Photograph by Jean Francois Monier/Getty
From the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything
The 24 Hours of Le Mans, France
Skill, speed, and stamina are the three s’s that mark the world’s best automobile race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The race, organized by Automobile Club de L’Ouest, bridges past and present on the automotive circuit.
The competition is set on a non-permanent track at Circuit de la Sarthe near the city of Le Mans on the Sarthe River. Roughly 46 cars start the race, in a series of classes that include prototype high-performance vehicles, dedicated race cars, and street cars. The diversity of autos gives the race a mix of old-fashioned and modern competitors. The winner is the car, driven by a team of three drivers, that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours.
The first Le Mans contest took place in May 1923; today it is held every June. The race begins at 4 p.m., and for 24 hours the sound of roaring engines fills 8 miles (13 kilometers) of French countryside.
The Olympic Games
It’s hard to imagine that Zeus and the other gods lording over ancient Greece ever envisioned the global event the modern Olympiad has become. For a two-week span, athletes from dozens of countries compete against each other in scores of different sports. And that’s just the Summer Games, which began their modern run in the late 1800s. The Winter Games, featuring sports that largely require snow and ice, draw a smaller field of competitors. But the competition for the gold, silver, and bronze is just as intense. Remember Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan?
National rivalries are varied. Consider the United States hockey team winning the gold over the favored Soviets in 1980; Jamaica’s jubilant 1988 bobsled team overcoming long odds to win hearts, not medals; or Argentina beating America’s 2004 “Dream Team” and going on to capture the gold in basketball. Even the competition among national Olympic committees to host the games is fierce, with bribery accusations and investigations becoming, sadly, the norm in sports news over the last several years.
Still the games must go on; to be sure that they do, the International Olympic Committee decided to stagger the Winter and Summer Games. So during every even-numbered year, runners will bear the torch that eventually lights the Olympic flame somewhere in the world.
World Cup Soccer
Thirty-two nations play, but billions of people in countries all around the world drop everything they’re doing for a month every four years to see who claims the title of World Cup soccer champion.
The teams that compete in the World Cup finals are those that emerge from a series of qualifying rounds played out over the prior three years. The tournament of tournaments is therefore a showcase of the finest squads from across the continents and hemispheres.
It’s during the finals that the intense challenge begins. First, in a series of first-round games, each team plays the three rivals in its opening bracket. Teams get three points for each win, one point for a tie, and zero for a loss. The top two teams in the bracket then move on to the single-game elimination rounds, with victorious teams proceeding though quarterfinal and semifinal rounds before the final championship match.
All the while the world’s gaze is squarely fixed on the matches and the festival atmosphere in the stands. Chanting, singing, flag-waving, and superstitions are all part of the carnival that ensues.
Since the first World Cup tournament took place in 1930, the most dominant team has been Brazil. Winner of five championships since 1958, the greatest Brazilian teams were led by perhaps the most famous soccer player ever, Pele.
Rivalries are often fierce and deeply rooted: Two of the many in the sport are between England and Argentina, and one that has recently emerged between neighbors—Mexico and the United States.
The Super Bowl, United States
The Super Bowl is so big that even the commercials are worth watching. The first Super Bowl (held in January 1967) was played to plenty of empty seats and a waning TV audience. But now Super Bowl Sundays, progressively marked with Roman numerals, are the most celebrated one-game professional championship on the 12-month Gregorian calendar.
The Super Bowl concludes a 16-game regular season, and three postseason play-off rounds. It pits the top team from the American Football Conference against the top team from the National Football Conference for the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy (not to mention diamond-studded rings for players, coaches, and front office “suits”). The Sunday evening spectacle is preceded by two weeks of parties and pre-game hype.
The National Basketball Association Finals, United States
The NBA Finals. Showtime and the “Ghosts of the Garden.” Rockets and Knicks, Spurs and Pistons. The National Basketball Association’s finals are a showdown of stars and teams for the ages. It takes four games to win, but at least 93 games to get there. And the teams that do bring a lot of glitter with them. Movie stars in front-row seats. Cheerleaders that resemble Las Vegas show girls in high-energy dance routines. The see-and-be-seen spectacle ringing the court is as intriguing as the game itself.
Pro basketball has changed radically over the last four decades. The three-point shot, the slam-dunk, a pendulum swing against defense makes NBA ball a high-scoring, acrobatic affair. What hasn’t changed is the prize, the right to be crowned world champion.
The Masters, United States
The green jacket. That’s all one has to say. The brainchild of legends Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, the first Masters was held in 1934. It was called Augusta National Invitation Tournament for the first five years of its existence before the name changed to what it is today. Unlike other sports championships and showcase events, the Masters remains steeped in tradition and continuity. The four-day stroke playing of 18 holes each day instead of the formerly customary 36 holes on the third day is still the rule.
Jones and Roberts left indelible images on the sport. But it was in the 1950s that legends and superstars took over the game. A pair of victories by Ben Hogan, and the first of four for Arnold Palmer made those two players the best known in America. The 1960s marked the arrival of the “Golden Bear,” Jack Nicklaus, who became the first Masters champion to repeat in consecutive years. Today, the average winning score is eight under par. The setting at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, provides a lush, southern scenery that is unmatched at courses around the world.
Polo at Palermo, Argentina
Argentine polo is considered the best in the world, and it’s no wonder the Argentine Open Championship is the top draw for the sport’s best players and most knowledgeable fans. The tournament, first known as the River Plata Polo Championship, takes place between late November and early December. First held in 1893, the tournament is older than the tango.
In 1923, the new Argentine Polo Association moved to the field in Palermo, where polo has been played ever since. The host country usually dominates, given that Argentines have dominated the sport since the end of World War II.
The Argentine Open is played in the Catedral, the grounds in the chic Palermo neighborhood of the capital city. The sport was introduced in Argentina by English ranchers, but it soon became the domain of the Argentine gauchos, cowboys, who were expert and skilled in a similar game called pato. Observers of modern global sport competitions insist that true polo aficionados must attend the Argentine Polo Open at least once in their lives.
Center court. Grass surfaces. Strawberries and cream. What better way to spend a fortnight in old London Town? Wimbledon at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. Located in southwest London, this grand spectacle is one of the four tennis tournaments that make up the grand slam.
Wimbledon is considered to be the most prestigious, largely because of its setting and surrounding pomp. It’s the only major tournament played on a natural turf surface.
Wimbledon has figured prominently in the history of tennis and in its development into the egalitarian and highly skilled sport that so many millions enjoy. Originally created in France during the 12th century, the sport took its modern form in Britain during the 1800s. In 1874, Walter Clopton Wingfield patented his game of lawn tennis in London, and three years later, Wimbledon, the first of the major tournaments, was created.
The setting at Wimbledon and its history only magnifies the match-ups on the grass courts. Connors versus Borg. Evert and Navratilova. Agassi and Sampras. Venus versus Serena. The winner on center court holds a trophy to show who has reached the mountaintop, and perhaps a number one ranking in the world tennis order.
World Series, United States
Home runs and chilly nights. Pitching duels and seventh-game thrillers. A century’s worth of the World Series has seen all that and much, much more. The Fall Classic is more than a sporting event; it’s a fixture on the American cultural landscape. Grandfathers and grandmothers remember Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956. Fathers and mothers recall the amazing Mets of 1969. And sons and daughters have grown up with another New York Yankees dynasty.
To get to the series, each of the 32 teams in the major leagues must endure a 162-game season, followed by three playoff rounds. The first is a best-of-five series, followed by two best-of-seven series. The World Series engenders nostalgia, too, stretching from the hopeful days of April and spring, through the doggedly hot days of summer, before reaching the apex in the autumn winds of October, when heroics on the mound and in the batter’s box prove decisive.
The Grand National, England
Stamina and speed make the Grand National’s steeplechase the world’s most renowned horse race. First held in 1839, the three-day meet is held in Britain’s Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool. The Grand National pits as many as 40 horses against each other on a 4.5-mile (7-kilometer) course replete with obstacles.
The challenges presented by the steeplechase require the competing horses and jockeys to demonstrate a variety of riding skills. The horses and riders have to successfully jump a total of 30 fences, made more difficult by a six-foot-wide ditch on the take-off side. After the final fence is cleared, the first horse to reach the finish line in a 494-yard (451-meter) sprint wins the race.
The Grand National takes place every April, and captures the attention of Britain like no other event in the country’s sporting calendar. The first event, Opening Day, brings a crowd of 26,000 spectators to Aintree for the start of the racing cycle. The second day, known as Ladies Day, combines sport with fashion and is considered the highlight of northern England’s social season. The Grand National is held on the final day, completing the three-day extravaganza of sport and culture.