Greatest Developments in Sports During Queen Elizabeth's Reign

Charles Bennett@chasbennettonbrSenior Analyst IJune 8, 2012

Greatest Developments in Sports During Queen Elizabeth's Reign

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    Earlier this week, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II held her diamond jubilee commemorating 60 years on the throne. 

    Sports has changed a lot since then. In 1952 athletes made much less money and almost all games were either watched live or listened to on the radio.

    Here are a score of on-field and off-field developments and accomplishments, both here and across the pond, that I see as the most important and prestigious.


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    In 1952, the Olympics were dominated by the Western World, particularly the USA and Great Britain.  The USSR was fielding a Summer Olympic squad for the first time.  The Big Four sports leagues were staffed almost exclusively by American players.

    Today, things are a bit different.  The Olympics have been hosted in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. The World Cup has been hosted in Africa.  People from all six habitable continents have won gold medals at the Olympic Games.

    The English Premier League and the NBA have players from the six continents.  Even the MLB has players from five continents.  In rugby, several Southern Hemisphere nations have achieved parity with European ones, winning all but one of the World Cups.

Four Minute Mile

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    Perhaps the greatest British sporting event of Queen Elizabeth's reign occurred on May 6th, 1954 when Dr. Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.  

    At the Commonwealth Games later that year, Bannister and Aussie John Landy were the first two people to both run a sub-four-minute mile in the same race.  Though today, the record is 3.43.13, when QE2 began her reign, the record was 4:01.4.

    The ten second barrier in the 100 metres was also broken during QE2's reign.

Title IX

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    In 1952, there were no women's pro leagues, and not that many intercollegiate teams fielded in women's sports.  Many colleges (such as Notre Dame and several of the Ivy Leagues) were male only.  That was the day of the old women's rules in basketball, and of the Battleship box that has the men playing while the women do dishes.

    That changed with the passage of Title IX in 1972.  Since then, female participation in high school athletics has increased ninefold, and female collegiate participation has increased four-and-one-half-fold.

The Expansion Era

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    How are things on the West Coast?

    In 1952, none of the leagues had more than 16 teams, and only the NFL had one west of the Rocky Mountains.

    Due to a wave of moves and expansion in the 1960s, a wave that continued into the 1990s, we began to see teams in western and southern markets such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, Denver and Seattle.   Each league has 30 or more clubs, with at least five of them in the western United States.

    Part of this was due to the fact that each of the Big Four pro leagues had a competitor that forced expansion into smaller markets: the NBA and the ABA, the NFL and the AFL, the NHL and the WHA, even MLB and the Continental League, which never played a game but still forced the creation of the Mets, Twins, Astros and Angels.

Phelps and Spitz

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    Before 1952, no Olympian had won more than 5 gold medals in a single Olympics or more than a dozen total medals in a career.

    By 1964, the record was 18, set by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina.  Two Olympiads later, Mark Spitz set the single-Olympics record for most golds with seven.

    In 2008, American swimmer Michael Phelps broke the record for most career golds (14) and most golds at one games (8), and this summer tries to become the person with the most total medals overall.

Super Bowl

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    That's right, when Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne we were still more than a decade away from having the AFL-NFL Championship Game. 

    That means no discussion of the stupid antics Janet Jackson or Madonna did, or how creepy the Clint Eastwood ad was, at the water cooler the Monday after.  No big barbecue at your house as you kick back a few cold ones and watch on your 61" plasma-screen. 

    Oh, and that the "World Champion" was still awarded to whomever won the NFC.

61 in '61

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    In 1952, Babe Ruth still held the single-season home run record, a record he set in 1927.

    The record has been broken several times since then.  The only time it has been broken by someone who wasn't juiced was in 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.

    Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds also bested Ruth's total homers record since 1952.  But in an interesting statistical anomaly, no player has hit .400 with Elizabeth on the throne.

Miracles on Ice

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    Both of the U.S. men's hockey team's gold medals have occurred during Queen Elizabeth's reign.  

    The more well-known match is the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid against the Soviet Union.

    The lesser-known U.S. Hockey victory is the gold medal it won at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.

Wilt's 100-Point Game

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    The game of basketball was quite a different game in 1952.  As a starter, shooting .250 for a career was quite common.  Not having the 24-second shot-clock meant that stall games could still be employed.  

    But by the 1960s, it became a fast-paced, high-scoring affair.  And one of the men responsible for it becoming that way was Wilt Chamberlain.  Chamberlain was the first player to score 3,000 points in a single season, and retired as the career leader in points, scoring average, and rebounds.

    His crowning achievement occurred 50 years ago, when he sank 36 field goals and 28 free throws in a single game to end with exactly 100 points, the only time this has been done in an NBA game.

Bird and Magic

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    One of the greatest sports rivalries of the last sixty years is between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.  The two have won half of all the NBA championships played during that time, and have met each other in the finals one-sixth of the time. 

    It also encompasses basketball's greatest individual rivalry, that of Magic Johnson (left) and Larry Bird, the two greatest players of the 1980s. 

    Bird and Magic were also the core of the original Dream Team, and Magic's announcement about his HIV was also one of the seminal events of the last 60 years.

Juicing in Sports

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    There were on-and-off problems with steroid use in sports prior to 1952.  However, steroid use was a major story in three different sports in the last 25 years.

    Internationally, cycling and track were the big stories.  Ben Johnson was stripped of his medals due to steroid use, while Floyd Landis was stripped of the Tour de France title.

    In America, the big story was in baseball, where most of baseball's powerful bats, and many good arms, including Jose Canseco (pictured), Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa, admitted to or were accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs.  Though many of them simply went on playing, the steriods scandal has tainted both the record book and Hall of Fame voting.    


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    At the beginning of QE2's reign, most people didn't even have TV, and no one had color TV.  Nowadays, most people shell out $5 a month to get ESPN on their tubes. 

    The rise of ESPN and other cable sports channels has led to almost every Big Four game being televised, at least locally, and hours upon hours upon hours of (over)analysis.

Miss Perfect 10

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    Aside from Phelps' plethora of gold medals, perhaps the greatest sporting event of the Elizabethan Age was Nadia Comăneci's performance at the 1976 Summer Olympics.  Prior to 1976, no one had ever received a perfect 10.

    Nadia got seven of them.

Cal Ripkin Jr.

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    Thanks to advances in sports medicine in the last sixty years, most of the great "ironman" streaks have occurred during that time.  Chief among them was Hall of Fame Orioles' shortstop Cal Ripkin Jr.'s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played in the 1980s and 1990s.

    Co-terminus with much of Ripkin's streak was A.C. Green's 1,192 consecutive games streak in the NBA.

Sports and Computers

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    Computing was in its infancy in 1952; we were still three decades away from a practical PC and four and a half from the Internet.  The advent of powerful computers have lead to several developments in sports.

    One of them is "moneyball", the idea that you CAN run a baseball team with a computer.  The advanced computing power in recent years has led to an ever-increasing number of advanced saber-metrics that claim to tell how good a player really is.

    The other is fantasy sports.  Though fantasy sports existed before the advent of the Internet, their popularity has skyrocketed in the last decade or so due to the relative ease of playing them online.

    Also, the Internet allows you to read this article.  That's got to count for something.

New Ballparks

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    Quick, tell me how many of the Big Four teams play in the same confines as they did sixty years ago?  The Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs are it.  (Lambeau Field was rebuilt in 1957, and the Bears weren't in Soldier Field in 1952).

    Since 1952, the days of cookie-cutter multipurpose parks like Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Riverfront Stadium have come, and thank goodness, they have gone. 

    No domed or retractable-roof stadiums had been built prior to 1952, but many have been built since.  In addition, both stadiums and arenas have improved heating, air conditioning and lighting

    A further advance, prior to 1952 very few baseball and football games were played at night.  Now, many are.

Really Long Win Streaks

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    A couple of years ago, Connecticut's women's basketball team made headlines for their 90-game win streak, which also included winning the last two of their seven national championships.

    Of course, the record they broke is also quite notable and also occurred since 1952. 

    The 88-game win streak by the UCLA Bruins from 1971-74. The streak was buried in between them winning seven straight NCAA titles, ten titles in twelve years, and featured such famous players as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich, Jamaal Wilkes, Sidney Wicks, Lucius Allen, Steve Patterson, and Keith Erickson.

The Premier League

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    The next two slides might not mean much to you if you're an American, but they're pretty important to you if you're a Brit.

    If you're an association football fan, you've probably heard of the Barclays Premier League, the top-level football league where Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and occasionally Crystal Palace play.  What you may have forgotten is that it postdates the Big Four sports leagues by a great number of years, breaking away from the Football League (founded in 1888) only in 1992.

    Since then, the EPL has been the best-performing and second-most-watched league in Europe over the last five years.      

England Wins the World Cup

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    Again, not a big deal to us Yanks, but very important to the English.  For example, it's the only sports story I've ever seen in the British periodical History Today.

    In 1966, England hosted the World Cup, and became one of a handful of hosts to win it.  That event is often viewed as the pinnacle of English footballing.


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    On the day that the Triple Crown is once again not achieved, my final slide pays tribute to the greatest non-human athlete in the last six decades: Triple Crown winner Secretariat. 

    There have been two other Triple Crown winners during QE2's reign.  Neither Seattle Slew nor Affirmed won the Belmont by 31 lengths, nor did they set the race records at both the Belmont and Derby.