aFor Americans, the “Miracle on Ice” is one of the greatest patriotic stories of the 20th century. During a time of political turmoil, economic troubles, and what at the time seemed like a failing grip on world influence, the 1980 Men’s Winter Olympic hockey game victory by the United States brought in a sense of hope to a struggling nation. The gold medal hockey game between the US and the Soviet Union in Lake Placid created the ideal opportunity for US politicians and other high level government officials to promote the superiority of their country, its citizens, and its political belief of the superiority of capitalism over communism. In the months leading up to the 1980 Winter Olympics hosted by the US in Lake Placid, New York, it was a difficult time for the US both politically and athletically.
It was a time of continued suspicion of the US federal government due to past scandals, economic recession, and an ongoing energy oil crisis. America was in a state of decline and it had been for a while. The failures of their government demonstrated by the outcome of the Vietnam War and the Watergate burglary were still very fresh in Americans’ minds, and on November 4, 1979, 66 US citizens were taken hostage in Iran.
While 13 of those hostages were released a month later, the remaining 52 were held for 444 days. Then on December 27, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Additionally, the American economy was performing poorly due to economic inflation, and an energy crisis was demonstrated America’s lack of influence of foreign policy. It seemed at the time nothing was going in favor of the Americans, who had dominated global politics and foreign policy in the 30 years since the conclusion of World War II. America’s stature in the world of sports were not much better, as the Soviet’s men’s hockey team had won Olympic gold for four consecutive Olympics: 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. If America was going to change the mood and prove they belonged on the global stage, they needed a leader who would lead them to success in the upcoming Winter Olympics. That leadership position for the United States was filled by a man named Herb Brooks.
Herb’s hockey career began while playing in college for the University of Minnesota from 1955 to 1959. A year after graduating Brooks was brought on as a member of the 1960 Olympic team, only to miss the last cut a week before the Squaw Valley Olympic games started. Using this to motivate himself, Herb set a record by playing on eight US National and Olympic teams, including the 1964 and 1968 Olympic hockey teams. Shortly after retiring from playing, Herb began his coaching career at The University of Minnesota, where he led them to three NCAA championships in 1974, 1976 and 1979. This coaching success brought Brooks a lot of recognition and eventually lead to him being chosen as the 1980 US Men’s Winter Olympic hockey coach. As a coach, Herb was well known for his motivation skills as well as his ruthless coaching style.
“His style was a combination of intimidation and motivation. He smashed lockers, screamed at players, and cajoled them with cliches and inspirational speeches. He was a psychologist who administered a battery of written tests to his players” (Crepeau 2). Brooks knew it would take more than these young men had ever put into their sport to be able to overthrow the Soviet’s hockey dynasty. He pushed them to their limits during practice and coached his heart out, motivating them before games. For Coach Brooks, this team was everything.
Many people think of him as being a jovial coach, smiling when his players skated up to him and snow shower him, because of the movie, Miracle on Ice, but this was not the case. There was nothing more serious for Brooks in life than his team. Rob McClanahan, a player for Brooks for seven years, described his and the other teammates relationship with Brooks in one word – fear. “All the players remember the night in Norway when the U.S.
tied the Norwegian team with a lackluster effort and Brooks was so incensed he ordered the team on the ice for an hour of “Herbies,” an exhausting conditioning drill. Even after the arena manager turned off the lights the team kept skating to Brooks’ commands” (Brown 1). But it was this intensity and dedication to nothing less than perfection that turned what most would have thought could only happen in dreams into reality. Unfortunately with only a week before the Olympics, the US lost to the Soviets 10-3 in a practice game. After training for months in conditions that most players would describe as worse than “burning in hell”, the loss was taken as a major blow to their confidence, especially going into the Olympic atmosphere. It seemed that what most people had predicted, was inevitable.
The US was going to lose to the Soviets once again, no matter how hard they trained. As the Olympic games began, Brooks began to see the media as another significant concern. With many reporters flooding players with questions about the political landscape at the time, Brooks tried his best to inform the press that his team did not train this hard for six months in order to help some politicians prove to the world the superiority of the American way of life. Unfortunately, the power of one man was not enough to hold back the entire press. Reporters eager to place the young men in the spotlight pushed players for their opinions on world politics.
By the time the US-Soviet game was announced to the public, the players started to comprehend that they were not just preparing for another hockey game, but that the hopes of Americans across the country were on their shoulder pads. US hockey player Dave Silk remarked, ”Heading into the game against the Soviets , the only thing that gave us a feel for what was going on outside were all the telegrams Herb had put up on the wall outside the locker room…One telegram read, ‘Kill those Commie bastards.’ At that point, we began to understand what this game meant to people” (Abelson 15).
Despite the pre-Olympic loss to the Soviets and the building media and public pressure, all was not bad for the Americans as they had seemed to find their stride, winning four games and tieing one, which led to a feeling of confidence for the Americans. Only weeks ago, the Soviets had slaughtered the Americans and reminded them why they had won the gold medal at the last four Olympics. Now that had changed.
The days leading up to the big game, Brooks noticed something. He noticed the Soviets seemed off their game. They barely beat the Canadians, and noticed a general sloppiness in the usually extremely tight and well oiled “Big Red Machine.
” Brooks saw an opportunity and went to his team for a meeting. ”They’re not into it. For some reason, the Soviets are off their game. They’re ready to slit their own throats. All we have to do is give them the knife.
” Brooks added, ”What do they have left? Half a dozen of the Soviets were playing in their third Olympic Games and already had two gold medals gathering dust in Moscow apartments. How many times can they win it? How many times do they want to win it?” (Abelson 14). With now only hours away from the historic matchup, the players tried to focus on what coach had taught them, ”We’re going to the Winter Olympics.
Not to the United Nations Building” (Abelson 15). Although many see coach Brooks and the players who supported this as a noble fight, they did not have much control on how the public perceived thematch. And as the match neared, many of them began to realize, regardless of what they or their coach believed, they were now America’s team. These 20 young men “found themselves carrying the load for the President, the Pentagon, the hostages, General Motors, Dow Jones, the Saturday Evening Post and the For Freedoms.
When you think about it, Jim Craig mused, we’re a bunch of kids playing against a whole country” (Powers and Kaminsky 203). Shortly before the game in the locker room, Herb spoke to his team one last time with one of the most inspirational sports speeches of all time saying: Great moments…
are born from great opportunity. And that’s what you have here, tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned here tonight. One game. If we played ’em ten times, they might win nine.
But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight.
This is your time….Now go out there and take it. (Vargas, 28) The United States team was dressed in white, while the Soviets were in red. For the Americans they had Jim Craig “in the cage” as goalie. While practicing for the Winter Games, his teammates and the public got a chance to learn how he achieved his mother’s dream, Margaret Craig, who had died of cancer in 1977, of him playing in the Olympics.
This event brought him and his father, Donald Craig, extremely close together and is who Jim attributes most of his success to in hockey. On the Soviet end of the rink, they had most widely regarded greatest goalie in the world, Vladislav Tretiak. The game started out strong and fairly equally matched. Unlike how a few weeks prior the Soviets had scored almost immediately in the first period, this time it took until almost halfway through the first period for the first point to be scored. It was scored by a Soviet winger, Vladimir Krutov, who found a hole in the US’s defenses. However a few minutes later Buzz Schneider maneuvered around the advance Soviet defense and managed to slip in a quick shot against the world renowned goalie Tretiak. The stadium erupted in cheer as Schneider was mobbed by his teammates. When the game resumed, the scoreboard read 1–1, although that was to be short lived.
Minutes later, Sergei Makarov, scored bringing the Soviets once again into the lead. It appeared that the Americans were going to end the first period only one point down, an impressive feat in itself. When suddenly with only a few seconds remaining, American center, Mark Johnson, slithered his way through the Soviet defense, and picked up a rebound that Soviet goalie Tretiak had deflected. Johnson took one quick slap of the puck and shot it past Tretiak. The crowd exploded with cheers as the first period ended tied, 2-2. The Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, furious with Tretiak’s performance, pulled Tretiak at the end of the first period in favor of the backup goalie Vladimir Myshkin. Only one goal was scored in the second period by the Soviet Alexander Maltsev, and with only one period of the game remaining, the Soviets led 3–2. The United States was feeling refreshed and full of hope even though they were down 3-2.
Leading up to this game, the United States men’s team had found themselves in a similar position multiple times when they were forced to come from behind to win. During the break in the locker room, Brooks reminded them that this time was no different, and all they had to do is hand the Soviets the knife he had told them about, so they can “slit their own throats”. Now deep into the third, and final, period, American Mark Johnson showed the world why his nickname of “Magic”, was so appropriate.
Taking a quick pass that made its way through the Soviet defense from Dave Silk, Mark immediately shot and was able to slide it right past Myshkin, who had come in to replace the world famous Tretiak as goalie. The stadium exploded with cheers and with less than twelve minutes remaining, the United States and Soviets were again tied. Two minutes later, Mike Eruzione, the team captain of the US team, slid quickly to the side, slipped around his defender and blew a twenty-foot wrist-shot past Myshkin for another US goal. The Americans were leading for the first time against the Soviets and now all that was left was to fend them off for the last remaining minutes. The Soviets were furious with the idea of losing to a team that only weeks ago they had routed and beaten in the last four Olympics.
The Soviets began relentlessly taking shot after shot, looking for a way to get it past the US goalie Jim Craig, but with no success. The remaining minutes slowly ticked away and, with three seconds remaining on the clock, Al Michaels, the US television announcer at the game, began to realize what was about to happen. A US victory, in Olympic hockey, against the Soviet’s “big Red machine”.
With second remaining he excitedly asked the television audience his famous question, ”Do you believe in miracles?!!” The reactions of the Soviet players were mixed. Some were left in disbelief by what had just happened. While other more experienced and veteran players smiled as Team USA celebrated the enormous odds they had just overcame: What they did not forget, however, was the importance of good sportsmanship. In the days and months following their defeat, a defeat that sent shockwaves through the streets of Moscow, the Soviet players and coaches did not try to undermine what the United States had achieved.
On the contrary, they praised the US team for their conditioning, clean play, and superb goal tending. (Abelson 20) The Soviet response was an unexpected, but very much welcomed, warm response in a time of a brittle, cold political environment. While the Soviets congratulated the United States in their victory, they by no means tried to flaunt or generate publicity like they Americans did with their victory. In the coming days, it became clear that for many Americans, especially politicians, beating the USSR was the top story, even though it was not even the gold medal game. After what had seemed like decades of decline and struggle in world power, which as President Carter described in the HBO documentary “Do You Believe in Miracles?” had resulted in ”a crisis in confidence” . Americans had lamented the fact that theironce great “super power” of the last 30 years was no longer “and what better way to raise the spirits of a nation than to defeat its Cold War adversary at a game that had become such a critical part of its national identity” (Abelson, 20). The United States might have been unable to prevent the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan, or convince them to help in the Iranian hostage crisis, but it had stopped them from claiming hockey supremacy on American soil. Years later Jack O’Callahan, a member of the 1980 US team, noted that the victory in Lake Placid seemed to have brought back a ton of national pride in citizens, something not heard in quite some time.
What Jack O’Callahan said may have been true, but what we do not know for certain is whether this win reintroduced a sense of nationalism amongst citizens or if it was politicians that capitalized on the excitement of Americans to push new policies through that had otherwise been at stalemate. In this author’s opinion, it was a bit of both. The average US citizen confidence at the time was at an all time low before the 1980 Olympics.
From 1958 to 1979, the US confidence in the government had declined by around 55% from around 80% trusting the US government in 1958, to a mere 25% confidence level in 1979. Shortly after the 1980 Olympic win over the Soviets, confidence was up 30% three years later, an average of a 10% climb per year, greater than ever before. This new found nationalism allowed politicians enough support to turn around the momentum to allow for continued growth in confidence throughout the 1980s.. Someone that had been transparent from the beginning with their political thoughts was the US goaltender Jim Craig.
Craig, before the game with the Soviets said, ”I hate them. I don’t hate their hockey players specifically, but I hate what they stand for.” He stated in a recent interview, “his views on the USSR had been shaped by several events, not the least of which was learning more about how his team’s physician, Dr. Nagobads and his wife, with whom Craig lived with for several months, had escaped Latvia in search of a better life in the United States. ”I was smart enough to understand that the athletes were doing the best that they possibly could to survive in a place they possibly didn’t believe in. And I learned later from a good friend, Vladimir Lutchenko, that winning a game was life and death for how the players and their families were treated” (Abelson 22). Three years into his presidency and US President Jimmy Carter was struggling.
He was the leader of a country with a poor economic conditions, an extended hostage situation, perceptions that a mismanaged foreign policy caused an energy crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which left the United States feeling victimized by the international community. The American “miracle” victory in Lake Placid had provided President Carter, and America, with a glimmer of hope and the national pride he believed he needed to advance his agenda. President Carter and other high ranking political officials used publicity and the media to their advantage; going to great lengths to claim that what happened in Lake Placid brought out all the values of Americans, and that no matter how long it is suppressed, freedom and liberty always succeed. In a relentless campaign, President Carter tried to convince the American public that the hope he could offer to get America back on top was similar to that of what the US Olympic Hockey Team had given the nation. What the president and nd other significant political officials were doing was clear.
They wanted to use this rare definitive defeat of the Soviets in hockey for the first time in decades to their advantage. They wanted everyone to see that even through all the hardships that the country had endured, that they were still able to hold their own and this hockey game was just the beginning of their rebound to American supremacy. President Carter wanted Americans to believe and fight for the idea that no matter what, that the United States and the values it stands for, will always be upheld, so long as there are people that value freedom and liberty. Many of the US players felt their win was being purely extorted for political gain. Despite knowing what was happening, many understood the importance and excused “politicians like Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy for trying to capitalize on his team’s victory, but some Americans who had observed how the win in Lake Placid was being politicized were less forgiving.
” ( Abelson 26). In a letter, US citizen Frank Francisconi, wrote of how he believed how disrespectful it was for President Carter and other politicians to use the hockey team for their political gain. He believed, “Let’s rejoice in the U.
S. hockey victory. But let’s keep it in perspective, too,”(Abelson 26). It is not known if President Carter ever personally read that famous letter but it can be assumed that he began to see that not all the public could be easily convinced of this game representing America. In his memoirs, whose purpose is to recap the highlights, struggles and proudest moments of a presidency, President Carter only made a single reference to the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey team. At one time he had referred to this as one of his proudest memories of his presidency, despite the fact that the eventreceived little more than a few mentions in his more than six-hundred-page memoir of his White House years. For any political analyst at the time, it would not have been hard to predict that the politicians would take advantage of this win. “Any major contest that took place between the Americans and Soviets during the Cold War was bound to play out in the political arena” (Abelson 27).
Nevertheless, Coach Brooks’ team that he had hand picked to represent the United States refused to become involved in a global political chess game. As many of the US players publicly stated, they came to Lake Placid to play hockey, not to engage in Cold War politics. What America achieved in Lake Placid is no doubt one of the most significant and well-known underdog stories of all time and it most definitely swept a sense of nationalism throughout the US that had not been felt in decades. But one can question whether this specific game turned the world tables.
The win in Lake Placid over the Soviets did not fix the oil crisis or free the American hostages, nor did the victory lead to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. The game may have reignited the fire of nationalism for Americans, but it is what they did after this game that had global effects. If the Soviets had beat the US like everyone had expected, the argument that the US political system was inferior would not be taken seriously due to the fact that people would likely say that sport and politics are not related. But because they did win, the politicians capitalized on this “miracle” bringing a promoting a sense of nationalism to many Americans they had not felt in years.
The temptation to equate success in sport with superiority in politics remains strong because it’s something everyone can feel proud of and get behind. (Abelson 28). Not everyone will agree or strongly support a new government policy. But a miracle win against a long time enemy? Now that is something a nation can get behind.The message that most Americans will take away from this victory is that America is a better nation than the Soviet Union. But what should be the message, and what Brooks and his players fought for is sports should be kept separate from government due to the fact that a win in a hockey game has little to no effect on foreign policy, the global economy or government policies.
As long as politicians can rally nationalism on such a huge scale, the relationship between sport and politics will continue to be exploited. Works Cited