A Brief History
On January 11, 532, the seeds of a riot broke out in the capital of the Byzantine Empire (spawn of the Eastern Roman Empire), Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) over competing support of chariot racing teams. Not your typical few hours of drunken revelry, the Nika Riots went on for a week and resulted in half the city being burned down! While we consider a modern sports related riot that results in a fatality to be a tragedy, the Nika Riots resulted in an estimated 30,000 rioters killed, making it the worst sports related riot in history. Today we list 5 Famous Sports Riots, and as always, feel free to add any such events you believe belong on this list. (No significance to the order listed and please note we are not saying these events were the “most famous,” just “famous” riots we think you will find interesting while limiting one riot per sport. And yes, we know there have been football and hockey riots, too. Maybe next time!)
1. Nika Riots, 532.
Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, having gotten its name from the Emperor Constantine after having originally been called Byzantium. As the heirs to the Roman legacy, the Byzantines were fond of sporting events, and chariot races were a big part of the sporting entertainment of the time. Competing associations were called “demes,” each being 1 of 4 groups of teams given color coded names (Reds, Blues, Greens and Whites). The Blues and the Greens were by far the predominant demes by 532, and the Emperor, Justinian I, was a supporter of the Blues. Support of either the Greens or the Blues also indicated a citizen’s political alignment and went so far as to also have street gangs aligned by which deme they supported. This support was often underscored by violence, and some of the members of both demes were accused of involvement in murders in 531, resulting in prosecution and sentences of death by hanging. Rioting after hotly contested chariot races was not uncommon, similar in nature to “soccer hooliganism” (known everywhere but the US as “football hooliganism) in Europe and South America. In 532, 2 of the surviving convicted murderers had escaped custody, one each from the Green and Blue demes, resulting in anger from both sides. While the escaped condemned men both took refuge in a church, a violent minded mob surrounded the church and the riot began. Aggravating the situation was the unhappiness over taxes Justinian I had levied on his people and the negotiations taking place with the Persian Empire and the settling of the Iberian War. Justinian declared chariot races be held on January 13 in an attempt to deflect attention from the escaped convicts, but during the long day of racing partisan chanting changed to a unified chant of “Nika” against the Emperor and the large crowd became enraged at government policies and began a riot resembling a revolt. As the riots went on for days and thousands were killed, a Green supporter was nominated as the man to replace Justinian I as Emperor. Justinian I sent an emissary (a eunuch) to the Blue section with a bag of gold coins to remind the Blues that their Pretender to the Throne was in fact a Green, and that Justinian I was a Blue just like them. The coins were distributed, and the blues removed their support of the coup resulting in Justinian I able to reassert control over Constantinople, but only after extensive death and destruction. The Green would be emperor, Hypatius, was executed along with the senators that had supported him.
2. 10 Cent Beer Night Riot, 1974.
3. Football War, 1969.
What Americans call “soccer” is of course known as “football” in the rest of the world, and the rest of the world takes this particular sport more seriously than any other sport. Rioting that started at a 1970 FIFA World Cup qualifier match being held in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, between teams from Honduras and neighboring El Salvador. The 2 countries had been experiencing tensions over recent immigration trends from the more populous El Salvador to the larger but less populous country of Honduras. Salvadoran immigrants were said to be beaten, robbed, and generally abused in Honduras. Also, social differences between the 2 countries (economic class differences) aggravated tensions. When rioting broke out during the soccer game, relations between the 2 countries exploded into armed conflict, culminating in a war that lasted from July 14th to July 18th of 1969 before the OAS (Organization of American States) could broker a peace. About 900 Salvadorans were killed and wounded as were about 2100 Hondurans. Though it would be unfair to say the war was caused by the soccer game, the soccer riot was at least the excuse for the onset of hostilities. (Other soccer/football riots are so numerous as to make picking just one hard to do!)
4. Riddick Bowe vs. Andrew Golota, 1996.
Riddick Bowe was a former Heavyweight boxing champion when he fought a match against up and coming Polish fighter Andrew Golota at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on July 11, 1996. While Golota pounded Bowe, the “Powerful Pole” repeatedly hit Bowe below the belt, a foul in the “sweet science” sport of boxing. The referee duly noted the fouls and warned Golota against repeating the offensw in the second round, and gave another and final warning during the third round. When in the fourth round Golota continued to punch below the belt, Referee Wayne Kelly deducted a point from Golota, but the fight continued into a fifth and sixth round, both dominated by Golota. Kelly took another point from Golota for yet another low blow during the sixth round, and warned Golota that one more low blow would result in disqualification. In the seventh round Golota once again committed a groin shot, and Kelly stopped the fight and declared Bowe the winner by disqualification. Bowe’s team entered the ring and attacked Golota, one of the men beating the Polish fighter on the head with a walkie talkie, splitting the fighter’s scalp. Of course Golota fought back, and fight fans rushed the ring to participate in the brawl. Ringside observer and former Heavyweight champion George Foreman tried to calm the crowd and keep people out of the ring, to no avail. Before order could be restored, 9 pepole had to be hospitalized along with 8 injured police officers and lacerated Golota. Only 10 arrests were made, and an unknown number of people suffered less serious injuries. An epilog to this tale of violence within a ring of violence is that a rematch between the 2 boxers was scheduled only 3 months later. In that bout, Golota again pummeled Bowe, but again was disqualified for throwing low blows! That second pummeling by Golota forced Bowe into retirement at the age of only29, while Golota went on to get knocked out by Lennox Lewis in the first round of a Heavyweight Championship fight in 1997, his career lasting until 2013 after twice having won a variety of the Heavyweight title.
5. Detroit Pistons Riot, 1990.
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you heard of the Nika Riots? Have you ever personally witnessed a sports related riot? Have you ever felt the urge to riot over the joy of a victory or the bitterness over a defeat of your favorite sports team? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Storm, Matthew J. From Africanus: The Roman Empire, the Nika Riots and the Approaching Darkness. Amazon Digital Services, 2015.
Williams, Ronald. How To Survive A Riot: The Definitive Step-By-Step Beginner’s Guide On How To Escape An Angry Mob Of Looters And Rioting Protesters During Civil Unrest. Amazon Digital Services, 2017.
The featured image in this article by J. B. Bury (1861–1927), to illustrate the Nika Riot, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.