You can’t watch television these days without seeing a story about Kobe Bryant and the allegations that he sexually assaulted a 19-year old woman in a Colorado hotel. Bryant is yet another in a long list of athletes who can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble and who have contributed to the demise of professional and amateur athletics. It is a sad commentary that the most admired athlete in America today is Seabiscuit — a horse that has been dead for 56 years.
Last week’s untimely death of hockey coach Herb Brooks is a reminder of how society once found heroes in sports and how great athletic achievements can renew pride in a city, or even a nation. Herb Brooks was the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach for a team that was given little chance of success — by anyone except their coach. Brooks demanded excellence because he believed in his team. They responded by beating the unbeatable and capturing the gold.
To understand their victory, and how it inspired the nation, we must remember the time.
In the summer of 1979, the nation was still licking its wounds from Vietnam, and Jimmy Carter’s economic policies caused an energy crisis and long lines at the gas pumps. Unemployment and inflation were skyrocketing, and Carter’s response was to blame the American people.
On July 15, 1979, Carter addressed the nation with what came to be known as the “Malaise Speech.” In it, he said America was suffering a “crisis of confidence” and a state of “paralysis, stagnation and drift.” He berated Americans for being too greedy, keeping their thermostats too high and taking vacations. After the speech bombed, he turned on his Cabinet and demanded resignations from them all.
Internationally, the world was a much different place. What is now Russia and over a dozen independent countries was then the behemoth Soviet Union. Germany was two countries — East and West — with a wall dividing the oppressed from the free. Poland and Hungary, today part of NATO, were at that time members of the Warsaw Pact. The Cold War was at its height, and Carter’s naivete toward the communists gave Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev an opportunity he seized.
Two days after his Malaise Speech, Marxists launched a coup in Nicaragua and, on July 19, declared themselves the ruling power. On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and took 66 Americans hostage, 52 of whom would be held for the next 444 days. On Dec. 27, 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, shocking an already overwhelmed president.
In the months ahead, Carter would “retaliate” by boycotting Moscow’s 1980 Summer Olympics. But the Winter Games were on in Lake Placid. The United States had last won a gold medal in hockey in 1960, and since then the hockey program had sunk into obscurity. Brooks could have easily followed Carter’s lead and made excuses for his team — there were plenty. But Brooks knew they had at least one thing in their favor — they were Americans.
The team began with a 2-2 tie against Sweden and went on to win their next four games. Then came the big one on Feb. 22, 1980, against the Soviets. The game wasn’t even carried on live television. Brooks told the team before the game, “This moment is yours,” even though the Soviets had not lost in 21 straight Olympic contests and captured the gold medal in every Olympics since 1960.
But these young Americans never gave up. Their first goal came with one second left in the first period. The Soviets did everything, including pulling their goalkeeper. They outshot the Americans, but goaltender Jim Craig was magnificent, making 39 saves. The Soviets led going into the third period, but Dave Silk scored the tying goal, and less than two minutes later captain Mike Eruzione scored what would prove to be the ga me winner.
The crowd in Lake Placid was on their feet. The chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” were so loud, they were shaking the Kremlin. Old Glory was flying high and proud. There was no malaise in that sleepy New York town. When the broadcast was played later that night, ABC’s Al Michaels could barely contain his enthusiasm. “Do you believe in miracles,” he shouted as the final seconds counted down and the Soviet giant was felled.
Two days later, the team prevailed over Finland to capture the gold medal. Their feat even eclipsed the performance of speed skater Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals.
The “Miracle on Ice” could be seen as a turning point for the nation. Less than a year later, Ronald Reagan would be in the White House and, under his leadership, the hostages came home, Soviet expansion was turned back in Afghanistan and Central America, and the malaise was lifted. It was Morning Again in America.
Brooks and his players illustrated a belief shared by Ronald Reagan: Leadership is the courage to defy the fatalism of the quitters and so-called “experts.” From Plymouth Rock to the Moon, we are an intrepid people not made for defeat. The Soviet skaters learned that lesson on a rink in Lake Placid. Their political leaders learned it years later in a cottage in Reykjavik.
Today, one by one, George W. Bush is teaching that lesson to the Baathists, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorists — a lesson that he began at Ground Zero, standing on a pile of debris, surrounded by rescue workers chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.”