We Need Another Winter Olympics ‘Miracle,’ and We Don’t Need to Score a Single Goal to Do It

We Need Another Winter Olympics ‘Miracle,’ and We Don’t Need to Score a Single Goal to Do It

The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame sits high on a ridge off a highway in Eveleth, Minnesota. In front of the boxy building stands a sculpture of a raised hockey glove holding a stick that isn’t quite proportionate in size. When I walked past the glove and signed the visitors’ log one afternoon last fall, there had been fewer than ten visitors before me that day.

I was there on a nostalgia trip, reminiscing about visiting the museum when I was a kid in the ’80s. From that standpoint, things couldn’t have been better: very little about the facility has changed since Minnesota’s pro hockey team was the North Stars. The telescoping exhibit on the history of hockey was still there, as was the net where you could practice your slapshot and try to hit the dancing light.

Something else that hasn’t changed is the museum’s near-obsessive focus on the Miracle: the U.S. Olympic hockey team that won gold in 1980, defeating a Soviet team that had monopolized the world’s top slot since the ’60s. Everywhere you look at the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, there’s an artifact or an artwork or a plaque reminding you of how those 20 young men gave America hope again.

Last night I watched Miracle, the 2004 movie telling the story of that team. It’s a mystery to me how I’ve avoided seeing it until now, since uniquely in cinema it celebrates both my home state of Minnesota and my alma mater, Boston University.

“A lotta guys from Minnesota and Boston,” says goalie Jim Craig (Eddie Cahill), looking at a tryout roster.

“Yeah,” says Jack O’Callahan (Peter Horton) sarcastically, aware of the Gophers-Terriers rivalry, “that’s gonna work.”

In the movie, the team is treated as a group of wildly disparate personalities learning to work together for the common good of the United States of America. In a voiceover, coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) says that his favorite moment was “the sight of 20 young men of such differing backgrounds now standing as one.”

Half-asleep on the couch, my girlfriend mumbled something about white men. It’s true: Miracle is a story about, by, and for white men. It’s also true that the hope supposedly infused into our nation was the hope of white, straight men: the Reagan Revolution, with its disparaging of “welfare queens” and inaction on AIDS even as inequality grew and people died. “Reagan Democrats” bought the Gipper’s insinuations that their longtime party was now working for the benefit of others (wink, wink) and permanently swapped parties.

It’s really saying something that our current president would find it a stretch to occupy even the homogeneous, hyper-patriotic world of Miracle, with its self-effacing emphasis on discipline and teamwork. Under Trump, the invocation of national pride has taken on undertones that are dark, violent, and explicitly exclusionary.

When the Miracle crowd chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” I found myself thinking of two young women, one Asian-American and one African-American, who were roommates at the University of St. Thomas during the 2016 election. The same chant woke them up at 2:30 a.m. when the election was called for Trump, and together they “sat in their dorm room speechless and in tears.”

The Olympic story that’s been inspiring cheers this season is the saga of Tonya Harding, a figure skater whose place is history is being reevaluated through a lens that puts a new focus on the abuse she endured and the classism she overcame. While some scoff at the sympathetic treatment she gets in the movie I, Tonya, the New York Times’ Daily podcast gets at the core of why it’s important to revisit Harding’s history: it’s not about what she did, it’s about the redemption arc she didn’t get because she isn’t a man.

The 2018 Winter Games opened today in PyeongChang, and the Russian men’s hockey team is favored to win gold, with Canada the best bet for silver and ten-to-one odds running against the Americans. Russia and Canada also took the top spots for solo women at the most recent World Figure Skating Championships. Did you know, or care?

If you’re like me, your thoughts about the Winter Olympics have largely concerned whether they’ll happen before, during, after, or — God willing — in the continuing absence of a global thermonuclear conflagration sparked by two autocratic leaders who think they can make themselves bigger by reducing the size of others, through any means necessary.

Not since the Cold War have the Olympics been so intimately connected to global politics. The Miracle on Ice almost didn’t happen, as the movie observes, because the Soviets were threatening not to send their athletes given that the U.S. and its allies were planning to withhold their own competitors from the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. The U.S.S.R. subsequently boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A., ensuring that American athletes would romp and glib boosterism would reign.

Whatever words we end up using to describe the 2018 games, “glib” probably won’t be one of them. Right now, it will feel like enough of a miracle if the Olympics simply happen — if athletes from nations including the U.S., Russia, and both Koreas just race each other down some hills and brush some ice in front of sliding stones. Let’s just not start a war.

If there was a real miracle of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. standoff, it was the nuclear deescalation that eventually took place. Remembering that might help us work another miracle, because we really need one right now.

Jay Gabler