SPORT Down to the Wire: 5 Split-Second Moments That Changed Sporting History

6 min

Hunt and Lauer at the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix. Photo by Anefo / Croes, R.C. / neg. stroken, 1945-1989,, item number 928-0060

In sports, the difference between winning and losing often comes down to a merest millimeter or a fraction of a fraction of a second. That’s why in 1916, we invented the Mikrograph – so we could pinpoint time right down to a 1/100th of a second.  

These moments are the ones that keep us on the edge of our seats, or up on our feet — will he make the shot? Will she dip for the finish line? Will she take us to the finals? So here are some of our all-time favourites, from the past five decades of modern sporting history.

1970s: Victory Lap

Frustrated after delays due to rainstorms, the teams in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix convinced the organisers to let them drive with wet tyres. 

The race marks one of the finest episodes of the famed Niki Lauda – James Hunt road rivalry. Hunt, the young British underdog drove a McLaren, far less powerful than Lauda’s Ferrari, and yet managed to keep Lauda at bay for an astounding 60 laps. Lauda tried to pull ahead several times — and nearly did — but Hunt stayed his course.

Things moved fast, confusing TV commentators. Captions were three laps behind on the live broadcast when a massive roar emerged from the grandstands. With a 1.06-second lead, Hunt crossed the finish line first. And that’s how he won his first Formula One Grand Prix.

The "Miracle on Ice" during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Photo by Henry Zbyszynski

1980s: A Cold War on Ice

The weather was strange during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, warming up and then dipping back below freezing. On February 22nd, at a sold-out stadium in Lake Placid, New York, the gold medal round of the men’s hockey tournament took place. The game pitted the hosting US team against the defending gold medalist, not to mention heavily favoured, Soviet Union.

Towards the end of the final period, the game was tied 3-3. The last twenty seconds were charged. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet. Players were checked and the puck flew across the ice. With time running out, the crowd counted aloud each second, and in the very last possible moment, the US team scored a goal, winning the game and the gold. 

Sports commentator Al Michaels famously said live, on-air: “Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!”  That pundit comment made history and this memorable hockey finale became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”

1980s/1990s: The NBA’s Golden Age

Basketball experienced a veritable Golden Age in the 80s and 90s. This was peak MJ, and we mean both Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. This was the time of the Chicago Bulls, of Space Jam and of the US Olympic “Dream Team.” Here’s a double dose of Michael Jordan’s clock-stopping courtside magic. 

It was a 1989 NBA playoff game between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Game 5, the deciding game of the Eastern Conference First Round series on May 7, 1989, at Richfield Coliseum in Ohio (Cavaliers turf). The teams were tied at two games apiece in this best-of-five series. With three seconds to go, Jordan received a pass and made a shot. He scored as the buzzer rang. The Bulls clinched the series victory and Jordan’s buzzer-beater became known as “The Shot.”

Fast-forward to 1998. Jordan was a full-fledged basketball legend at this point. In Game 6 of the NBA finals, it was the Bulls up against the Utah Jazz. And it was the last professional game of Jordan’s career. (Well, it was meant to be his last game, but Jordan eventually returned.) The teams were tied, 86-up. With 5.2 seconds left, Jordan hit a jump shot, giving Chicago the lead it needed. The Bulls won. And the game earned the highest TV ratings of any NBA game of all time.

Michael Jordan, winner of 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls

2000s: Drop-Goal for the Win

The 2003 Rugby World Cup Final placed England against Australia. On a rainy November day in Sydney, over 80,000 people filled Telstra Stadium to watch the match. It was neck and neck. The pitch was slick. 

By the end of the second half, the score was 14-14 and the match headed into extra time. Both teams scored penalties, keeping them on even ground at 17-17. After a Mat Rogers kick (from the Australian team), the ball was again in England’s possession. 

With 26 seconds left, Johnny Wilkinson found himself with a tiny bit of space ahead of him, ball in hands, on his less favoured right foot. He didn’t ask himself any questions and scored the all-important drop-goal. A commentator declared, “Johnny Wilkinson is England’s hero yet again! And there’s no time for Australia to come back! England have just won the World Cup.” Indeed, in those penultimate moments, England won the Rugby World Cup 20-17. They were the first Northern Hemisphere team to win the Webb Ellis Cup, and they have not won it again since.

The England Rugby Team on their victory parade through central London, shown here at Trafalgar Square. Photo by BombDog.

2010s: Get Your Head in the Game

The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, held in Germany, was the sixth-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup competition. In the quarterfinals knockout stage, the top two teams from each of the four groups competed. Brazil played against the US on July 10th, 2011 in the arena in Dresden. Ultimately, the US Women’s National Team won the game 5-3 in a penalty shootout. 

The most electric moment of the game however came a few seconds before the final whistle of the second half. Brazil was leading 2-1 during stoppage time. Megan Rapinoe of the USWNT sent a floated cross from the left wing to the far post. Her teammate, Abby Wombach was open.  With smooth, precise maneuvering, Wombach hit a powerful header, scoring a brilliant goal and tying the teams at 2-2. After their victory in the penalty round, the USWNT went onto the semi finals. 

The legacy of moments like this stretches across time. Because we all know what happened eight years later: A World Cup Trophy for the USA and a Golden Boot for the legendary Ms. Rapinoe.

End Game

Sporting history is composed of thousands of unforgettable moments. The most memorable ones often come down to isolated, freeze-frame memories, moments of decisive action which change the course of events — within the game, and beyond it. 

At TAG Heuer, we celebrate these athletes who are able to cease time at the most decisive moments. Our watches are made to celebrate and inspire the bravery of these perfect instants.