February 22 – Anniversary of the Miracle on Ice

Posted on February 22, 2017

I remember this historical event so well:

On this date in 1980, during a Winter Olympic Games hosted by the U.S., the U.S. ice hockey team beat the team from the U.S.S.R. Ultimately, the American team won the gold medal, and the Soviet team won the silver medal.

That may not seem so very special to folks now; after all, the United States typically wins a lot of gold medals (and other medals) in the Olympics, and beats Russian athletes often enough that we aren't surprised.

But let me tell you what Olympic sports were like back then:


Well, to be honest, Olympic sports are probably always going to be unfair. Teams from large, rich nations are going to get more medals than teensy nations and poor nations. They are going to have access to better coaching, better training facilities, maybe even better nutrition!

But before 1986, professional athletes were not allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. And America really did send non-pros -- amateurs, many of them quite young. Lots of American athletes were college athletes.

Of course, the Soviet Olympic team also had to play by the same rules - no professional athletes. But in the Soviet system, which was at least nominally communist, athletes and entire teams of athletes could live and eat and train on the state's dime but still be considered amateurs. 

In other words, the Soviet Olympians were for the most part professional athletes, really, BUT the communistic economies didn't consider them so, and so they could ignore that rule...

So...the U.S. team was a bunch of ice hockey players who had played on rival college teams, rather than playing together. Most had never competed in an international tournament, although one of the American players had competed in the 1976 Olympics. This team was the youngest team in U.S. team history to play in the Olympics, and it was also the youngest ice hockey Olympics team in the world, at the time.

Contrast that with the Soviet team: the Soviet players were active-duty military who had been playing together for years, and they were very used to the pressures of international play and of the Olympics. The Soviet Union had won gold medals in the four previous Olympics, from 1964 to 1976. In that time, the Soviets had won 27 games, one loss and one tie, and they had outscored their opponents massively -- 175 points to just 44 points (cumulative totals).

You can certainly see why the Soviet team was favored to win.

This game, which ended with a score of 4 to 3, in considered one of the most iconic games in the Olympics and in all of U.S. sports. Al Michaels was calling the game for ABC, and he famously asked in the last few seconds, "Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!"

The game was called THE top sports moment of the entire 20th Century by Sports Illustrated. Al Michaels was even called "Sportscaster of the Year."

The game was the subject of a TV movie, HBO and ESPN documentaries, and a Disney movie. Once I visited Lake Placid, New York, the site of the Olympics and the Miracle, and there was a big display about the Miracle on Ice.

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