Tuesday, August 05, 2008

What Has Been the Most Important Sports Moment in Your Life?

I'm doing a huge piece on the upcoming 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and I got to thinking... what has been the most significant sports moment in my lifetime? I don't mean personally but society, the world. An instance in sports that defines and changes a generation. I was born in the mid-80's so I'm too young to have witnessed:

* The Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds play the first night game in 1935

* Jesse Owens dominates track in Hitler's background during the 1936 Olympics

* Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling in 1938

* Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier in 1947

* Palestinian terrorists kill members of the Israeli Olympic team in 1972

* Muhammad Ali defeats George Foreman in Zaire in 1974

* Miracle on Ice in 1980

I do however vividly remember watching Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' home run record in 1998. Not only was the moment itself quite surreal (the way the ball was hit so hard and low, no one was quite sure it would be a home run) but the build-up was tremendous. Every morning for months the LA Times would have a giant graphic of McGwire and Sammy Sosa, comparing their accomplishments to the historic '61 season of Maris. This story captivated the country, with mainstream media watching every at-bat alongside enamored baseball fans. The fact that not one but two players were chasing the illusive home run record also added a racial component. The fact a white guy and a Dominican were striving for the same goal made the story even more popular. One only needs to watch the footage of Mark and Sammy embracing one another that historic September night to understand how joyous the moment was to a sport, to a nation.

But beyond the context of athletic competition and its ability to bring people together I believe this moment had influence far beyond a typical sports story.

First and foremost, this moment is a perfect example of the allure and consequences of performance-enhancing drugs, a subject which is perhaps at the top of the current state of sports. During the home run chase McGwire was using androstenedione, a muscle-building hormone. While it wouldn't become illegal until years later people questioned the ethics of using such substances. Years later Mark would be dogged by accusations of also using other, more powerful enhancers. Sitting in Capitol Hill, once again in front of a nation, Mark had an opportunity to reach millions across the country -- to explain himself and reveal the truth. Instead he refused "to talk about the past." His silence on the matter in some sense said it all. Mark was a disgraced cheater. By using illegal substances he was hailed as a hero, reaching the pinnacle of popularity and triumph. But now Mark is reduced to a hermit, residing in a secluded Orange County community and wary to acknowledge the long shadow of his murky past.

Another effect of the home run chase was profiteering off in-game history. At around 50 home runs almost every home run hit by McGwire or Sosa would lead to a rush in the bleachers to retrieve the ball. Inevitably the ball would later be auctioned for profit. Almost every day it seemed a newer, better record-breaker would pop up on eBay -- for a premium price of course. In retrospect it seems like a bizarre experiment in economics and sociology, once that resonates to this day. It seems as life memorabilia from any historic game can be had for a price.

Anyway, I think McGwire hitting #62 was the most significant sporting event of my life. So what say you? Am I wrong? Was Brandi Chastain's World Cup winner more important? Perhaps Marion Jones' fall from grace is a better example of the consequences of steroid use? Maybe it was an event I failed to mention? And what do you think was the most significant sports moment of your life?

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