Sports always is an Us-against-Them exercise, and you choose your side. Identify with your tribe. So, when the underdog U.S. ice hockey team shocked the mighty Soviets on the way to winning a thoroughly unlikely Olympic gold medal in 1980, it was natural enough for American spectators to go a little haywire.
At the time, the Soviets were the established international hockey heavyweights and, on an implied level, were the athletic extension of a government considered the world’s most dangerous nuclear-age bully. Plus, we Yanks were hungry for some form of self-assurance, in a funk of insecurity over the Iran hostage crisis and were outraged morally by the USSR invasion of Afghanistan two months earlier.
(Twenty-one years later, U.S. policy makers invaded Afghanistan, but that’s another story.)
The Cold War still was raging, and the Olympics—theoretically above politics but so often a proxy conflict without bullets—was handy for some sabre rattling and nationalistic bluster.
So the meaning of that big game in Lake Placid was immediately inflated—perverted, really—as an expression of our homeland’s superiority. Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, called his team’s 4-3 victory evidence that our way of life was better than the Soviets’. U.S. editorials declared that the hockey triumph “lifted the spirits of Americans everywhere.” The whole thing was schmaltzified—splendid hockey gone to hokey—and eventually Disneyfied in the 2004 movie “Miracle.”
Now, 35 years on, the so-called U.S. “Miracle on Ice” again is being celebrated—as it should be, though in a purely hockey sense. It was fabulous theatre on the big stage, intense competition at its finest. But, better than that is the release this week of a long-overdue documentary, “Red Army,” that gives an in-depth look at the other side, humanizing the Soviet players who were so long seen as merely malevolent Communist robots.
A New York Times review of “Red Army” cited its treatment of the “complicated nature of patriotism and the absurdity of treating sports as a chest-thumping global battle of wills.” Thoughtful people right after the 1980 game lamented the war mentality attached to that hockey summit, and how flimsy it was to hang one’s hat on the result of a sporting event.
ABC-TV’s Jim McKay, widely respected for his work amid the Olympics’ brotherhood-of-man idealism, nevertheless veered into jingoism when he signed off at the close of those Games, sounding near tears over the U.S. hockey victory. “What an Olympics!” McKay gushed. “What a country! Let’s say it here: We are a great people!”
Except: What if our hockey lads hadn’t won the Big Door Prize? And what about the fact that, overall, the East Germans (23) and Soviets (22) both accumulated more medals in those Games than the Americans (12)? Were we therefore a lesser form of humans?
Olympic success, by and large, is a function of a nation’s population, the size of its talent pool in specific sports, its financial wherewithal.
Plus, there was this: Because of the USSR military incursion into Afghanistan shortly before the Lake Placid Opening Ceremonies, President Jimmy Carter—who twice telephoned Herb Brooks with congratulations and called the hockey players “American heroes”—had ordered a U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow, scheduled that summer.
A U.S. Summer Olympian, volleyball player Debbie Green, was among those outraged by the political hypocrisy. “The athletes in the Winter Games,” she said, “get all the praise for their work, and now just because our Games are in Moscow, we’re accused of being un-American” for wanting to compete.
Let’s say it here: That 1980 U.S. hockey upset was a delightful surprise, a tribute to Brooks’ coaching skills and the grit of his collection of amateur players—outperforming what basically was a masterly professional team. But it was no test of national strength, no proof that God is on our side. And it hardly convinced the Kremlin to pull troops out of Afghanistan. (That took nine more years.)
OK, then. The game was Us-against-Them. But the result was not a manifestation of Good-vs.-Evil.