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Original Issue


At the Games, a little bit of patriotism goes a long way

Do you believe in miracles? Eight years ago Al Michaels had it exactly right when, in the closing seconds of the telecast of the U.S. Olympic hockey team's preposterous win over the Soviet Union, he asked that very question: Do you believe in miracles? After the startling result in Lake Placid, most of America did.

Some Americans are still waiting for the next Olympic miracle. Will it be wrought by a U.S. biathlete? A ski jumper? The four-man bob? But what is really needed in Calgary is a smaller miracle than the Miracle on Ice, one that can reawaken the true Olympic spirit in Americans. The reawakening could come from anywhere, could be a latter-day Nadia or Olga or Sonja Henie. Or maybe a U.S. athlete who, instead of holding up his medal and saying, "Millions, we're talking millions," will express an appreciation of the greater meaning of the Games. Not the golds, silvers and bronzes. Not beating the Russians. Not millions in cash.

Think back to how different things were eight years ago. Interestingly, hockey hasn't changed very much as a result of the memorable upset. The sport's image, temporarily cleansed by that fresh-faced bunch of American kids, is once again back in the NHL gutter, like a sewer rat after a parade. Nor did the Olympic win spawn a boom in U.S. hockey. A struggling international also-ran before 1980, the U.S. remains a struggling, if hopeful, also-ran today.

No, hockey hasn't changed. But the U.S. is a different place since Herb Brooks's boys brought the country together as no single event had since—when?—a man stepped on the moon? That was the miracle. That a hockey game could do that.

The nation needed a miracle in February 1980. The day of the opening ceremonies was the 102nd day that 53 Americans had been held hostage in Iran. And seven weeks earlier, Soviet troops had moved into Afghanistan, eventually prompting President Carter to call for a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow.

In February 1980, the prime lending rate stood at 15¾%. The day the U.S. hockey team tied Sweden 2-2 in its opening game, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 898.98, less than half what it is today, despite last October's stock market crash. In politics, George Bush had just defeated Ronald Reagan in Iowa.

Self-esteem on a national level is hard to gauge, but it's fair to say that in February 1980 the American public's was pretty low. Even the Lake Placid Olympics were a source of embarrassment. The bus system failed utterly, stranding thousands of spectators. Couldn't this country do anything right anymore?

Then, presto! The hockey team came into our lives. Overnight, it seemed, the chant of U-S-A! U-S-A! was born, and American flags were proudly, ecstatically waved. It was the first time my generation had seen patriotism worn on America's sleeve. One player's sister said she hadn't seen so many U.S. flags since the 1960s, adding, "And we were burning them then." Complete strangers hugged each other in the streets when the supposedly invincible Soviets were beaten by our kids. Our kids. It was a great couple of weeks. The hockey team satisfied America's hunger to believe in itself again.

One can't know whether that wave of patriotic fervor had anything to do with Reagan's subsequent election, but it was certainly right up the President's alley. And the flag-waving didn't abate with Reagan's inauguration. Four years later, at the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, Americans were still wrapping themselves in Old Glory while chanting U-S-A! U-S-A! Except the tone had changed from spontaneous joy to blind, chest-thumping chauvinism. It was unsettling. The U.S. economy was stronger. Wall Street belonged to the bulls. The word "yuppie" had become part of the American lexicon. And our athletes were winning tons of medals against considerably diminished opposition. America believed in itself, all right, but it was apparent that it had lost something, too, since those giddy days when the hockey team sang God Bless America in the locker room at Lake Placid. Sportsmanship, perhaps. But it wasn't just sports. The national conscience, dulled by self-indulgence, had suffered a loss of compassion.

Friends have asked, "How will we do in Calgary this year?" They are referring, of course, to the medal prospects of the U.S. team, and it is natural to have a rooting interest in one's compatriots. But does it have to be the first thing out of everyone's mouth? If only those friends would ask about Italy. Or China. Or Canada, the host country. Someone besides ourselves. Patriotism is fine, but the Olympics are not always the best showcase for it. Want to wave a banner? Wave a white one, decorated with five intersecting rings. That's the way to show the world that you believe in miracles.