One guy described it as “sports’ darkest decade.” Another suggested the best thing about the concluding 10 years is that they’re nearly over. What were the 1980s and why are they saying such nasty things about them?
To begin with, 1980 hadn’t even warmed up when Americans, most recognizing hockey for the first time, rejoiced in the mammoth victory of the U.S. Olympic squad over the Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y.
How big was that victory? It took on a combined historical-hysterical significance in that people everywhere recalled where they were and what they were doing at the instant they heard the news. That’s the ultimate litmus test.
One of the finest fights of the decade followed within a few months, when Sugar Ray Leonard defeated Roberto Duran in Montreal. And if you didn’t go for that one, certainly the Leonard-Tommy Hearns brawl in Las Vegas the next year was numero uno.
Of course, Muhammad Ali had dominated the fight game totally for 15 years. Sugar Ray moved front and center as Ali bowed out, so the torch was passed to a worthy successor.
Over on the tennis courts, Bjorn Borg was wrapping up a brilliant career (particularly at Wimbledon) and handing over No. 1 to John McEnroe. As long as they belt the Slazengers at Wimby, who will ever forget Mac’s 18-16 tie-breaker victory over Bjorn in the fourth set of a classic won in the fifth by Borg, 8-6?
As magnificently as the decade began with the “Miracle on Ice,” the Olympics fell on tough times for a while with the countering boycotts of 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles. The 1984 Games, however, proved an immense show and defined the style and manner in which all subsequent Olympics will be staged.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better, of course, but in striving to be the best, host countries have elevated the Olympics far beyond the realm of sport, and they can’t help but be better for it.
Yeah, but what about Pete Rose, Ben Johnson, Mike Tyson getting all the wrong kind of publicity, the drug scandals in professional sports and the recruiting mess on the semi-pro level, the colleges?
Not only are these individuals and incidents a sign of the times and highly predictable, but they also can be matched by equal indiscretions in any decade you care to name. A different set of circumstances, a different set of problems.
Rose, Johnson, overdoses, rehab, strikes, boycotts, Wade Boggs, owners named Bob Irsay, Bill Bidwill and Al Davis--put them all together they spell business as usual. It has been that way since 1951 and the college basketball point-shaving scandal. That was the end of the age of innocence as the importance of fun and games began growing out of proportion.
Instructed to recall the ‘80s, one’s initial impressions aren’t of McEnroe sassing a chair umpire in London, but of Boris Becker, at 17, crushing all who stood in his way there.
For every Johnson and his experiments with substances bearing names containing 53 letters, there are a thousand stories of athletes who tried and failed and tried again without cheating.
It takes no more than a few moments to jot down the names of unforgettable performers who will have done a majority of their work during the ‘80s:
Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Steffi Graf, Carl Lewis, George Brett, Greg LeMond, Larry Bird, Steve Largent, Greg Louganis, Joe Montana, Joan Benoit, Ivan Lendl, Michael Jordan, Katarina Witt, Mary Lou Retton, Mario Lemieux, Don Mattingly, Edwin Moses, David Robinson, Gabriela Sabatini, Orel Hershiser, Alberto Salazar, Diego Maradona, on and on.
Then there are the people who were well-established a decade ago and just kept cruising along: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, Mike Schmidt, Mike Bossy, Jimmy Connors, Bart Conner, Dorothy Hamill, Bill Shoemaker, Jack Nicklaus, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Holmes and Nolan Ryan.
And how about the teams? The San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins in pro football. Nebraska, Notre Dame and Miami in college football. The Lakers and Boston Celtics in pro basketball. Duke, Georgetown, North Carolina and Indiana among the collegians. First the New York Islanders, then the Edmonton Oilers in hockey. Any baseball team talented enough to stay on top for at least two years in this transient age.
For all the warts discovered or uncovered by too-inquiring media, it is this same group of meddlers who have so popularized all of sport. Thus, for every sordid Wade Boggs yarn, there are glorious tales of Andre Ware, Bonnie Blair, Jim Craig, Gordon Johncock, Janet Evans, Alysheba and Villanova winning the NCAAs with a team expected to be a second-round loser. Better still, chances and a good sports director willing, you see it all on the TV that very night.
Dark decade? Methinks not. While Ruth, Dempsey, Jones, Grange and Tilden made the ‘20s the “Golden Age of Sport,” maybe Gretzky, Jordan, Payton and Tyson will qualify the ‘80s for silver or bronze. After all, a decade that started with a miracle and ends with Christmas and New Year’s falling on Monday couldn’t have been all bad.