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The Olympics are supposed to be apolitical. The ideals of the Winter and Summer Games are the converging of athletes and their cultures for friendly competition to bring the nations of the world closer together.
The reality has often proven quite different. Outside forces and on occasion competitors themselves have infused politics into the Olympics. The event has even been boycotted often due to conflicts between countries. The list is long and disturbing.
Western democracies were criticized for participating in the 1936 Nazi Olympics as German dictator Adolf Hitler sought through propaganda to provide a perception that his people had been united behind him and that his nation yearned for peace. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While the Nazis quietly hauled down and erased the “Jews Not Welcome” signs throughout Germany, the Nuremberg Laws had already made them second-class citizens as the drive toward the Holocaust had begun. Yet Hitler and his Nazis gained praise for the lavish show they put on in the summer of 1936.
Twenty years later, several countries became the first to boycott the Olympics. The Netherlands, Spain and Sweden withdrew from the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, as a condemnation of the Soviet Union invading Hungary to put down a resurrection there and maintain its control of the Communist Eastern Bloc. Meanwhile, Middle Eastern nations Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon refused to participate in the same event as Britain and France due to their military incursion into the Suez. And China boycotted due to the continued recognition of Taiwan and its inclusion in the Games.
As the civil rights movement flourished in the United States and brought greater awareness of racism and discrimination around the world, South Africa was officially barred from the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo for its apartheid policies. The International Olympic Committee informed South African officials that their nation would remain sidelined until it renounced racial discrimination in sport and integrated its teams. Their unwillingness to do so caused South Africa to remain out of the Games and other world competitions until 1992.
The politicizing of the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City became inevitable when the Mexican government overreacted to a student protest 10 days before its launch. Police and military fired into a crowd of unarmed students, killing an estimated 200 while tanks scattered thousands more. The criticism of Mexican leaders that followed wound up on the back pages, however, when American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos protested continued racism and discrimination in their country by raising their black-gloved fists skyward during the playing of the National Anthem after winning a gold and bronze, respectively. Both were tossed out of the event.
Eight terrorists representing the Palestinian Liberation Army violently politicized the 1972 Summer Games in Munich as Germany sought—unsuccessfully as events occurred—to destroy memories of its Nazi past. The terrorists took members of the Israeli team hostage and, after the drama played out on the world stage over a tense 20-hour period, ended it brutally by murdering them all. Reports later surfaced that the Israelis had also been tortured during their captivity. Non-violent protests of perceived Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinian people would not suffice for the PLO, which chose the Olympic Games to carry out its terror.
But despite the frequent occurrences of politicizing through the first 80 years of the modern Olympics, the United States had been relatively un-involved. That changed in 1979, when the Soviet Union heightened Cold War tensions by invading Afghanistan in a military move that was compared to American involvement in Vietnam a decade earlier. The U.S. responded by boycotting the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Sixty-four other countries refused to participate in the event, many for the same reason. The Soviets and their satellites then boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
It was in that political atmosphere that one hockey game in the Winter Olympics that resulted in David slaying Goliath brought a sense of pride to Americans that would forever be unmatched in its sports past or future. It was the stunning upset victory of the U.S. hockey team over the vaunted Soviets in the semifinals at Lake Placid. One can claim, however, that the most gratifying aspect of that triumph was politically based as the two nations sparred over the righteousness of the invasion of Afghanistan and past Russian suppression of freedom movements in their sphere of influence, such as in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and what was to happen soon in Poland.
But the shocking defeat of the powerful Russians by a comparatively rag-tag group of American college hockey players was far less a political statement than it was an historic athletic achievement. The heroes were not motivated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or any potential boycotts, but rather their mission to win a gold medal that first required a monumental upset of the greatest of all international hockey teams. The Soviets, after all, had captured gold in 1956, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. They would do so again in 1984 and 1988.
The American players were no strangers. They were selected based not only by talent, but by familiarity with coach Herb Brooks, who certainly boasted the experience for the job. He had been the final cut on the 1960 United States team—the last one to have captured Olympic gold. He then played for the 1964 and 1968 squads, neither of which won a medal. And, played on five other national teams before embarking on a coaching career. He had in 1979 guided the University of Minnesota to the national championship. His responsibility of selecting 20 players to the Olympic team motivated him to choose those with whom he was most knowledgeable. Twelve of them proved to be native Minnesotans. Nine had played for Brooks on the Golden Gophers.
Few could be considered veterans. Among them, however, was talented 25-year-old left winger and Massachusetts native Mike Eruzione. He was one of the few players on the team not from the Midwest. Eruzione had thrived as a scorer at Boston University. But, he struggled to put the puck in the net heading into the Olympics. And at one point, he was cut from the team by Brooks. When Brooks informed friend and fellow college coach Gus Hendrickson of his decision to let Eruzione go, the reply helped convinced him otherwise. Hendrickson claimed Eruzione gave the young team a much-needed leader. And when his American teammates expressed the same sentiment, Brooks decided to keep him aboard.
That the new Olympians could compete at the highest international level should not have been particularly surprising given their exhaustive schedule and success leading up to the Games. They began in early September 1979 a 61-game slate against rugged foreign, college and professional competition—finishing with an impressive 42-16-3 record. Most important was that they embraced a new offensive strategy created by Brooks called the “weave” that was designed to counter defenses employed by the European teams that generally dominated Olympic hockey.
Yet despite their pre-Olympic success, their potential as a threat to the powerful Russians seemed to be rightfully dismissed when they were pounded by the Soviets, 10-3, in their final exhibition clash, which was played at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was no surprise when the Americans were seeded seventh in their 12-team Olympic pool. They had something to prove. And they proved it after Brooks claimed following their annihilation at the hands of the Russians that they had no chance.
“Sometimes a real butt-kicking is good for a quality team or a quality athlete,” he said. “Anyway, I’m not worried about the Russians. I’m worried about the Czechs and the Swedes, the teams we’ve got a chance to beat. The teams we have to beat. I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but you’ve got to combine idealism with pragmatism. And practically speaking, we don’t have a chance to beat the Russians. We’ve got 10 kids who could still be playing in college right now, and they’ve got a team that beat the NHL’s best players last year. A team with half-a-dozen guys from  still playing.”
The Russian team bent the rules of required amateurism in the Olympic Games. The Soviet players were chosen and trained as athletes, but paid ostensibly as soldiers. They were experienced hockey players, hardened by international competition and strengthened as a team by playing together for years. They had won two of three games against a team comprised of NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup. Despite starting backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin, they pitched a shutout in the third contest.
The stunning Russian invasion of Afghanistan to support the Communist-leaning government of that country did not at first motivate the United States government to take action despite the expressed displeasure of President Jimmy Carter. Three weeks before the start of the Winter Games, he suggested that the IOC should move or postpone the Summer Olympics in Moscow if the Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan. Carter added that the United States should boycott the event if the IOC did not follow through. Congress concurred, but the boycott was not announced until well after the conclusion of the Lake Placid Games.
Such political wrangling did not appear to motivate Team USA as it began its Olympic quest on February 12, 1980. The Americans caught a bit of a break in its schedule to open against Sweden. The Swedish team had been decimated by defections to the NHL that cost them several of their greatest players ever.