hana Mandlikova|
|1986||Ivan Lendl||Martina Navratilova|
|1987||Ivan Lendl||Martina Navratilova|
|1988||Mats Wilander||Steffi Graf|
|1989||Boris Becker||Steffi Graf|
Over the course of eight days, twenty-one-year-old American speed skater Eric Heiden won gold medals and set Olympic records in all five of the events in which he participated: the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500-, 5,000-, and 10,000-meter races. In so doing, he became the first athlete ever to win five
gold medals in individual events in one Olympics. He alone won more gold medals than any American team had in the Winter Games since 1932.
One of the greatest upsets in the history of American sport and the Olympic Games occurred in 1980 when the U.S. men's hockey team beat the Soviet Union four to three. The infectious joy expressed by the American players after the surprising victory quickly swept across the nation, leading to patriotic celebrations. Two days later, the inspired American team beat Finland four to two to win the Olympic gold medal, again prompting a national outpouring of pride and joy.
The Summer Games that year were held in Moscow, marking the first time the Olympics were held in a communist nation. Representing eighty nations were 4,093 male and 1,124 female athletes. To protest the recent Soviet invasion of the country of Afghanistan, the United States led sixty-four other nations in a boycott of the Games. Many Olympic purists argued that the Olympics should be divorced from politics, but others pointed out that politics had always been present in the Games. Although the decision by President Jimmy Carter (1924–) understandably angered many American athletes, he remained firm behind his position.
Four years later, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, with 1,000 male and 274 female athletes from forty-nine countries competing. The American team won a total of eight medals and did particularly well in the alpine events. Bill Johnson became the first American to win a gold medal in the Olympic downhill skiing event. Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper finished first and second in the women's giant slalom, while twins Phil and Steve Mahre finished first and second in the men's slalom. The rest of the U.S. medals came in figure skating, led by three-time world champion Scott Hamilton, who won the men's competition and set a new Olympic record in the process.
The political controversy surrounding the Summer Games in Moscow carried over to those held in Los Angeles in 1984. A few communist countries joined the Soviet Union in a revenge boycott, but 140 nations still took part, represented by 5,230 male and 1,567 female athletes. The United States
finished on top of the medal standings, winning 174 medals, 83 of which were gold. Of the many American stars at the Games, the brightest was twenty-three-year-old sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis. He won three individual gold medals (in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the long jump) and he anchored the gold medal-winning 4 x 100-meter relay team.
Since it began in 1903, the Tour de France has become what many consider to be the world's grandest and perhaps greatest sporting adventure. The cycling race, held over three weeks every July, winds its way through France and neighboring countries, covering more than two thousand miles, before finishing in the French capital of Paris. Thousands of spectators line the route every year; millions more watch the race on television.
No American had ever finished in the top three positions in the race until 1984, when Greg LeMond finished third. Born in Lakewood, California, in 1961, LeMond had become a professional cyclist in the early 1980s. In 1986, in his third Tour de France, LeMond emerged victorious, despite being constantly threatened by his own teammate Bernard Hinault. His victory, the first for an American in the history of the Tour, catapulted him into the media spotlight.
The following April, while hunting in California, LeMond was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law. Incredibly, he survived the life-threatening injury, but doctors had to leave more than thirty shotgun pellets imbedded in his body. Against all odds, he began a comeback in hopes not only of reentering the world of professional cycling but of winning the Tour once again.
In 1989, LeMond did just that, overcoming a lead by Frenchman Laurent Fignon to win by eight seconds, the narrowest margin of victory ever in the history of the race. He won his third, and final, Tour de France the following year, then retired from competitive cycling in 1994 because of a muscular disorder.
Although Lewis captured more gold medals, gymnast Mary Lou Retton probably captured more hearts. The four-foot nine-inch sixteen-yearold won the individual all-around competition with a perfect score in the final event. It was the first all-around gymnastics victory for an American in any international competition.
Other notable American performances included Greg Louganis's golds in the ten-meter platform diving competition and the springboard event. Swimmers Carrie Steinseiffer and Nancy Hogshead won three gold medals apiece. The men's volleyball team won the gold medal, while the boxing team won a record nine gold medals. Valerie Brisco-Hooks became the first sprinter to win both the 200 meters and the 400 meters in the same Games, and Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon.
The 1988 Winter Olympics, held in Calgary, Canada, marked the first time the Winter Games were extended to sixteen days. Representing 57 nations were 1,100 male and 313 female athletes. The American team did not fare well, finishing with only six medals, two of them gold. Brian Boitano won the men's figure skating competition, while speed skater Bonnie Blair won gold in the 500-meter race, setting new Olympic and world records in the process. Blair later won a bronze in the 1,000 meters to become the only double medalist on the U.S. team.
The 1988 Summer Games, held in Seoul, South Korea, drew 6,279 male and 2,186 female athletes from a record 160 countries. The American team won ninety-four medals, of which thirty-six were gold. Both Greg Louganis and Carl Lewis repeated their gold medal-winning performances from the last Olympics. Louganis won gold in the springboard event, while Lewis was awarded the gold medal in the 100 meters after Canadian Ben Johnson, who actually won the race, was stripped of the medal after he had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.
The most successful and flamboyant female athlete of the Olympics was Florence Griffith Joyner. Dubbed "Flo-Jo," Griffith Joyner won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter races. Then, she ran the third leg of the gold medal-winning 4 x 100-meter relay team. Finally, she anchored the silver medal-winning 4 x 400-meter relay squad. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Griffith Joyner's sister-in-law, performed no less spectacularly. She bested her own world record in the seven-event heptathlon and later won her second gold medal of the Games in the long jump competition.