February 22 will mark the 35th anniversary of the upset victory by the U.S. hockey team over their heavily favored Soviet rivals in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Ever since known as the “Miracle on Ice,” Sports Illustrated named this game “the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.” I heartily concur.
As a lifelong sports fan whose privilege it has been to hear or see a number of the top sports thrills of the last four decades of the 20th century—Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic walk-off homer against the mighty Yankees in the 1960 World Series; Bob Beamon’s jaw-dropping long jump in the 1968 Olympics with which he smashed the world record by more than a foot; the New York Jets’ shocking, NFL-revolutionizing victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III; Secretariat’s otherworldly run in the 1973 Belmont Stakes; and—of course!—the world championships won by my hometown Detroit Tigers and Red Wings—but none of them matched the sheer ecstasy of the Miracle on Ice.
The Miracle on Ice eclipses all the other great sports moments because it was about more than just sports. It was our country and its most cherished values against the Soviet Union and its antithetical exaltation of atheism, tyranny, and oppression. It was the ultimate good-versus-evil showdown.
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For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember what U.S.-Soviet relations were like in 1980, you need to understand that there were few moments during the decades-long Cold War in which tensions had risen to the extent that they had in early 1980. The USSR—ever implacable, menacing, relentless in their open hatred of us, and always seemingly ready to launch a massive nuclear attack on us—had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. The cruel and merciless Red Army and Soviet Air Force would stop at nothing to annihilate Afghan resistance. I still have a poster from the era that depicts “Disarmament, Soviet-style.” It shows an Afghan boy with two stumps for forearms—a child who had lost his hands to a booby-trapped toy dropped from a Soviet helicopter.
To the vast majority of Americans (the exceptions being some “intellectuals” with an unlimited capacity for ignoring facts and twisting the truth), the Soviets were the bad guys. They were lethal bullies. And it just so happened that some of the Soviet hockey players were also soldiers in the Red Army. Obviously, these men weren’t involved in the vicious atrocities taking place in Afghanistan—they were busy training for the Olympics. And several of them later helped break the ice of Russian isolation and U.S.-Russian tension by coming over to North America to compete in the National Hockey League. Nevertheless, in 1980, they were still working for the militaristic Soviet regime—professional athletes, paid by their government to add to the prestige of the Soviet Union by crushing foreign opponents.
Against these mature, experienced professionals, who had won the previous four Olympic gold medals and badly routed a team of NHL all-stars the previous year, the United States arrayed a team of amateur and collegiate players, the Olympics being closed to professional hockey players in those days—except, of course, for the Soviets who managed to avoid the designation of “professionals” for their hockey players. Pitting our kids (average age 21—the youngest team in the tournament—who had practiced together for only a few months) against the seasoned Soviet veterans who had been playing together and perfecting their strategies for years, it was a virtual David versus Goliath mismatch.
Well, you all know who won the game. Despite falling behind three times, the Americans—made mentally and physically tough and resilient by their hard-driving coach, the legendary Herb Brooks—kept coming back. In the end, it was the Soviets who had looked flustered in the final scoreless 10 minutes of play as the Americans held on to their 4-3 lead. David defeated Goliath. Those American players brought tears to our eyes. Their heroic effort, mental toughness, and never-say-die attitude embodied all that is greatest and that we hold dear about our country.
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As a footnote, the United States then went on to defeat Finland (in another come-from-behind victory) in the Gold Medal game; but to me, winning the gold was anticlimactic. It was a superlative achievement, of course; but nothing could match the magnificence and exhilaration of a country coming together in spirit to celebrate an astounding, stupendous victory over a hated bully. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team swelled our pride, touched our hearts, and gave us jubilation. They restored our confidence that somehow, the United States would find a way to prevail in the existential conflict against the formidable “Evil Empire.”
Never since the Miracle on Ice has the roaring chant “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” sounded so sweet or meant so much to so many. Thank you, team. You will forever be American heroes.
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