Thirty-two years ago Wednesday, a whole lot of Americans started believing in miracles.
The anniversary of the U.S. hockey team’s famed 1980 upset of the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics is always a good time to kick back, relax, watch “Miracle” (thanks to my dormmates for obliging) and reflect on the times when sports meant so much more than the final score. Even if hockey isn’t your sport, or you’re a fellow Stanford fan who believes that Team USA’s Miracle on Ice is not necessarily the biggest upset in sports history, watching footage of that game should still send chills down your spine.
Most Americans—or American sports fans, at least—are familiar with Al Michaels’ iconic “Do you believe in miracles?” call, but another sound bite from the renowned announcer encapsulates the true meaning of the upset even better.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people in this building who do not know the difference between a blue line and a clothesline,” Michaels said to begin the broadcast. “It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Because what we have at hand, the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, this game is being viewed with varying perspectives. But manifestly, it is a hockey game. The United States and the Soviet Union on a sheet of ice in Lake Placid, New York.”
As Michaels seemed to sense, Team USA would end up winning so much more than a hockey game on that night, reclaiming the confidence of a country that was in the midst of the Cold War, the Iranian hostage crisis and America’s second oil crisis in a decade. And hockey fans weren’t the only beneficiaries.
Thirty years later, sporting events still have a way of helping the masses recover their pride. The city of New Orleans got a post-Katrina lift when the Saints won the 2010 Super Bowl. Japan’s women’s soccer team captured the 2011 World Cup trophy and inspired a country that was just four months separated from a deadly earthquake and tsunami.
Sports can’t get back the lives that were lost in wars or natural disasters, but the most transcendent of sporting events can still give us something to feel good about.
Fast forward to 2012. Millions of Americans are still dealing with the aftershocks of the 2008 recession, Congress’ approval rating is at a record-low and the war in Afghanistan is in its 12th year. Things aren’t as bad as they were in 1980, but the United States has seen much better days. Don’t you think we’re due for a miracle of our own?
I’d look to this year’s summer Olympics in London as a possible source. We’re just four years removed from Michael Phelps’ record-setting eight gold medals in Beijing, and the games always seem to get non-fans excited about sports that are far from the American mainstream. But as extraordinary as Phelps’ 2008 performance was, it’s not all that miraculous when the best swimmer in the world lives up to his name. What’s more, incredible athletic achievements don’t always have a sweeping social impact—Kerri Strug’s improbable 1996 vault on a severely hurt ankle to win the Americans the all-around gold made her a household name, but didn’t do that much more.
Truth be told, it’s hard to say where the next uplifting American sports moment will come from, or if it’s even in our near future. That’s the thing about miracles: You don’t see them coming.
But sports still keep rearing its not-so-ugly head at the forefront of the American consciousness, as cultural sensations such as Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and Knicks guard Jeremy Lin always seem to remind us. So even if you don’t know a two-iron from a two-by-four, a slice backhand from a slice of cheese or a blue line from a clothesline, keep your eyes on the sporting world.
Manifestly, it might be just a hockey game. But you never know where the next miracle is waiting.
Joseph Beyda will be watching “Miracle” on repeat until his dormmates file a complaint with housing. Meanwhile, you can send him your prediction of the next big sports miracle at email@example.com.