“Miracle on Ice” | 22 February 1980
On February 22, 1980, Team USA faced Team USSR in the final round of men’s ice hockey at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. The Russians were formidable opponents. Since its first appearance at the Winter Games in 1956, the Soviet national ice hockey team had won five out of six gold medals, earning the nickname “Red Machine.” Team USA, consisting of amateur players, seemed to stand little chance of defeating the Red Machine, which had crushed the NHL All-Stars 6-0 in 1979. When the second period ended with a 2-3 lead for Team USSR, few spectators foresaw a U.S. victory. Team USA, however, scored two points in the third period and entered the last minutes of the game with a one-point lead. With five seconds remaining, ABC sportscaster Alan Michaels shouted, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” Team USA defeated Finland two days later and won the first gold medal in ice hockey since 1960. The U.S. triumph in Lake Placid—dubbed the “Miracle on Ice”—was far more than a dramatic upset in a sports event. The game aroused nationalistic exuberance among the American public because of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Sports have often been a continuation of politics by other means—particularly so during the Cold War. The East-West tension replicated itself in the games, where athletes sometimes used drugs to enhance their performance and outcompete their opponents. The demise of détente intensified the atmosphere of rivalry in Lake Placid. After a quarter century since the onset of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow agreed to alleviate mutual hostility in the 1970s, especially in Europe, reaching milestones such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972 and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. However, the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East and Africa in the late 1970s, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, spelled the death of détente. Before the Lake Placid Games, President Jimmy Carter insisted on boycotting the Moscow Olympics that summer if the Soviet Union failed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan immediately. On March 21, a month after the end of the Lake Placid Games, Carter announced the U.S. boycott, a decision followed by Canada, West Germany, Japan, and numerous other nations. The Miracle on Ice occurred at a moment when sports became an inextricable part of the renewed Cold War.
Sports have often been a continuation of politics by other means.
For U.S. policymakers, the Miracle on Ice was a victory in the cultural Cold War. Washington and Moscow viewed the Olympic medal rankings as competition between democracy and communism to determine which system could produce better athletes. The Soviet Union gained the upper hand over the United States in the 1970s. At the Munich Olympics of 1972, the Russians won seventeen more gold medals than the Americans, including in men’s basketball, an event in which Team USA had never failed to take gold. The United States was losing the Cold War in sports. “Winning is very important. Maybe more important than ever,” wrote President Gerald R. Ford, a former football player. “I don’t know of a better advertisement for a nation’s good health than a healthy athletic representation.” To create a stronger Team USA, the White House and Congress strived to wrestle control of amateur athletes from two organizations in a constant turf war: the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Amateur Athletic Union. Their efforts crystalized in the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, a piece of legislation that provided the U.S. Olympic Committee with overwhelming authority over training and selection of athletes. Although losing to the Soviet Union in the medal race, the United States won six gold medals at the Lake Placid Games, the best result in the Winter Olympics since the Lake Placid Games of 1932.
For the broader U.S. public, the Miracle on Ice betokened a swing of the national mood from self-doubt to assertiveness. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, mounting challenges, most notably the Vietnam War, the antiwar movement, and Watergate, prompted Americans to question the ways in which the United States exercised its power at home and abroad. In the meantime, new realities in international politics in the 1970s, including the fall of the Breton-Woods system, the global energy crisis, and détente engendered a widespread belief that U.S. power was declining, a view reinforced by the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979. According to public opinion surveys, popular trust in government and confidence in the state of the nation were lower in the 1970s than any other decade during the Cold War. The pessimism of the 1970s was rapidly dissipating in 1980, however, with the surge of nationalism that would characterize the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Miracle on Ice, which seemed to affirm the U.S. strength, captured a moment of change in U.S. public sentiments.
Television played a critical role in the creation of the Miracle on Ice. Television, a medium of mass communication that had become available for almost all households by the late 1950s, shaped public opinion at key moments in U.S. foreign relations, including the “Kitchen Debate” of 1959, the Tet Offensive of 1968, and President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. By the end of the 1970s, 80 percent of American households possessed a color television. The Miracle on Ice had a Nielsen rating of 23.9, meaning nearly one in four American television sets were tuned in to the game. It was the most watched ice hockey game in U.S. history and had a viewership comparable to an NFL conference championship game. In 2016, Sports Illustrated selected the Miracle on Ice as the greatest moment in sports history, even more memorable than the MLB debut of Jackie Robinson. Television turned the U.S. victory in an ice hockey game—impressive, yet of only fleeting importance—into a collective experience of nationalistic jubilation among the American public during the Cold War. At a time when U.S. power seemed in decline, the Miracle on Ice enabled millions of American viewers to imagine a different future, in which the United States, with its ingenuity, courage, and tenacity, triumphed over the Soviet Union.
Hunt, Thomas M. “Countering the Soviet Threat in the Olympic Medals Race: The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 and American Athletics Policy Reform.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 24, no. 6: 801-2.
Rider, Toby C. Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan. Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Cold War International History Project, Wilson Center, The Global History of Sport in the Cold War. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/the-global-history-sport-the-cold-war