On Feb. 22, 1980, in a stunning upset, the United States Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets at Lake Placid, N.Y., 4-to-3. (The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal.) NYT story here.
If I’m not mistaken, this is the only cover in Sports Illustrated history that does not have a headline, or text of any sort. Naturally, it doesn’t need any. There were certainly magnificent (semi-miraculous?) upsets in sports before (The Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III) and after (Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Olympics), but the import of this victory has to be considered within the context of the times. Pre-Internet (pre-VCRs, really), pre-ESPN (pre-cable, really), in an era when you really did get news on the radio. As in, driving in the car with your parents, during a commercial. Because in 1980 most Americans actually listened to the radio in the car (pre-Satellite, pre-CD changer, pre-cassette, really). 8-tracks were entering the last stage of their ascendancy, not even aware that they were already dead and subsisting on the last gasps of their magnetic fumes. And how many 8-tracks could one family own? How many could one family fit in a car? And so, by default, the radio still ruled. Some people may even have listened to that epic game on the radio, in their cars, in real time. That was just over three decades ago.
Arguably, being nine years old, I was the ideal demographic to be fully impacted by this event. Not old enough to appropriate (or be unduly influenced by) the political implications, but old enough to understand that in winter Olympics games, the U.S.S.R. (and Eastern Europe) still held sway. We could not appreciate, or care too much about the irony of the big, bad U.S.A. casting themselves as underdogs, in any capacity. Two unavoidable facts: it was just a sporting event, and pure and simple, the U.S.A. were underdogs. Did this unanticipated and inexplicable victory tilt the scales in the escalating cold war?
Arguably, if you measure political history by such standards as Rocky Balboa defeating Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, it makes all the sense in the world. More, if you are of the opinion (aided by propagandist historical revisions by certain, influential right-leaning folk) that the cold war was an even battle between two socially and economically equal parties, this cartoonish perception of Good vs. Evil is resonant, and revelatory. For younger, less politically impressionable viewers, this victory did, unironically; reinforce the genuine (if mythical) notion inherent in the American Dream: if you worked hard and played fair, anything was possible. It’s not merely the ability to believe this claptrap that underscores the naiveté we lament losing as we get older and wiser, it’s the ways in which real events, however fictionally applicable to real life, can occasionally inspire kids to believe in miracles.