The final of this year’s Rugby World Cup pits two of the sport’s long-standing rivals against each other: New Zealand and Australia. The All Blacks have had the upper hand in most of the previous 154 matches, but former Wallabies player Peter FitzSimons had a good reply to one loss: ‘We Australians have so many things to boast about, we lose track. Those poor bastards only have the All Blacks.’ Ah, nothing like a good rivalry. We asked our panel of sports scholars to name the greatest of all, and to explain what makes a good rivalry.
Plenty of long-standing sporting rivalries stretch back for generations: Yankees vs Red Sox, Arsenal vs Tottenham, Brazil vs Argentina. But for serious conflict you need something with a more of an ideological edge.
Soccer club rivalries based on ethno-religious divisions often erupt into violence both on and off the pitch. In this category I’d say that pride of place goes to meetings in the Israeli Premier League between the Arab team Bnei Sakhnin (“Sons of Sakhnin”) and ultra-Zionist Beitar Jerusalem, closely followed by Glasgow “Old Firm” derbies featuring Catholic Celtic and Protestant Rangers.
For mass involvement, you need countries not clubs. Half a million demonstrators took to the streets to celebrate Czechoslovakia’s victory over the Soviet Union in the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships, And on those rare occasions when India and Pakistan are friendly enough to play each other at cricket, television viewing figures can reach a billion.
The most destructive rivalry comes from antiquity. The Blues and the Greens were the top Roman chariot teams. By the time Justinian was emperor in Constantinople, their supporters were divided on political and theological lines. After one particularly fractious hippodrome meeting in 532 CE, the fans started rioting. Half the city was burned and 30,000 people killed. I don’t think the modern world can beat that, thank goodness.
–David Papineau is professor of philosophy at King’s College London and the CUNY Graduate Center.
The sports rivalry – what’s at stake? Is it about turf, as is the case with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur? Is it about politics, as with USSR versus the United States at any Olympic Games during the Cold War, or India and Pakistan on the cricket pitch, or Shirley Babashoff against the entire East German swim team? Is it about establishing a sense of belonging, such as Inter and Milan, both of whom call San Siro home? Is it about the star players, as we saw with the Lakers versus the Celtics in the era of Bird and Johnson? Is it what the tabloids tell us to fret about, such as Nancy Kerrigan versus Tonya Harding on the ice? Add in the hearts of fans, some numbers in the win-loss columns, and it’s all of the above.
There are many great rivalries that have shaped my sense and sensibility about sports: Borg versus McEnroe and Martina versus Chrissy held my attention when I wasn’t yet big enough to hold a tennis racquet. Ryan Lochte versus Michael Phelps showed me that I still knew how to obsess about such things. But the sports rivalry that is a part of who I am, part of what people know about me, is, of course, the Red Sox versus the Yankees. Setting my New England upbringing aside — and mind you, I have now lived in New York for far longer than anywhere else — the Red Sox/Yankees battle appeals to me as a historian as well as a die-hard fan.
As I have written elsewhere, there are many well-known burdens that come with being a Red Sox fan, from the so-called curse to knowing what went down on the day Jackie Robinson tried out for the team – and the long-lasting structure of white supremacy behind it. For these and many more reasons, there are few, if any, fans who understand the significance of history more clearly than those who root for the Red Sox and against the Yankees. So, from Harry Frazee’s trading of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 to the three dramatic postseason series in 1999, 2003, and 2004, there is no greater rivalry than that between Boston and New York. Just ask Rudy Giuliani. When he expressed support for the Red Sox in 2007, the New York papers went nuts, and his presidential campaign faltered soon after. Curse, indeed.
–Amy Bass is professor of history at The College of New Rochelle.
A great rivalry demands, above all else, that clashes between the two sides are invested with great significance beyond athletics. They should represent oppositional ideas that are held, on both sides, with great passion.
Here are some unbiased examples from personal experience: the Boston Celtics of the 1980s represented hard work and toughness, while the Los Angeles Lakers were prancing showoffs. The Boston Bruins also represented hard work and toughness, while the Montreal Canadiens reflected, umm, something about Canada, or maybe French people. The Boston Red Sox represented the perseverance of the underdog, while the New York Yankees were smug, evil jerks, with the exception of after September 11, but definitely again by 2003, and hey, how awesome was 2004? Also, Tom Brady rules!
Back to the point. If we are going to stay in the historical moment and measure a rivalry by its significance beyond sport, it is tough to top the two bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. When Schmeling shocked the undefeated Louis in 1936, he was upheld as a symbol of the rising dominance of Nazi Germany (his own personal politics notwithstanding). When Louis pummeled Schmeling two years later, it was hailed as a triumph of democracy – an especially resonant moment, given that Joe Louis was a black man in Jim Crow America. In the realm of symbolic importance as reflected by sporting rivals, it is tough to top a narrative that pits the rising specter of Nazi Germany against a heroic black man cast as a defender of noble human ideals.
–Aram Goudsouzian is chair of the history department at the University of Memphis.
The greatest sports rivalry is the one between Serena and Venus Williams. The rivalry cannot be packaged as a battle of identity, whether race, class, or nation. The Williams sisters are working-class African-American women who have overcome tremendous obstacles to compete in a largely elite sport. However, the burden of representation doesn’t hang on them when they play one another. The Williams sister rivalry is unique for the obvious reason that they love one another and also go to great lengths to best one another.
The intense competition between the sisters, in training and tournaments, helped them develop into well-rounded players and superb athletes. The 2001 and 2002 Wimbledon finals, the former won by Venus and the latter by Serena, are riveting. Because the players know one another so well, the play is more fluid and orchestrated, and there are beautiful, long volleys. The differences between them – for example, Serena’s preference for clay and Venus’s for grass – aren’t very big. The divergence in their careers has been the injuries and health problems that plagued Venus in her late 20s and early 30s, which Serena has largely escaped. When they played in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open this past summer, I couldn’t decide who I wanted to win. And I certainly hated to see either of them lose.
–Brenda Elsey is associate professor of history at Hofstra University.
There are many candidates for the status of the greatest sports rivalry. For example, this summer during the Cricket World Cup, Adelaide was filled to bursting by Indians and Pakistanis, for whom their match was more important than actually winning the tournament – unless they played each other in the final. There is also the visceral, sectarian-soaked rivalry between Glasgow Celtic and Rangers, the intensely local jousting between Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City Football Clubs in the UK’s West Country, and many other candidates at neighbourhood, regional, national, international and global levels. “Anyone but England” is a handy standby for half the nations on earth.
Although sport can’t be insulated from the rest of life, for the greatest sports rivalry I nominate England and Australia – one for whom the sport is more to the fore than politics or religion. The former was once the colonial power, but in many respects the ex-colony has outdone the “Mother Country,” not least in sport. It is a rivalry that covers so many sports and events, including the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, cricket, darts, and tiddlywinks. When I heard many England supporters at Twickenham cheering for Argentina against Australia in the 2015 Rugby World Cup semi-final I realised that this was sports rivalry in its purest form. No matter that England had fought a war with Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas only three decades ago, or that Diego “Hand of God” Maradona was in the crowd to lend another hand to the Argentinians. And how the Australians loved taking ownership of the “Home of Rugby” and rubbing England’s nose in it after being instrumental in their earlier elimination at the pool stage. That’s my kind of sports rivalry – real pleasure and pain, but nobody wants to kill or maim anybody else.
–David Rowe is professor of cultural research in the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney.
I love to watch the Tour de France and F1, as both were created to be deliberately difficult tests of stamina and speed. Both also remind of the tensions inherent in sporting performance, because there is always a narrative of progress contextualised by what has gone before. We can’t think of the disgrace of Lance Armstrong without remembering Tommy Simpson and the high price he paid to improve his performance. Similarly with Lewis Hamilton equalling Ayrton Senna’s record of three World Titles in F1, Hamilton’s greatest rival is arguably not his current team mate or Sebastian Vettel but a driver from the past. Equalling Senna’s feat was clearly important in Hamilton’s motivation this season. He now has a chance to go one, or maybe two, wins better.
Because most sportsmen and women wish to be the best, and then the best of all time, the greatest sporting rivalry is between past performances and the present. We might debate whether Senna could have beaten Hamilton under present racing conditions, or whether Hamilton could have raced alongside Senna as an equal. But the temporal nature of sporting performance means that we will never really know.
–Jean Williams is senior research fellow at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University.
Years ago, I contributed a chapter to David K. Wiggins and R. Pierre Rodgers’s anthology Rivals: Legendary Matchups That Made Sports History. I wrote that rivalries “are meaningful because of contrast and genuine competition. The rivals need to be different in some significant way: say, geographically (proximity usually breeds hostility) or in terms of temperament (cool vs. fiery), strategic philosophy (innovation vs. tradition), aesthetics (baroque vs. minimalist), and politics (conservative vs. progressive) – or some combination of these characteristics. The operative idea here is difference. If the difference takes on obvious symbolic qualities – consider the cultural salience of the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins rivalry – all the better. It is also important for the rivals to be relatively evenly matched; the outcome of the competition cannot be obvious; there needs to be doubt about who will win, about who is better. If over time the results become consistently lopsided – if one competitor usually crushes the other or if one wins most of the contests – the rivalry diminishes in importance.”
I stand by all of that and want to add another wrinkle: The best rivalries – athletic, political, sibling, whatever – bring out the best in the rivals (and perhaps others). A rivalry that debases its participants, that encourages them to be disrespectful or deceitful, diminishes everyone. We don’t need that. We have enough problems.
Because I spent formative years in Michigan, my favorite rivalry is the annual University of Michigan and Ohio State University football game. It has something to do with the uniforms, I think. The maize and blue provides a nice contrast against the scarlet and gray. It is also because of the game’s pageantry, passion, and tradition, as well as the nostalgia it conjures.
In HBO’s 2007 documentary Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry, narrator Liev Schreiber intones, “An autumn ritual, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is as ingrained in Midwestern culture as stoicism and self-reliance. Like the fruits of the season’s harvest, the game is a gift, a cycle of life that links generations and bonds hostile neighbors. Because beneath the bitterness that coats their epic feud, the teams grudgingly maintain a mutual and abiding respect. They are companion pieces in history, each side’s legacy continually tied to the other’s.” The prose may be purple, but the sentiment is correct. As this season’s defending national champions, undefeated Ohio State is obviously the current king of college football. Yet in some ways Ohio State needs Michigan in order to be Ohio State – and vice versa.
It is not easy for me to admit that Michigan-Ohio State is the rivalry that most captures my imagination. After all, I have serious problems with big-time intercollegiate athletics, which is out of control, hypocritical, and exploitative – and has been for a long time, as the Carnegie Report documented already in 1929. In addition, Michigan has lost ten of its last eleven games against OSU, so the rivalry is terribly lopsided, right now. Historically, Michigan has the upper hand, with a 58-46-6 record. Moreover, I don’t think UM-OSU has brought out the best in most people. It sure didn’t when hotheads such as Bo Schembechler and his mentor Woody Hayes were coaching.
Still, Michigan-Ohio State is a great example of sporting tribalism, of the ways in which sport comingles with community identity and chauvinism. The Michigan-OSU football rivalry may not be the greatest rivalry – though it is popular in this country – but it is certainly historic (it predates the World Series) and matters a great deal to many people.
–Daniel Nathan is chair of the American studies department at Skidmore College.
I learned to be a sports fan through the rivalry between the Cranston East Thunderbolts and Cranston West Falcons, the two public high schools in Cranston, Rhode Island. The rivalry erupted in 1958, as soon as West was established, splitting away from East and cutting the town down the middle. Over the past 57 years, animosity between the diverse, overwhelmingly working-class East and the more homogenous, upper-class West has gone strong, allowing multiple generations of high-school students to enact their best fantasies of Red Sox-Yankee antagonism. The quality of the play is high, as is the tension – and sometimes violence – after games. The enmity culminates each year in an epic Thanksgiving football game. Founded in 1973, the game draws graduates from both schools as well as their extended families, filling the stadium to the brim. It is usually won by the Thunderbolts (they lead the series 22-20 – you can see where I went to school).
This hometown experience is not unique to me. The annual Thunderbolts-Falcolns game is a mise-en-abyme for sports rivalries: it structures how we relate on the field, bonds generations, links moments across history, and creates communities in place.
–Lucia Trimbur teaches sociology at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Strangely, when asked this question my mind immediately jumped to professional wrestling. While not really being sport, the narrative-driven nature of wrestling’s melodramatic spectacle makes it fertile ground for establishing memorable rivalries, telling and retelling epic morality tales through the medium of faux-violent “sports entertainment.”
In this respect, my favourite wrestling rivalry is that waged between “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Vince McMahon from the late 1990s on. As the owner of the WWF/WWE, McMahon performatively rendered himself the evil corporate overlord, dramatically framing his actual expansion of control over wrestling by aping the characterisation of corporate bosses as inherently villainous and exploitive.
Meanwhile, Austin’s heroic stand against McMahon and his stable of hired goons (aptly named “The Corporation”) characterised a larger-than-life answer to the crisis of white, working-class masculinity produced by this expansion of corporate dominance. Austin’s crude style and viciously stubborn defiance embodied the rebel yell of the supposed “angry white men” left behind by the expanding power of capitalism’s elites.
The irony, of course, was that McMahon, along with other corporate entities profiting from the WWF/WWE, would only expand their domination of the wrestling business on the back of the implicit class-warfare narrative undergirding the Austin-McMahon feud. Thus, their rivalry neatly represented the corporate commodification of working-class resistance, a very postmodern tale of grand narratives turned in on themselves. That, as well as some of the most comically memorable wrestling stunts in decades, make this my somewhat dubious pick as a great “sporting” rivalry.
–Alex Channon is senior lecturer in physical education and sport studies at the University of Brighton.