On Feb. 22, 1980, a group of ragtag American hockey players shocked the Soviets in a game that transcended the boundaries of traditional sports. Thirty years later, the impact and importance of the “Miracle on Ice” still merits evaluation.
The Americans beat a Soviet team loaded with world-class talent. At the time, NHL players did not participate in the Olympics, so the Americans’ medal chances were left in the hands of a group of young, inexperienced collegiate players – captained by 25-year-old Mike Eruzione.
From a purely sports-oriented viewpoint, the United States’ 4-3 victory was stunning. Earlier that season the Soviet team beat the NHL all-Star team 6-0. Just before the start of the Olympics, the Soviets beat the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. The Red Army’s run of dominance leading up to the 1980 games was lengthy and thorough. The Soviets had won every gold medal with the exception of one since 1956.
Despite the pure thrill of a stunning upset, the impact of the “Miracle on Ice” was political not athletic.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union were caught in a Cold War stalemate that had been stewing for more than three decades – and tensions were rising between the two superpowers.
President Jimmy Carter was considering an eventual boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics and the early 1980s were dubbed the “Second Cold War” because of the intensifying hostility between the two countries. The increasing power of the Soviet Army was also causing concerns in Washington. In Iran, a group of Americans was being held hostage.
Americans needed something to believe in, something to cheer for – someone to believe in. The U.S. victory over the Soviet Union gave Americans exactly what they needed.
Tensions in our world remain high today. And while two world superpowers don’t appear to be a button’s push away from calamity, the Olympics again have the entire world on the same stage.
It is, however, naïve to believe that total good will reigns at the Olympics. The Iranian team has not competed head-to-head against Israel in more than 30 years. When the chance for head-to-head competition arises, something always seems to come up.
At the 2004 games, Iranian Arash Miresmaeil showed up overweight for his weigh-in against an Israeli judo competitor. In 2008, swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei called in sick when he was supposed to race against Israeli Tom Beeri. And while there is no way to prove these acts were intentional, the implications are huge.
The Olympics do not create world peace. The Olympics do not make neighbor love neighbor. The Olympics do, however, present an opportunity for us to recognize our humanity. Every two years, the world gathers together and for a few short weeks compete as humans – and equals.
The “Miracle on Ice” did not end the Cold War; it didn’t even improve relations between the giants. But 30 years later, the story still reminds us two countries in conflict can compete on the same stage – a reminder of our humanity and the interconnectedness of this place we call home.