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1981 ( MCMLXXXI) was a common year starting on Thursday of the Gregorian calendar, the 1981st year of the Common Era (CE) and (AD) designations, the 981st year of the Anno Domini 2nd millennium, the 81st year of the 20th century, and the 2nd year of the 1980s decade.
January 2 - One of the largest investigations by a British police force ends when serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, the "Yorkshire Ripper", is arrested in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. 
January 10 - Salvadoran Civil War: The FMLN launches its first major offensive, gaining control of most of Morazán and Chalatenango departments. 
January 15 - Pope John Paul II receives a delegation led by Polish Solidarity leader Lech Wasa at the Vatican. 
January 16 - Loyalists shoot and seriously wound Irish nationalist activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and her husband at their home in Northern Ireland. 
January 17 - Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos lifts martial law.
January 20 - Iran releases the 52 Americans held for 444 days, minutes after Ronald Reagan is sworn in as the 40th President of the United States, ending the Iran hostage crisis. 
January 21 - The first DeLorean automobile, a stainless steel sports car with gull-wing doors, rolls off the production line in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland.
January 23 - An earthquake of 6.8 magnitude in Sichuan, China, kills 150 people. Japan suffers a less serious earthquake on the same day. 
Jiang Qing, widow of former leader Mao Zedong, is sentenced to death in the People's Republic of China. Her sentence will later be commuted to life imprisonment.  In South Africa the largest part of the town Laingsburg is swept away within minutes by one of the strongest floods ever experienced in the Great Karoo. January 27 - The Indonesian passenger ship Tamponas 2 catches fire and capsizes in the Java Sea, killing 580 people. 
February 8 - In Greece, 20 fans of Olympiacos F.C. and 1 fan of AEK Athens die, while 54 are injured, after a stampede at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus, possibly because Gate 7 does not open immediately after the end of the game.
February 9 - Polish Prime Minister Józef Pi?kowski resigns, and is replaced by General Wojciech Jaruzelski. 
February 14 - Stardust fire: A fire at the Stardust nightclub in Artane, Dublin, Ireland in the early hours kills 48 people and injures 214. 
February 17- 22 - Pope John Paul II visits the Philippines.
February 23 - 1981 Spanish coup d'état attempt ("23-F"): Antonio Tejero, with members of the Guardia Civil, enters the Spanish Congress of Deputies and stops the session where Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo is about to be named president of the government. The coup fails after being denounced by King Juan Carlos.  February 24 - A powerful, 6.7 magnitude earthquake hits Athens, killing 22 people, injuring 400 people and destroying several buildings and 4,000 houses, mostly in Corinth and the nearby towns of Loutraki, Kiato and Xylokastro.
Daniel K. Ludwig abandons the Jari project in the Amazon basin.
May 1 - Pensions in Chile: The new Chilean pension system, based on private pension funds, begins.
May 4 - The European Law Students' Association (ELSA) was founded in Vienna by law students from Austria, West Germany, Poland and Hungary.
May 5 - 1981 Irish hunger strike: Bobby Sands, Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer and abstentionist Member of Parliament of the House of Commons, dies, aged 27, on hunger strike at HM Prison Maze in Northern Ireland.
May 6 - A jury of architects and sculptors unanimously selects Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. from 1,421 other entries.
May 13 - Pope John Paul II assassination attempt: Pope John Paul II is shot by Mehmet Ali A?ca, a Turkish gunman, as he enters St. Peter's Square in Vatican City to address a general audience. The Pope recovers. 
May 15 - A prison officer, 31-year-old Donna Payant, disappears at Green Haven Correctional Facility in New York. She is later found to have been murdered by convicted serial killer Lemuel Smith. It is the first time a female prison officer has been killed while on duty in the United States. 
May 22 - Peter Sutcliffe is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on 13 counts of murder and 7 of attempted murder in England.
May 26 - The Italian government resigns over its links to the fascist Masonic cell Propaganda Due.
May 30 - Bangladesh President Ziaur Rahman is assassinated in Chittagong. May 31 - Burning of Jaffna library, one of the most violent examples of ethnic biblioclasm of the century.
July 1 - Wonderland murders: The Wonderland Gang of cocaine dealers is brutally murdered in Los Angeles.  Eddie Nash is suspected of involvement, but will never be convicted. 
July 3 - The Toxteth riots in Liverpool, England, start after a mob saves a youth from being arrested. Shortly afterward, the Chapeltown riots in Leeds start after increased racial tension.
July 7 - United States President Ronald Reagan nominates the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court of the United States. 
July 9 - is released, marking the first Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Mario smash hit arcade game developed by Nintendo in Japan.
July 16- 21 - England become the first team this century to win a cricket Test match after the follow-on when they beat Australia by 18 runs at Headingley cricket ground, Leeds, England.
July 19 - The 1981 Springbok Tour commences in New Zealand, amid controversy over the support of apartheid.
July 21 - Panda Tohui is born in Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City, the first panda to ever be born and survive in captivity outside of China.
July 29 - A worldwide television audience of over 750 million people watch the Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul's Cathedral in London, UK.  July 30 - 1981 Polish hunger demonstrations: As many as 50,000 demonstrators, mostly women and children, take to the streets in ?ód? to protest about food ration shortages in Communist Poland. 
September 1 - Gregorio Conrado Álvarez is inaugurated as a military de facto President of Uruguay. 
September 4 - An explosion at a mine in Zálu?í, Czechoslovakia, kills 65 people.
September 7 - British plantation company, Guthrie was taken over by the Malaysian government after successfully purchasing shares to become the major shareholder. This is famously called the 'Dawn Raid attack'. 
September 8 - The first episode of the extremely popular British television sitcom , " Only Fools and Horses Big Brother", is shown on BBC One.
September 10 - Picasso's painting is moved from New York to Guernica Madrid.
September 16 - is first aired on Postman Pat BBC One in the United Kingdom.
September 17 - Ric Flair defeats Dusty Rhodes to win his first World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship in Kansas City.
September 18 - Capital punishment in France is abolished.
September 20 - The Brazilian river boat Sobral Santos capsizes in the Amazon River, Óbidos, Brazil, killing at least 300.
September 21 - Belize, formerly British Honduras, gains its independence from the United Kingdom.
September 25 - Sandra Day O'Connor takes her seat as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
September 27 - TGV high-speed rail service between Paris and Lyon, France begins. September 27- 29 - Iran-Iraq War: Iranian forces break the Siege of Abadan in Operation Samen-ol-A'emeh. 
December 1 - An Inex-Adria Aviopromet McDonnell Douglas MD-80 strikes a mountain peak and crashes while approaching Ajaccio Airport in Corsica, killing all 180 people on board.
December 4 - South Africa grants Ciskei independence, not recognized outside South Africa.
December 7 - Rotary International charters the Rotary Club of Grand Baie, Mauritius.
December 10 - During the Ministerial Session of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, Spain signs the Protocol of Accession to NATO.
December 15 - A car bomb destroys the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 61 people; Syrian intelligence is blamed.
December 17 - American Brigadier General James L. Dozier is kidnapped in Verona by the Italian Red Brigades.
December 20 - The Penlee lifeboat disaster: While attempting to rescue those on board the Union Star off the coast of South-West Cornwall, the lifeboat Solomon Browne is lost with all crew. Sixteen people in all are killed. 
December 28 - The first American test-tube baby, Elizabeth Jordan Carr, is born in Norfolk, Virginia. December 31 - A coup d'état in Ghana removes President Hilla Limann's PNP government and replaces it with the PNDC led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings.
January to March -
Heavy snow causes many houses and buildings to collapse in northwestern Japan; 152 are killed.
Cuba suffers a major outbreak of Dengue fever, with 344,203 cases.  Use of
crack cocaine, a smokeable form of the drug, first reported in the United States and Caribbean. 
Luxor AB presents the ABC 800 computer.
Polybius, an urban legend game, is said to have been released in Portland, Oregon; there is no evidence for its existence. The
State Council of the People's Republic of China lists the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Guilin as those where the protection of historical and cultural heritage, as well as natural scenery, should be treated as a priority project.
Pepsi enters China.  The Millennium translation of Saint
Edward the Martyr's relics from Wareham to Shaftesbury in England is observed in a reenactment. China becomes the first country to ever reach a population of 1 billion around the end of 1981. 
January 1 - Mladen Petri?, Croatian football player 
January 2 - Maxi Rodríguez, Argentine footballer
January 3 - Eli Manning, American football player
January 5 - Deadmau5 (Joel Zimmerman), Canadian DJ/producer 
January 9 - Euzebiusz Smolarek, Polish footballer
January 11 - Jamelia, British singer
January 17 - Ray J, American rapper and singer
January 19 - Lucho González, Argentine footballer
January 21 - Izabella Miko, Polish actress and dancer
January 26 - Gustavo Dudamel, Venezuelan conductor 
January 28 - Elijah Wood, American actor and music producer
January 30 - Dimitar Berbatov, Bulgarian footballer January 31
May 1 - Alexander Hleb, Belarusian football player 
May 5 - Craig David, English singer 
May 8 - Stephen Amell, Canadian actor
May 16 - Joseph Morgan, English actor 
May 17 - Shiri Maimon, Israeli pop/R&B singer, TV show host and actress
May 18 - Hamish Macdonald, Australian broadcast journalist and news presenter
May 21 - Anna Rogowska, Polish pole vaulter
May 24 - Andy Lee, Australian comedian and musician
May 25 - Logan Tom, American volleyball player 
May 26 - Anthony Ervin, American swimmer
May 27 - Alina Cojocaru, Romanian ballerina May 29
June 3 - Mike Adam, Canadian curler
June 5 - Sébastien Lefebvre, Canadian musician ( Simple Plan)
June 12 - Adriana Lima, Brazilian model
June 13 - Chris Evans, American actor
June 14 - Lonneke Engel, Dutch model
June 15 - Veljo Reinik, Estonian actor
June 17 - Amrita Rao, Indian actress
June 18 - Ella Chen, Taiwanese singer
June 23 - Joe Taslim, Indonesian actor and martial artist
June 24 - Júnior Assunção, Brazilian mixed martial artist
June 27 - Majida Issa, Colombian actress
Orlando Cruz, Puerto Rican boxer Tim Reddy, International Man of Mystery
July 4 - Tahar Rahim, French actor
July 8 - Anastasia Myskina, Russian tennis player
July 11 - Susana Barreiros, Venezuelan judge
July 12 - Bojana Novakovic, Serbian-Australian actress
July 17 - Mélanie Thierry, French actress
July 19 - Nikki Osborne, Australian actress
July 23 - Jarkko Nieminen, Finnish tennis player
Jani Rita, Finnish ice hockey player Finn Bálor (aka Fergal Devitt), Irish professional wrestler
July 26 - Maicon Douglas Sisenando, Brazilian footballer
July 27 - Li Xiaopeng, Chinese gymnast
July 29 - Fernando Alonso, Spanish double Formula 1 world champion July 30
October 1 - Roxane Mesquida, French actress
October 3 - Zlatan Ibrahimovi?, Swedish international 
October 4 - Paulien van Deutekom, Dutch speed skater (d. 2019)
October 5 - Enrico Fabris, Italian speed skater
October 8 - Chris Killen, New Zealand footballer 
October 16 - Caterina Scorsone, Canadian actress
October 20 - Stefan Nystrand, Swedish swimmer
October 21 - Nemanja Vidi?, Serbian football player
October 23 - Huo Siyan, Chinese actress
October 25 - Shaun Wright-Phillips, English footballer
October 26 - Guy Sebastian, original Australian Idol 2003 singer
October 29 - Amanda Beard, American swimmer
October 31 - Frank Iero, American guitarist ( My Chemical Romance)
November 4 - Lakshmi Menon, Indian model
November 8 - Joe Cole, English footballer 
November 14 - Russell Tovey, British actor
November 15 - Lorena Ochoa, Mexican golfer
November 16 - Kate Miller-Heidke, Australian singer, songwriter and actress
November 19 - Yfke Sturm, Dutch model
November 22 - Song Hye-kyo, South Korean actress
November 25 - Xabi Alonso, Spanish footballer 
November 27 - Bruno Alves, Portuguese footballer November 29 - Bakhyt Sarsekbayev, Kazakh Olympic boxer
December 2 - Britney Spears, American singer and entertainer 
December 3 - David Villa, Spanish footballer 
December 6 - Lior Suchard, Israeli mentalist
December 9 - Dia Mirza, Bollywood actress
December 13 - Amy Lee, American pianist/singer-songwriter ( Evanescence)
December 14 - Amber Chia, Malaysian model and actress
December 16 - Krysten Ritter, American actress, musician, author, and model 
December 20 - Leo Bertos, New Zealand footballer 
December 24 - Dima Bilan, Russian pop-singer
December 26 - Nikolai Nikolaeff, Australian actor
December 29 - Shizuka Arakawa, Japanese figure skater 
January 6 - A. J. Cronin, Scottish novelist (b. 1896) 
January 8 - Matthew Beard, American actor (b. 1925)
January 11 - Beulah Bondi, American actress (b. 1889)
January 12 - Sir John Nicoll, British colonial governor (b. 1899)
January 13 - Robert Kellard, American actor (b. 1915)
January 16 - Bernard Lee, English actor (b. 1908)
January 19 - Francesca Woodman, American photographer (b. 1958)
January 21 - Allyn Joslyn, American actor (b. 1901)
January 23 - Samuel Barber, American composer (b. 1910)
January 25 - Adele Astaire, American actress (b. 1896)
January 27 - Léo Collard, Belgian Socialist politician (b. 1902)
January 29 - Lajos Korányi, Hungarian footballer (b. 1907)
January 30 - John Gordon, Irish Roman Catholic bishop (b. 1912) January 31 - Cozy Cole, American jazz drummer (b. 1909)
February 2 - Hugh Joseph Addonizio, Italian-born American politician and Mayor of Newark (b. 1914)
February 4 - Mario Camerini, Italian film director and screenwriter (b. 1895)
February 6 - Frederica of Hanover, Queen Consort of the Hellenes and wife of King Paul of Greece (b. 1917)
February 7 - Hermann Esser, German journalist and editor of the Nazi newspaper (b. Völkischer Beobachter 1900)
February 10 - Hubert Shirley-Smith, British civil engineer (b. 1901)
February 12 - Bruce Fraser, 1st Baron Fraser of North Cape, British admiral (b. 1888)
February 15 - Karl Richter, German conductor (b. 1926)
February 26 - Howard Hanson, American composer (b. 1896) February 27 - Jacob H. Gilbert, American politician (b. 1920)
March 1 - Roberto Francisco Chiari Remón, 14th President of Panama (b. 1903)
March 4 - Torin Thatcher, American actor (b. 1905)
March 5 - Yip Harburg, American lyricist (b. 1896)
March 6 - George Geary, English cricketer (b. 1893)
March 9 - Max Delbrück, German biologist, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (b. 1906) 
March 10 - Flavio Calzavara, Italian director and screenwriter (b. 1900)
March 14 - Paolo Grassi, Italian actor (b. 1919)
March 15 - René Clair, French film director (b. 1898)
March 20 - Gerry Bertier, American college football player (b. 1953)
March 21 - Mark Donskoy, Russian Soviet film director (b. 1901)
March 26 - Cyril Dean Darlington, English biologist, geneticist and eugenicist, (b. 1903)
March 29 - Eric Williams, 1st Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago (b. 1911)
March 31 - Frank Tieri, American gangster (b. 1904)
May 1 - Barry Jones, American actor (b. 1893)
May 3 - Nargis, Indian actress (b. 1929)
May 5 - Bobby Sands, Irish republican hunger striker (b. 1954)
May 6 - Frank O'Grady, Australian public servant (b. 1900)
May 7 - Hiromichi Yahara, Imperial Japanese Army officer (b. 1902)
May 8 - Prince Andrei Alexandrovich of Russia (b. 1897)
May 12 - Benjamin Sheares, Singaporean politician and professor, 2nd President of Singapore (b. 1907)
May 13 - Ben Andrews, American actor (b. 1942)
May 14 - J. Posadas, Argentine politician (b. 1912)
May 17 - Hugo Friedhofer, German-American film composer (b. 1901)
May 20 - Dositej, Metropolitan of Skopje (b. 1906)
May 21 - Yuki Shimoda, American actor (b. 1921)
May 22 - Boris Sagal, Ukrainian-American television and film director (b. 1923)
May 29 - Soong Ching-ling, Acting head of State of the People's Republic of China (b. 1893)
June 2 - Rino Gaetano, Italian musician and singer-songwriter (b. 1950)
June 5 - Miguel Contreras Torres, Mexican actor, director, producer and screenwriter (b. 1899)
June 12 - Mahmoud Fawzi, Egyptian diplomat and political figure, 35th Prime Minister of Egypt (b. 1900)
June 13 - George Walsh, American actor (b. 1889)
June 14 - Sir Ronald Holmes, British government official in Hong Kong (b. 1913)
June 16 - Sir Thomas Playford, Australian politician, Premier of South Australia (b. 1891)
June 17 - Sir Richard O'Connor, British general (b. 1889)
June 23 - Zarah Leander, Swedish actress and singer (b. 1907) June 28
July 3 - Ross Martin, American actor (b. 1920)
July 7 - Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi, South Yemenite socialist leader, 1st President of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen ( South Yemen) (b. 1920)
July 8 - Joe McDonnell, Irish republican hunger striker (b. 1951)
July 10 - Giorgio De Lullo, Italian actor and director (b. 1921)
July 16 - Harry Chapin, American singer and songwriter (b. 1942)
July 27 - William Wyler, American movie director (b. 1902) 
July 28 - Stanley Francis Rother, American priest, martyr, and Blessed (b. 1935)
July 29 - Robert Moses, American urban planner (b. 1888) July 31 - Omar Torrijos, Panamanian leader (b. 1929)
September 2 - Enid Lyons, Australia politician (b. 1897)
September 7 - Christy Brown, Irish writer and painter (b. 1932) 
September 11 - Frank McHugh, American actor (b. 1898)
September 12 - Eugenio Montale, Italian writer, Nobel Prize laureate (b. 1896) 
September 14 - Charles L. Melson, American admiral (b. 1904)
September 21 - Nigel Patrick, English actor (b. 1912)
September 22 - Harry Warren, American songwriter (b. 1893)
September 23 - Chief Dan George, Canadian actor and writer, tribal chief of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation (b. 1899)
September 24 - Patsy Kelly, American actress (b. 1910)
September 27 - Robert Montgomery, American actor and director (b. 1904)
October 3 - Chrysostom Blashkevich, Soviet Benedict monk (b. 1915)
October 4 - Freddie Lindstrom, American baseball player ( New York Giants) and a member of the MLB Hall of Fame (b. 1905)
October 5 - Gloria Grahame, American actress (b. 1923)
October 6 - Anwar Sadat, 37th Prime Minister of Egypt and 3rd President of Egypt, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (assassinated) (b. 1918)
October 22 - Michael Granger, American actor (b. 1923)
October 24 - Edith Head, American costume designer (b. 1897)
October 25 - Barbara Bedford, American actress (b. 1903)
October 27 - John Warburton, British actor (b. 1899) October 29 - Georges Brassens, French singer and songwriter (b. 1921)
December 2 - Wallace Harrison, American architect (b. 1895)
December 6 - Harry Harlow, American psychologist (b. 1905)
December 7 - William Edmunds, Italian stage and screen character actor (b. 1886)
December 8 - Ferruccio Parri, Italian partisan and politician, 29th Prime Minister of Italy (b. 1905)
December 13 - Cornelius Cardew, English composer (b. 1936)
December 18 - Enrique Hertzog, Bolivian politician, 42nd President of Bolivia (b. 1896)
December 26 - Suat Hayri Urguplu, Turkish politician, 11th Prime Minister of Turkey (b. 1903)
December 27 - Hoagy Carmichael, American jazz composer (b. 1899) December 28 - Allan Dwan, Canadian-born American film director (b. 1885)
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