By Ellie Marlow

‘Do you believe in miracles?’ asked Al Michael in the dying seconds of what would come to be remembered as one of the most famous international ice hockey matchups in history. It was the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid and, contrary to all expectations, the US team were moments away from beating the Soviets. They had assumed underdog status throughout the tournament as the seventh-seed and youngest team, with an average age of twenty-one, as well as having lost 10-3 in an exhibition match to the USSR less than two weeks before. Against a Soviet side made up of seasoned veterans, their loss seemed inevitable. But the inevitable did not happen. Victory was made even more incredible for the American people by occurring against the backdrop of recession, the Iranian hostage crisis, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the ongoing Cold War. In a period of intense American anxiety, the ‘Miracle on Ice’ proved to be much more than a sports success. It typifies the vitality of sport to society and how its universal appeal and sense of belonging can prove invaluable at lifting the spirit of the people.

The multi-dimensional impact of sports on society, from local to global, highlights its widespread appeal and effect on people. Rituals like the All Blacks New Zealand rugby team adopting the Haka in homage to Maori people show its cultural value, whilst anecdotes from the First World War present it as a simple but effective route to boost morale amongst adversity. Whether it be a welcome distraction from hardship or a tool for promoting unity, sports have a role to play in enriching people’s lives. This is most evident in its effects on mental health. Following a sport provides an individual with membership of a valued group and an environment for social interactions. These benefits meet the fundamental human need to belong by providing camaraderie and a sense of being part of something bigger than the individual. Satisfying these requirements stimulates improved mental health, thus reducing chance of suicide amongst people who feel they belong. Sports creates a community that promotes this collectiveness, as reflected in undergraduate students at American universities with a nationally ranked football team describing their victories with the ‘we’ pronoun, a key indicator of a sense of belonging. The ability of sports to transcend individual concerns to provide a unifying aspect for multiple people allows a ‘pulling together’ effect that enhances how people feel about themselves and their place in society. The 1980 ‘miracle’ fulfilled this role and amplified its effect because of the political climate it occurred within, providing a sense of achievement for Americans at a time where there was a real sense of national decline. Perhaps the most shocking reflection of this emotional benefit is there being fewer suicides on 22nd February 1980 than any other 22nd of February in the 1970s to 1980s. 

The ‘Miracle on Ice’ as a moment encapsulates all the positive benefits sport provides for a society. Underdog victory injected hope into the American consciousness and provided an outlet to renew feelings of national unity. A story of a team who had gone from being decimated to victorious resonated with a country feeling inferior to Soviet prowess, as shown by Captain Mike Eruzione declaring the team ‘typify the American public’. It marked the culmination of three decades of international hockey reflecting Cold War disputes and was seen to symbolise the end of American weakness. Whether it tangibly strengthened the USA is irrelevant, it is the way it made American people feel that shows its ability to uplift and empower. New York Times reporting ‘people bursting with pride’ reinforces the euphoric value provided by sport. The metaphoric significance of coach Herb Brooks overcoming prevailing Minnesota and Massachusetts rivalries amongst players to develop a truly united team represented the value of accord and hard work to America, reinforcing that these qualities still existed despite the geopolitical circumstances. This emphasis on shifting the player mindset from individual competition to serving the US team radiated out to the wider population to galvanise national support. Whilst the political consequences of the victory were more symbolic than substantial, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) declared it turned a ‘nation with nothing more than mild interest in the game… into a world power house’. This profound transformation of American attitudes towards ice hockey shows the psychological value provided by the win fundamentally modified American society and culture. 

Ongoing recognition of the magnitude of the win emphasises the vitality of sports to history. Called the top sporting moment of the Twentieth Century by Sports Illustrated, the exhilaration created by the 4-3 score line has not diminished. The ‘Miracle on Ice’ illustrates the crucial role sports play in creating the ‘pulling together’ effect that inspires people throughout society to overcome adversary. But it is not just the win that was important in this moment. It was the dedication from players with odds stacked against them and a whole country relying on them amongst a backdrop of international tension. The IIHF defining it in 2008 as the best international hockey story shows the ‘Miracle’ retains sensation status, a testament to the profound uplifting influence it had on contemporary American feelings and its more global, ongoing effect on the memory of American hockey. 

References

Gift, T., & A. Miner, ‘‘Dropping the Ball’: The Understudied Nexus of Sports and Politics’, World Affairs 180 (2017), pp. 127-161

Hardy, S., ‘Remembering and Forgetting America’s Hockey Miracles’, in S. Gietschier (ed.), Replays, Rivalries, and Rumbles: The Most Iconic Moments in American Sports (Champaign, IL, 2017), pp. 171-179

Hardy, S., ‘Do You Believe in Miracles: The Story of the 1980 US Olympic Team’, Journal of Sport History 40 (2013), pp. 145-149

Joiner, T., D. Holier & K. Van Orden, ‘On Buckeyes, Gators, Super Bowl Sunday, and the Miracle on Ice: ‘Pulling Together’ is Associated with Lower Suicide Rates’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 25 (2006), pp. 179-195

Soares, J., ‘Cold War, Hot Ice: International Ice Hockey, 1947-1980’, Journal of Sport History 34 (2007), pp. 207-230

Sport in War [podcast], conducted by Imperial War Museum (Voices of the First World War, 24 June 2018)

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