The puck skids across the blue line. The American amateurs
lift their sticks in celebration. The Soviet superstars
skate away astounded. The crowd in Lake Placid erupts with a
"Do you believe in miracles?" cries Al Michaels
from the press booth. Then he answers the question for all
of us: "Yes!"
The final second ticks away and with the blare of a horn:
United States 4, Soviet Union 3.
Twenty-eight years later, watching highlights of the
"Miracle on Ice" still gives even nonsports fans
goose bumps. Few moments in American history conjure such
powerful patriotic emotions as that hockey game at the 1980
Winter Olympics. Through tears of pride and joy, we rewatch
the clip just to listen to those magical words again:
"Do you believe in miracles?"
And that is when it hits me. Not anymore, Mr. Michaels.
By a dictionary's definition, miracles still seem
possible. All you need is an extremely remarkable occurrence
-- and the Olympics have seen plenty in recent years: Rulon
Gardner out-wrestling previously undefeated Alexander
Karelin in 2000; Belarus, with 10,000,000-to-1 odds at
winning hockey gold, beating Sweden in 2002; Puerto Rico
routing USA basketball in 2004.
In the Olympic world, however, that definition is not
sufficient. An Olympic miracle needs so much more than the
element of unthinkable improbability. It needs external
conflict. It needs to transcend sports.
Olympics officials try to maintain that the games transcend
political affairs, but international discord has always
produced the most memorable Olympics storylines. Would we
celebrate track star Jesse Owens as much had he not won his
four gold medals as a black man against the backdrop of
Nazism in Berlin 1936? Would USA hockey's triumph over
the Soviets in Lake Placid be considered a
"miracle" without the Cold War?
Think of the factors needed for that hockey game to be
called the "Miracle on Ice." The game needed a
generation of schoolchildren practicing to "duck and
cover" in case of an atomic attack. It needed the
Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis and
the Vietnam War. It needed more than three decades of two
countries living in perpetual fear of each other in their
race for world supremacy.
To be a "miracle," the contest needed to contrast
a spirit of international harmony. To be a miraculous
moment, it needed to rely on years of dark circumstances.
Looking ahead to Beijing, such scenarios could exist. Over
the past year, activists for Tibetan independence from
Chinese rule have escalated protests in light of the
upcoming Beijing Games -- and attracted international
attention. Living in exile around the world, Tibetan
athletes organized "Team Tibet" with hopes of
competing under their own flag. Given the site of this
year's games, no story could be more
"miraculous" than a Tibet victory over China on
the host's soil.
In February, Kosovo returned to the international spotlight
when the small Slavic region declared autonomy from Serbia.
The move incited a divisive debate over how to handle the
declaration. While most Western nations have recognized
Kosovo's independence, many Eastern powers continue to
view the territory as a Serbian province. For Kosovo,
beating the Serbs on the Olympic stage would be a miraculous
accomplishment for the infant country.
Of course, Iraq remains the focal point of most foreign
affair conversations, as it has since the United States
invaded in 2003. Less than a year after "Shock and
Awe," the Iraq soccer team in 2004 nearly pulled off a
miracle gold medal in Athens, falling short in the
semifinals. Four years later, any Iraqi triumph would
reinvigorate talk of a "miracle" considering the
disarrayed state of the country.
None of these storylines will have a chance to play out,
however. The International Olympic Committee rejected Team
Tibet's request to participate on the grounds that
Tibet is not a sovereign nation. Kosovo suffered a similar
ruling after the IOC asserted the land-in-limbo cannot
compete until its independence is sanctioned by the United
Just last week, the IOC changed its earlier ruling and
granted Iraq entry to the games, but only two Iraqi athletes
are prepared to participate.
By keeping Tibet and Kosovo from raising their flags above
Beijing National Stadium on Friday, the Olympic bureaucrats
essentially diminished any hopes of a "miracle"
this summer. As sports fans, we can lament this fact.
As human beings, however, we can only hope never to witness
another "Miracle on Ice." The war and terror
needed to create such a dramatic atmosphere do not justify
such an incredible moment in sports.
Unfortunately, our world is still imperfect -- strife still
exists around the globe. Given this fact, it would have been
intriguing if Tibet or Kosovo had an opportunity to make a
miracle in 2008. But looking to the future, the question
should no longer be whether we believe in miracles.