“Typically, sports provide an outlet for society to escape political pressures. However, the United States’ triumph over the Soviet Union in men’s hockey during the 1980 Winter Olympics seemingly had the opposite effect.”
Politics on Ice
The Cold War and International Ice Hockey
“Mclanahan is there, the puck is still loose, eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds, the countdown is going on right now, Morrow, up to Strobel, five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”1 The United States Olympic Hockey team had just defeated the Soviet Union National Hockey Team in stunning fashion, capping off one of the greatest underdog stories in sports. College-level United States hockey players had just beaten a team that many regarded to be the best in the world. With intense political turmoil immediately after and for decades following WWII, especially between the Soviet Union and the United States, for a moment, it seemed to all fade away. Typically, sports provide an outlet for society to escape political pressures and come together as a community in support of a common goal. However, the implications surrounding the United States’ triumph over the Soviet Union in men’s hockey during the 1980 Winter Olympics seemingly had the opposite effect. The status of international hockey throughout the mid-to-late twentieth century, not just between the United States and the Soviet Union, provides insight into the international political landscape of the post-World War II era. Additionally, as much as the United States’ triumph over the Soviet Union is considered a monumental moment in sporting history, its significance in political history may be even greater.
The political influences during sports in the Cold War era were both direct and indirect. The converse is also true; sports influences in politics were both direct and indirect. International hockey in the late twentieth century is a prime example of how sports and politics can become intertwined. Both contributed significantly to the shaping of history following the 1980 Winter Olympics. The ways that these two essential aspects of modern society influence each other can be seen through ideology, style of play, and media portrayals.
The direct influence of political tensions on sports can be seen through the hockey rivalry between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, where the nations’ volatile political relationship played out on the ice rink. Following the end of WWII, Czechoslovakia attempted to maintain a democratic government, and considering the unstable power balance in Europe, they looked to the Soviet Union as an ally to offer them protection and stability.2 However, in 1948, following a communist coup, the country was in anarchy, and the conflict lead to the death of Minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the first President of Czechoslovakia.3 To many, this was the end of democracy and the beginning of an intense Czech resentment toward the Soviet Union, and this bitterness was displayed various times through the sport of hockey. For example, speaking of a game between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Republic in the 1972 Olympics, NHL player Mark Howe has commented, “To this day, I’ve never seen a hockey game more brutal than that. The Czech goalie must have broken five sticks over Russian players.”4 Hockey became a mechanism for the Czechs to explicitly physically express their political discontent and resentment toward the Soviets. Had they expressed this intense dissatisfaction through any other means, it may have resulted in dire consequences. Sports were a conduit for political expression. They provided a theater for the Czechs to safely play out political attitudes toward the Soviet Republic. The political context not only lent a metaphorical charge to the game but literally altered the Czech athletes’ approach to the game, making them more aggressive and hostile. It was clear that the relationship between the two nations was deeply damaged.
The indirect influence of politics on sports can be seen in the reflection of Communist ideology in the Soviet Central Army Club, their national hockey team. Building an elite Soviet hockey team had been a significant goal set out by the Soviet state when the club first began in 1946. Hockey did not have as an esteemed a history in the country as it did in places like Canada or the United States, so the Soviet Union was faced with the challenge of building a hockey team “from the ground up.”5 The Soviet Union eventually achieved this goal, and it was not only an impressive achievement for the sport of hockey in the country but also for the overall spirit of Communism. There was an outpouring of pride because the Soviets were finally excelling at a sport previously dominated by their political adversaries. Subsequently, the members of the team became political symbols, and Soviet officials saw them as “ideological warriors.”6 Furthermore, the style of play seemingly resembled Communist ideals too. Finesse, skill, and precise passing became an integral part of the Soviet style of play, in contrast to the emphasis on strength and utter power that was typical of Americans and Canadians. “Him with the puck was meant to serve his teammates,” said Vladimir Pozner, a journalist interviewed in the 2014 documentary Red Army, characterizing an outlook that resonates with the communistic themes of equal parts working in tandem to serve the whole.7 Furthermore, individual rights were not as valued as the performance of the team as a whole. For example, seen in ESPN’s 2015 Of Miracles and Men, star defenseman Slava Fetisov mentioned how his teammate Yury Lebedev wanted to see his father who was on his deathbed but was refused this wish because he had training, and the team was more important.8 The Soviet Central Army Club implicitly became a physical manifestation of Communism, representing the Soviet Union’s national strength and values to the world.
One way that sports have directly influenced the world of politics can be seen through the media’s use of sports to communicate the political world to its audience. For example, in early January 1976, the United States, already suffering from aftermath of the Vietnam War, was having trouble containing Communism as Pro-Soviet forces were succeeding in Angola. At this same moment, the Soviet Central Army Hockey Club matched up against the Philadelphia Flyers for an exhibition match. The Flyers had been nicknamed “The Broad Street Bullies” for their brutish and violent play style, and they successfully implemented this type of play to thrash the Soviets 6-1. As a result of this game, in a political cartoon, an American journalist for the Chicago Tribune ironically chided, “If we sent the Flyers over to Angola that mess would be over in a week” after their defeat of the Soviets.9 The media here is using the perspective of sports to display how the United States had been conducting military action without the tactical strength and brutality displayed by athletes like The Broad Street Bullies.
Sports’ indirect influence on politics can be identified in President Jimmy Carter’s threat to withdraw the United States from the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. Here, the removal of a team from a sporting event became a political tool to make a statement on an international level. When Carter made this statement, American embassy members had been taken hostage in Iran, and because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, which Carter perceived as a threat, and a possibility of reigniting the Cold War.10 In his address to the nation following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter stated, “Although the United States would prefer not to withdraw from the Olympic games scheduled in Moscow this summer, the Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic games.”[11.https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-4-1980-speech-afghanistan] Other than endangering the athletes and spectators, there were other reasons for threatening to withdraw. Carter used the reputation, prominence, and competitive skill of the United States Olympic athletes as political leverage, knowing that because an Olympic Games without the United States would be a major economic blow to the Soviets, as well as a blow to the Games’ positive publicity, and overall entertaining competition. The United States’ prominence in sports indirectly awarded President Carter with political power needed to negotiate with the Soviet Union and stifle the renewal of the Cold War. This attempt to pressure the Soviets to pull their armies out of the conflict failed and the United States along with sixty-five other countries would eventually boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic games.
The mutual influence of sports and politics toward the end of the Cold War demonstrate how their interplay can have important historical consequences. When considering the United States’ hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, the significance for the world of sports is obvious. However, when taken in broad historical context, it may be argued that the game was equally, if not more, important for the world of politics. The transition from the 1970s to the 1980s marked a period of transition from detente to the reignition of the Cold War. And as the political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reignited, the sporting rivalry between the two nations was far less intense. However, the influence of the 1980 Winter Olympics and the miracle on ice was still apparent, by means of political culture, popular culture, and the overall mentality of the United States.
Following the events of the Vietnam War, American patriotism was at a very low point. The Vietnam War was one of the most heavily documented wars in modern history. Through the expanded role of television, the American public had been exposed to the brutality of war in graphic detail, and the catastrophically detrimental effects that the Vietnam War had on the country of Vietnam and its citizens, along with the soldiers involved. This exposure to the horrors of war sparked many protests and provoked feelings of distrust between the United States government and its people. The United States was in desperate need of a source of patriotism that would bring the country together, and this came in the form of the United States’ victory over the Soviet Union in men’s hockey in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. According to a 1980 Chicago Tribune article following the events of the Winter Olympics Games, after the United States pulled off the victory, resounding chants of “U-S-A!” filled the stadium, and were being sung by those who had been burning the flag in antiwar protests years prior.11 The mentality of many of the American public had been shifted back to sentiments of patriotism. The United States victory over the Soviet Union created a wave of patriotism throughout the American psyche, and Ronald Reagan rode this wave on his way to becoming President of the United States.
The relationship between Ronald Reagan’s presidency and sports is not limited to his use of the sports-bolstered American patriotism in his favor during his campaign. In addition, traces of sports-mentality can be seen throughout his presidency in general. Before taking his talents to Hollywood, Reagan himself was a former football player at Eureka College from 1928 to 1932, and then later went on to become a sports broadcaster for radio station WOC in Davenport, Iowa.12 Sports had been major components to Reagan’s early life, and the influence of sports in his political agenda can be seen more clearly given this background. Reagan had reestablished the rivalry with the Soviet Union by creating a narrative of “us against them” that resonated throughout the United States psyche. This is seen through Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech, delivered in 1983, in which he depicted the United States as good and the Soviet Union as evil. His rhetoric created the narrative of how this war was mainly about the Soviets and the Americans, two forces, two teams, going toe-to-toe. For Reagan, the world had become the arena for which the United States would combat the Soviets, much like a sporting event.
Furthermore, the nuclear arms race became an integral part to Reagan’s presidency. Under President Carter, the nuclear arms race had subsided with the period of detente, but the the Reagan administration restarted this competition by creating new forms of weaponry and new forms of weapon defense. 13. This included programs like the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly referred to as Reagan’s “Star Wars.”14 Reagan’s competitive nature is exemplified through the restart of the arms race as a way to defeat the Soviets and end the Cold War. Here Reagan could have implemented his own competitive spirit in tandem with the competitive spirit that arose after the events of the 1980 Winter Olympic games to garner support for his reignition of the nuclear arms race. Furthermore, the unprecedented nature of Reagan’s military spending also contains certain aspects that relate to the culture of sports. According to the official United States budget statement for the upcoming fiscal year of 1984, Reagan had proposed “$280.5 billion in budget authority for the national defense function in 1984. Outlays are estimated at $245.3 billion in 1984, increasing to $285.3 billion in 1985 and $323.0 billion in 1986.”15 This astronomical amount of military spending was in order to “demonstrate the administration’s continued commitment to provide the military strength necessary to maintain the Nation’s security.”16 This is in sharp contrast to the 1980 defense budget under President Carter of 135.9 billion.[18.Carter, W. B. (1981, March). The Battle of the Budget. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/politics/budget/cutterf.htm] This overarching theme of might and power finds a counterpart in the power, aggressiveness, and overall strength that defined American sports as is in the case of the aforementioned “Broad Street Bullies.” Much as the “Broad Street Bullies” had beaten the Soviet Central Army Hockey Club with their strength and brutality, Reagan’s immense increase of defense spending displayed the desire for sheer military might. Overall, the events that transpired in the sporting world catapulted Ronald Reagan into the White House through their positive effects on American patriotism. And Reagan used this shift in American mentality to incorporate relatable, sports-like themes and tactics to his advantage in the world of politics.
After the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the United States and the Soviet Union had not competed against each other in any sporting event with as much significance as the men’s hockey game. In fact, the game had little effect on the popularity of hockey in the United States, whose hockey team has not won an Olympic gold medal since. However, in addition to the sports-patriotism on which Reagan capitalized, sports-patriotism could be seen in popular culture, for example in the 1985 film Rocky IV. It is telling of the overall American psychology of the time that the United States did not have any legitimate sports rivalries with the Soviet Union, so one is essentially fabricated through Rocky IV. Similarly to the Reagan presidency, Rocky IV uses a sports mentality to hyperbolize the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. The presence of the political rivalry is visible during Rocky and Drago’s fight, where Soviet political officials cheer on Drago in the crowd. The themes of brute strength are also essential to the film, as Drago, the rival Soviet boxer had used steroids to become so powerful that he actually killed Rocky’s friend Apollo in a match.17 Furthermore, the theme of superior American strength is essential to the final round in Rocky and Drago’s fight. By the end of the fight, each boxer had just kept landing uncontested hits on the other, and the commentator even calls it a “street fight.” In the end, Rocky being stronger and more powerful than Drago allowed him the victory.
Both Rocky IV and the initiatives under the Reagan presidency clearly show the importance of being mightier than the Soviets in the American psyche. The emphasis on might had been nonexistent during the era of detente, but its end, which coincided with the 1980 Winter Olympics, saw the events of the games reignite the American desire to defeat the Soviet Union. Despite the United States and Soviet Union’s sporting rivalry never reaching the same level of significance, after examining the sporting connections seen through the Reagan presidency, and popular culture like Rocky IV, one can understand how the events of the 1980 Winter Olympics had a greater effect on the political, and cultural mentality of the American population moving toward the end of the Cold War.
- Al Michaels, ABC Sports TV, Commentary on The United States v.s. The Soviet Union Men’s Hockey, February 22nd 1980, Lake Placid, New York.
- John Soares, “Cold War, Hot Ice: International Ice Hockey, 1947-1980,” Journal of Sport History, vol. 34, no. 2, 2007, pp. 207–230. JSTOR. 209.
- Mark Howe quoted in Soares, “Cold War, Hot Ice,” 209.
- Soares, “Cold War, Hot Ice,” 208.
- Red Army, directed by Gabriel Polsky (Los Angeles California: Polsky Films, 2014).
- Of Miracles And Men. directed by Jonathan Hock (30-for-30, ESPN Films, 2015).
- Soares, “Cold War, Hot Ice, 218.
- Staff, H. (2009). Carter announces Olympic boycott. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/carter-announces-olympic-boycott
- Soares, “Cold War, Hot Ice,” 221.
- “Ronald Reagan Biography,” Marc Schulman, www.historycentral.com/Bio/presidents/reagan.html
- Kiron K. Skinner, “Reagan’s Plan,” The National Interest, no. 56, 1999, 139. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42897189
- Ibid, 14
- “Budget of the United States Government, Special Analyses: Fiscal Year 1984,” Fraser, The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. https://fraser.stlouisfed.org/title/126.
- Rocky IV, directed by Sylvester Stallone (Beverly Hills, CA: Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, 1985).