SOCHI, Russia – The first of my 17 Olympics as a reporter came during one of the colder moments of the Cold War.
Three weeks before the 1980 Winter Olympics began in Lake Placid, N.Y, President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
In that atmosphere, also pervaded by the feeling of U.S. powerlessness over the hostage crisis in Iran, a hockey game became a political symbol and a cathartic moment of emotional uplift for the United States.
If you start by covering the Miracle on Ice, when a team of U.S. amateurs beat the formidable Big Red Machine of state-supported Soviet professionals, you begin to think it can’t get better than that.
Talk about a rivalry game.
If memory serves, it was the real beginning of those “USA! USA!” chants that since have devolved at times from joyous pride into overzealous jingoism.
The USSR-USA rivalry, with superpowers battling for sports supremacy, ended with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. It never was as big a deal in the Winter Olympics as in the Summer Olympics, because there were relatively few gold-medal winter sports confrontations between U.S. and Soviet athletes. Such clashes always are more impassioned in team sports, and hockey is the only one in the Winter Olympics.
There once were 15 countries in the Soviet Union, with Russia, biggest and most populous, providing a vast majority of the top USSR athletes. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seeming attempt to recreate Cold War tensions between the United States and Russia may restore some of the sports rivalry.
Some of the most freighted moments involving Russian and U.S. Olympic athletes have come relatively recently. Will there will be anything as bitter as Evgeny Plushenko’s dyspeptic reaction after losing the men’s figure skating gold to Evan Lysacek in Vancouver four years ago or Russian sports authorities’ demand that Irina Slutskaya be awarded a second figure skating gold (like that pairs skating thing) after losing to Sarah Hughes in Salt Lake City 12 years ago?
So here I am just before the opening ceremony of my 10th straight Winter Olympics, the first in Russia, a place where winter is ingrained into the psyche. When I think of Russia, I hear the Tchaikovsky A minor piano trio, and my soul is warmed in a way that makes differences dissolve in the face of transcendent, passionate beauty.
But the Miracle on Ice still gives me delightful chills.