It may be the greatest underdog story ever told.
On February 22, 1980, at the Lake Placid Olympics, the United States ice hockey team scored an all-but impossible victory over the USSR team. They then went on to beat Czechoslovakia to win the gold medal.
That single game against the Soviets had a profound effect on American patriotism at a time when it was badly needed. The unlikely victory would have far-reaching political implications for the US and possibly for the USSR as well.
The Soviet team was heavily favored not only to win the game against the USA but also to earn the gold medal. The American-Soviet pairing was a classic mismatch.
Once again, Soviets had found a way around the Olympic rule that only amateurs qualified to participate. Their team members were seasoned professionals, some of the best players in the world. Many considered their goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, to be the best.
In contrast, the American players of 1980 were the youngest in the history of Olympic hockey. Most were still in college.
America had won just one Olympic game against the Soviets in the previous 20 years—in 1960. At the time of the 1980 Lake Placid games, the Soviets had won the gold in the previous four consecutive Olympics.
Following the 1980 games, they went on to win gold in the next two —in 1984 and 1988.
Approximately two months before the Lake Placid games, on Christmas Day, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Anti-Soviet sentiment was high.
Though the Cold War had been in detente since 1969, many Americans still had an us-versus-them mentality. For many, the sports rivalries were the most visible manifestation of that feeling.
But the 1980 victory was not just a sports win for most Americans. According to history.com editors, “To many, the American upset was more than just one hockey team beating another—it was a victory in an ideological struggle.”
Herb Brooks, the American team coach, expressed this sentiment well during a congratulatory phone call from President Carter: “It just proves our life is the proper way to continue.”
Although Mike Eruzione, the US hockey team captain, told ABC Radio that he and his young teammates didn’t have a good sense of the importance of “that game at that time,” most Americans did.
In 1980, the country was only five years out from the Vietnam War. For the first time in history, television brought the horrors of war close to home for all Americans.
Anti-war sentiment and the struggles of the soldiers returning home to an ungrateful nation had splintered the country. Young people had lost faith in their government and were burning flags.
The Miracle on Ice, with its unlikely victory against a longtime political rival that most Americans loved to hate, renewed patriotic sentiment countrywide. The chanting of “USA, USA, USA!” in Lake Placid marked the beginning of a major shift in public opinion.
Hockey fans were euphoric, feeling that this victory was a strike back at the Soviet domination of their sport.
But there was a lot more than hockey fervor going on under the surface. That winning team in Lake Placid became a team of American heroes.
Americans once again felt pride in their country.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter issued an ultimatum. If the Soviets did not withdraw by February 20, 1980, he would boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics.
The Soviets did not withdraw, and Carter kept his promise. The USA and 64 other countries eventually participated in the boycott.
Though many Americans were sorry that our athletes would not be able to compete, the invasion and boycott served to heighten the anti-communism sentiment and thus the intense nationalism many were feeling following the US hockey victory over the Soviets.
(The athletes from the boycotted countries did compete in the end in a special competition held in the Philippines.)
Dig deeper into the state of the country following the US hockey victory over the Soviets, and a picture emerges of a media that dramatized the win by repeatedly publishing stories that framed the Lake Placid win as a victory of democracy over communism, of freedom over dictatorship, of good over evil.
Chad Seifried of the Olympic journal “Olympika” noted that the media’s use of melodrama to sensationalize the win helped to frame the politics of the 1980s. Politicians were quick to find ways to use this patriotic fervor and anti-Communist sentiment to their advantage.
Ronald Reagan was no exception. His presidential campaign drew heavily on the upsurge in patriotism the country was experiencing in combination with their fear of the “evil empire” (though Reagan wouldn’t use that exact term until 1983).
Reagan went on to win the presidency, of course, and to have a strong role to play in the ending of the Cold War. One possible contributor to his winning the election was his understanding of how to exploit the post-Olympic surge of national pride.
Who knows? Maybe if the US team had lost that game in Lake Placid, Ronald Reagan may not have been elected President in 1980. The Berlin Wall may not have come down. And the Soviet Union may not have collapsed.
Not if you believe in miracles.