An Olympic Victory that Energized a Nation

A recent egregious example of historical revisionism recently has been the notion that Jimmy Carter was somehow a better President than his great successor Ronald Reagan. Though blatantly false, there nonetheless exists a danger that this could eventually be believed by people who have few first-hand recollections.

Thankfully, there is now a pop culture item–the new movie Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey team’s dramatic gold medal victory–that can help to bring some perspective on America under Jimmy Carter.

Here’s why:

As great as it was, the U.S. triumph in Lake Placid, N.Y. would probably not be considered so monumental were it not for a remarkable set of circumstances that made the event far more than just a sports story. And those circumstances have much to do with the Carter legacy.

The movie begins by relating the many negative aspects of the ’70s (including Vietnam, Watergate, Love Canal and Three Mile Island, stagflation, and the energy crisis), and depicts how these things prompted the spectacle of a U.S. President proclaiming how a “crisis of confidence” was “threatening to destroy the social and political fabric of America.”

Then, the taking of American hostages in Iran followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan finalized the perception of the United States as an impotent nation in decline, an impression for which Carter became the chief symbol.

Deliverance in the form of Ronald Reagan was still nearly a year away, but the nation in the interim received a badly needed psychological boost from the Olympic hockey victory, which brought the country renewed optimism and pride.

The architect of this genuine miracle was himself a Reaganesque figure. Coach Herb Brooks (very capably portrayed by Kurt Russell) vividly displayed the traits inherent in a great leader. Foremost among these are the courage of one’s convictions in the face of intense opposition, faith in eventual victory even over the most daunting obstacles, and tough love that, while seeming insensitive or even cruel at a given moment, ends up wielding enormous positive influence on those it touches.

These qualities come out most distinctly in the methods Brooks utilizes to break down regional barriers and personality conflicts to form a team that views itself as a family.

In one striking example, immediately after a lackluster performance against a weak Norwegian opponent in an exhibition game, Brooks puts his team through excruciatingly punishing skating drills, driving them to the point of collapse.

Over the opposition of his staff, Brooks persists, finally relenting at just the right moment. When it’s over, the players have bonded together in a way that individuals who have never shared–and come through–such a difficult trial could ever experience.

The parallels between Brooks and Reagan, who stayed the course on his defense buildup and economic policies despite being derided as a heartless warmonger are readily apparent.

Brooks also espoused a wonderfully creative approach to the game that young hockey fans raised on the stultifyingly dull present-day National Hockey League can scarcely imagine.

At that time, North American hockey had also gone stale, steeped in mindless fighting and roughhouse tactics more akin to professional wrestling than a major sport.

Brooks envisioned bringing the game out of the dark ages, combining the toughness of North American hockey players with the beautiful artistry of the free-flowing, teamwork-oriented game of the Europeans, and particularly the mighty Soviet team.

However, Brooks’ biggest challenge was convincing American hockey authorities to allow him to implement his ideas.

In the film’s opening scene, after Brooks outlines his plans, he is predictably regaled with all the reasons why they won’t work. Finally, when Brooks is told that the Americans might get embarrassed using his approach, he piercingly replies that they had previously lost 15 to 1 to a Czechoslovak ‘B’ team, and it’s hard to see how they could be embarrassed any worse.

Brooks wins his point, and gets the job.

Then begins the task of molding his kind of team. This is where Brooks emerges as a teacher as distinctively as a psychologist and leader.

In the beginning, Brooks is shown painstakingly explaining his concepts to visibly skeptical and mystified players. But by the end those same players are enthusiastically peppering Brooks with questions and comments, signifying that they have completely bought into Brooks’ ideas–the true measure of a great teacher.

One other defining aspect of his character is the way that Brooks–who at first tells the players “I’ll be your coach, but I won’t be your friend”–proves to be a real friend indeed.

A very touching scene occurs when Brooks has to cut Ralph Cox on the very brink of the Olympics. The obvious anguish felt by Brooks (who himself had been the final cut from the 1960 team that also went on to win a highly improbable gold medal) at having to inflict the same pain on another man 20 years later powerfully displays the genuine empathy he feels for the players despite outward indications to the contrary.

A similar situation occurs later when Brooks keeps defenseman Jack O’Callahan on the team despite an injury that could have kept O’Callahan out of the games. Brooks just can’t bring himself to drop someone who has worked so hard, and earned the right to be there.

As the Americans prepare for a showdown with the seemingly invincible Soviets, Brooks tells the players, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.” He has them truly believing they can win–a belief neatly symbolized when the American player before the face-off looks the intimidating Soviet player right in the eye, after having looked away meekly just two weeks before when the Soviets had crushed the Americans, apparently dousing any US hopes.

In the end, the gold medal was only the climax to the real story: How an inspiring leader got a group 20 individuals to become one. And how, of all things, a hockey team (as stated in this tremendous film’s final line) “gave the nation what it needed most–a chance not only to dream–but to believe.”