Iconic sports moments that defined the '80s

Written by:
August 13, 2019
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Iconic sports moments that defined the '80s

The 1980s arrived with instability around the world. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exacerbated tensions during the Cold War between the U.S. and USSR. One of the moments many Americans remember most from this period was the heroics of a ragtag hockey team of college kids who created a Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

The U.S. hockey team's upset of the heavily favored Soviets did not just signify a monumental point in sports history. The win uplifted a nation affected by the reports of war (and worries it could be headed to American soil) and became one of the symbols of the upcoming decade. These game-winners and unexpected victories impacted the world on and off the field and were emblematic of a decade that saw a seismic shift in American culture. Olympic boycotts paralleled geopolitical motives, superstars grew the imprint of their respective sports, and a tragic death brought forward legislative change.

To explore the iconic sports moments that defined a decade, Stacker took a look at 30 historic sports moments of the 1980s. With most Americans owning color televisions at the time, sports were broadcast across the country more than ever. Entire networks were dedicated to sports 24/7, while championship games created some of the highest-rated shows of the year. This nonstop coverage led to more eyes witnessing amazing athletic feats. Many definable childhood moments for Gen Xers and millennials occurred in the 1980s, including Villanova basketball's upset championship, North Carolina State's buzzer-beater heroics, and Doug Flutie's prayer answered against the Miami Hurricanes.

Click through to relive one of the most important decades in recent American history, a pivotal time when sports provided a respite from world news and influenced the way governments interacted with allies and foes from different parts of the globe.

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Do you believe in miracles?

Entering the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Soviet Union had won the previous four Olympic golds in ice hockey. But an upstart team of college kids from the U.S. proved to be the perfect foil against the Soviet Machine, as they upset the USSR, 4-3, in the medal round. Television broadcaster Al Michaels capped the victory with his infamous call of “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” The Americans, coached by Herb Brooks, eventually won the gold at the games held in Lake Placid, N.Y., and boosted American morale during the height of the Cold War.

1980 NBA Finals

The Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers squared off for the National Basketball Association title in 1980. Julius “Dr. J” Erving showed off his athleticism in the series, including one memorable play where he swooped under the basket holding the ball with one hand, and laid it in. But it was the Lakers, led by rookie Earvin “Magic” Johnson who would prove victorious—Johnson was named Finals Most Valuable Player.

Olympic boycott

With Cold War tensions escalating, the U.S. decided to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow. The U.S. specifically was taking a stance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; four years later, when the Summer Games were in Los Angeles, the Soviets returned the favor by staging a boycott of their own.


During the 1981 Major League Baseball season, the Los Angeles Dodgers let loose a 20-year-old rookie fireballer from Mexico, and Fernandomania ensued. Fernando Valenzuela immediately flummoxed big league batters and led the majors with 180 strikeouts and eight shutouts. Valenzuela was named 1981 Rookie of the Year and won the National League Cy Young Award.

You cannot be serious!

During the 1981 Wimbledon Championships, John McEnroe was battling Tom Gullikson when one of McEnroe's shots was called out. Lambasting an umpire, McEnroe shouted, "You cannot be serious!" McEnroe was docked a point, but won the match and eventually took the title. McEnroe has turned his outburst into a catchphrase, even naming a book after it; he also became a poster boy for athlete outbursts.

Watson holds off Nicklaus

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus were tied for the lead of the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach entering the 17th hole. Watson ended up in the rough off the 17th green, but chipped in from about 16 feet out to take the lead, nailing what is considered by many to be one of the most clutch shots in golf history. Watson won the tournament by two shots—his only U.S. Open victory in his career.

And the band plays on

With four seconds left in the 1982 Stanford-Cal football game, the Cardinal nailed a field goal to take a 20-19 lead. Many thought the game was over, but the Golden Bears converted a number of laterals during the ensuing kickoff return and Cal’s Kevin Moen eventually broke free. As Moen charged toward the end zone, he knocked over members of the Stanford marching band who had begun their post-game routine believing the game was over.

The Wolfpack claim an NCAA title

As a #6 seed in the West Regional, North Carolina State was not a favorite to win the 1983 NCAA basketball tournament. But the Wolfpack, coached by Jim Valvano, stormed to the finals where they met a high-powered team from Houston that featured Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon. Dereck Whittenburg threw up a desperation shot just before time ran out, and Lorenzo Charles corralled the air-ball and dunked it to win the game. The celebration of Valvano running on the court has become a staple of March Madness montages.

George Brett goes berserk

July 24, 1983, was supposed to be a regular baseball game between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals, but the day would go down in sports history for producing one of the most outrageous outbursts by an athlete. With the Royals trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning, George Brett hit a go-ahead home run—or so he thought. The umpires ruled that Brett had an inordinate amount of pine tar on his bat—which was illegal—and ruled him out. Brett responded by rushing onto the field to yell in the face of the umpires. Eventually, the Royals protested and won, and the Royals won the restarted game, 5-4, in August.

The Great One hits the century mark

Combining the 1983-84 National Hockey League regular season and playoffs, Wayne Gretzky scored a record 100 goals. Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers won their first of four Stanley Cups during the 1980s this season, while The Great One took home the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's MVP.

American dominance in the 1984 Summer Olympics

With the 1984 Summer Games held in Los Angeles, American athletes made the host country proud. Mary Lou Retton won gold in the all-around women’s gymnastics competition, and Carl Lewis captured four golds in track and field, matching Jesse Owens’ iconic performance from the 1936 Olympics.

Doug Flutie lets it fly

Trailing 45-41 with under one minute left in a game against the Miami Hurricanes, Doug Flutie had one last shot to lead his Boston College Eagles to victory. With the ball just past midfield, Flutie let loose a Hail Mary pass on the final play, finding receiver Gerard Phelan. The Eagles won the game, and Flutie went on to win the Heisman Trophy that year.

Third time’s the charm

The Georgetown Hoyas likely had all the confidence in the world before the 1985 NCAA Championship Game. As the defending champs, Georgetown also had beaten their opponent Villanova twice earlier in the season. But by slowing down the game, Villanova emerged on top, becoming the lowest seed (#8) to win an NCAA title.

Hagler vs. Hearns

Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns entered their 1985 middleweight bout with a combined 100 wins. The two veterans proceeded to have a slugfest, which ended with Hagler knocking out Hearns in the third round. Despite the brevity of the fight, it is often regarded as one of the greatest prizefights ever.

The Refrigerator rumbles

Super Bowl XX featured the Chicago Bears taking on the New England Patriots, and many believed the key to the game would be finding a way to weaken Chicago's vaunted defense. The Patriots offense was ineffective, and Chicago jumped out to a 37-3 advantage. With the game already in hand, Bears coach Mike Ditka brought in William "Refrigerator" Perry on offense, and the rotund defensive lineman scored a touchdown, providing the icing on the cake of an eventual 46-10 victory.

Len Bias dies

On June 17, 1986, Maryland’s star Len Bias was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics. Two days later, Bias died from a cocaine overdose. The death of Bias, only 22, led to anti-drug legislation and became a cautionary tale to young athletes everywhere.

The Hand of God

Argentina and England were tied, 0-0, heading into halftime of their 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match in Mexico. Early in the second half, Diego Maradona charged toward the English net and tipped a ball in the air with his hand and into the goal. The referee did not see the infraction, and the goal became known as the “Hand of God goal.” Maradona scored another goal later in the second half—this one called the “Goal of the Century”—and Argentina won the game and eventually took the 1986 World Cup title.

Greg LeMond makes history

The Tour de France has been staged since 1903, but competitors outside of Europe have rarely fared well in the cycling marathon. In 1986, Greg LeMond changed all that when he became the first American to win the Tour de France. LeMond would win the event two more times, including in 1989, after he recovered from a shooting accident.

Bill Buckner’s blunder

In Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner misplayed a ground ball off the bat of Mookie Wilson, allowing the game-winning run to score, as the New York Mets forced a Game 7. Many baseball fans argue Buckner, who battled injuries throughout his career, should have been pulled for a defensive replacement with the Red Sox so close to winning the series; instead, Buckner, who collected 2,715 hits during his career, became infamous for the missed grounder. The Mets eventually won Game 7.

Mike Tyson becomes world champ

At 20 years, four months, and 22 days old, Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion when he knocked out Trevor Berbick on Nov. 22, 1986. Tyson would successfully defend his title nine times. Because of his age and knockout power, Tyson became one of the most popular fighters of his era.

The Drive

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway drove his team down the field 98 yards for a tying score late in the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship Game. The Broncos won the game in overtime, sending Cleveland Browns fans into heartbreak, while the aura of Elway grew exponentially.

Air Jordan takes flight

At the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend, Michael Jordan engaged in an epic battle with Dominique Wilkins. The two high-flyers traded perfect 50 scores before Jordan took off from (just in front of) the free-throw line to put the contest away. The iconic image of Jordan flying through the air became a staple of sneaker advertisements and on posters everywhere.

The 1988 Winter Olympics

American figure skater Brian Boitano outdueled his rival, Canadian Brian Orser, to win gold at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Other notable events from this Olympiad included the debut of the Jamaican bobsled team, who would go on to be featured in the film, “Cool Runnings.”

Edmonton strikes oil and sells

The Edmonton Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup of the decade in 1988. Later that summer, though, Edmonton traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers won one more Stanley Cup in 1990, while in Hollywood, Gretzky widened the popularity of hockey in the U.S.

1988 Summer Olympics

The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul helped modernize South Korea, a country which was also facing threats from North Korea before the torch was lit. Although the games were peaceful, drama ensued. American track star Florence Griffith Joyner set world records on her way to winning three gold medals, while Roy Jones Jr. was less successful, controversially losing his gold-medal boxing final to a South Korean fighter whom he appeared to have clearly outpointed.

Kirk Gibson walks it off

By the 1988 World Series, 31-year-old Kirk Gibson was seriously hobbled by leg injuries. Gibson was not expected to be a factor as the Los Angeles Dodgers took on the Oakland Athletics, but in Game 1 he was sent up as a pinch-hitter with the Dodgers trailing by one in the bottom of the ninth. Gibson flicked a two-run homer over the right-field wall, sending the Dodgers to victory. Vin Scully famously yelped, “I don’t believe what I just saw!” after one of the more memorable moments in MLB postseason history.

Steffi Graf, teenage phenom

Before her 20th birthday, German tennis star Steffi Graf won the Grand Slam in 1988, capturing the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open titles. Graf would go on to win 22 major titles overall. In 2004, Graf was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Pete Rose is given a lifetime ban

In August 1989, Pete Rose, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, accepted a lifetime ban from MLB for betting on games. Because of the ban, Rose, baseball’s all-time hit king, has not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite efforts on his behalf.

Michael Jordan stuns Cleveland

In Game 5 of the first round of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, Michael Jordan hit a game-winner over Craig Ehlo to send Chicago to the conference semifinals. The play became known as “The Shot” and was the beginning of Jordan’s legacy as a postseason hero. Over the next decade, Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA titles.

Michael Chang wins the French Open

At only 17 years old, Michael Chang won the 1989 French Open. He became the youngest ever male to win a Grand Slam title when he defeated Stefan Edberg in the final. Earlier in the tournament, Chang wowed the crowd by executing an underhand serve, which switched momentum in a five-set epic against Ivan Lendl.

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