The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
32. Victory on Ice

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
The American team celebrates winning
the gold by defeating Finland in 1980
They were called the "Boys of Winter" -- the young men on the roster of the United States hockey team competing in the 1980 Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid in upstate New York. Twelve of the 20 players were Minnesota natives, four were from Massachusetts, two from Wisconsin and two from Michigan. Among them was center Dave Christian of Warroad, Minnesota, whose father and uncle had played on the 1960 Olympic team that won a gold medal -- the last time the U.S. had taken the gold in ice hockey. Most expected the 1980 team to place no better than fifth or sixth at Lake Placid; the odds-on favorite to win was the Soviet team, which had taken the previous four Olympic hockey gold medals. The Soviets had won 16 amateur world championships and defeated the National Hockey League all-stars. Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Finland and West Germany also fielded excellent teams. The European players were generally older and more experienced in world-class competition than their American counterparts.
Pulling off a last minute tie with Sweden in the first round of competition, the Americans next took on the second-seed Czechs. Coach Herb Brooks, who had led the University of Minnesota hockey team to three NCAA championships, knew his boys could not beat the Europeans in skating or passing; to offset this he urged his team to be more physical than their opponents, using close body checking. Led by the "Iron Rangers" -- the forward line of John Harrington, Mark Pavelich and Buzz Schneider, all of whom came from Minnesota's Iron Range region -- the Americans manhandled the Czech team in a 7-3 win. Meanwhile, in their first two games, the Soviets trounced Japan 16-0 and The Netherlands 17-4. Remarkably, the "Boys of Winter" went on to defeat Norway, Rumania and West Germany to reach the final four. SRO crowds surged to their feet chanting "USA! USA!" with every goal the Americans scored. They were beginning to realize that there was something special about this team. Could they go all the way? Coach Brooks thought it would take a miracle to beat the Soviets. "It would be David and Goliath," he said. If the players made one mistake the Soviet juggernaut would crush them.
When they met, the Soviet and American teams played some of the best hockey ever seen in Olympic competition. The Soviets scored first, but Buzz Schneider muscled the puck past Vladislav Tretiak, considered by many to be the best goalie in the world, and evened the score. Both teams scored again in the first quarter, with the Soviets going ahead 3-2 in the second. The Americans scored twice within a minute and a half in the third and final quarter to take the lead. Again and again the Soviets were frustrated by the spectacular saves of goalie Jim Craig. As the seconds ticked down, the ecstatic crowd filled the Olympic Fieldhouse with the chant -- "USA! USA!" The unbelievable had happened -- the United States had won. According to one analyst, it was perhaps "the most stunning upset in Olympic history." The American team went on to beat Finland 4-2 and win the gold. The entire nation was deliriously proud. The victory took on special meaning in a year when Americans were held hostage in Iran and stood by helplessly as the Soviets occupied Afghanistan.
As usual, politics cast a shadow over the Olympics. On the first day of the Winter Games the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejected President Jimmy Carter's request that the Summer Games be moved from Moscow to protest Soviet actions in Afghanistan. And New York state courts held that the Taiwanese would be violating IOC rules by entering the competition as the Republic of China; rather than forsake their principles, the Taiwanese athletes went home. Fear of terrorism made the Lake Placid Olympic Village one of the most heavily guarded in the history of the games, with 800 New York state troopers, 75 FBI agents and Secret Service contingents on hand to protect the 1,600 athletes as well as the 50,000 tourists who showed up daily.
The United States won six gold medals in the 1980 Winter Games, with Eric Heiden sweeping all five of the men's speed-skating events-- setting a new record for each race. But there would be no medals for American athletes in the Moscow Summer Games that followed; the United States, joined by 35 other countries including Canada, Japan, China and West Germany, boycotted the Moscow games to protest the invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets dominated the competition, winning 197 medals, 80 of them gold. Weather played a larger role than politics in the 1984 Winter Games, as a severe storm blasted Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, delaying many events. The American hockey team was unable to repeat the 1980 miracle and the U.S. came away with only four gold medals; Debbie Armstrong won in the giant slalom, Bill Johnson set a new record in the downhill, Scott Hamilton excelled in figure skating, and identical twins Phil and Steve Mahre came in first and second in the slalom.
ABC paid $225 million for broadcast rights to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, selling 30-second spots for an average of $125,000. Corporate sponsorship was limited to thirty companies that could afford a minimum payment of $4 million and provide needed services. Atlantic Richfield Co. put up $5 million for improvements to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum while AT&T handled communications for the games. In this way the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC), headed by innovative businessman Peter Ueberroth, managed to put on a superior and profitable mega-event without government or taxpayer subsidies, in sharp contrast to the $9 billion price tag paid by the Soviet Union to host the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. By establishing three Olympic Villages to utilize existing facilities at USC, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, LAOOC substantially reduced costs. Ueberroth's 34 commissioners, all drawn from the private sector, made sure that the 23 Olympic venues were set up under budget and ahead of schedule. Although the Soviets and their Eastern Bloc satellites boycotted the games -- in retaliation for the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games -- the Los Angeles games were the most successful in Olympic history, seen by an estimated 2.5 billion viewers, half the world's population. Uebberoth was named Time's" Man of the Year" and went on to serve as baseball commissioner.
There was some concern that commercialization would contaminate the Olympics. Ueberroth and others were convinced, however, that only free enterprise could guarantee the survival of the games; an Olympic festival was increasingly problematic in an era of fiscally-challenged governments. (In fact, the IOC was hard-pressed to find a host for the 1984 Summer Games.) An announcement by the LAOOC that $222.7 million in profits had been made astonished the world and renewed interest in future Olympics. Those profits were divided between the United States Olympic Committee and the LAOOC which funded, among other things, an Amateur Athletic Foundation based in Los Angeles. Another concern was the amateur status of Olympic athletes. By 1984 stars like Carl Lewis, who captured the gold in four track events, were raking in huge sums for endorsements and appearances. The eligibility of members of the American, Canadian and European hockey teams who had played in professional leagues was a recurring issue. Purists complained that careerism violated the spirit of the Olympics. But in 1987 the IOC approved the return of the game of tennis -- absent since 1924 -- knowing full well that Olympic tennis teams would be composed of professional players. By 1992 even NBA players were eligible to compete.
The U.S. dominated the 1984 Summer Games, winning a total of 174 medals, 83 of them gold, more than three times the total for second-place West Germany. Gymnast Mary Lou Retton won the gold in the women's all-around competition. Greg Louganis became the first Olympic diver in half a century to win the gold in both the springboard and platform diving events; he repeated this extraordinary feat four years later at the Seoul Summer Games. Louganis was an inspiration to many young athletes -- he had overcome asthma, dyslexia and drug and alcohol abuse to achieve his goals. In his 1995 autobiography, Breaking the Surface, he revealed that he had AIDS, and had been HIV-positive while competing at Seoul.
In 1988 the Winter Games occurred in Calgary, and a record number of nations (57) competed. Skater Brian Boitano won the freestyle gold for the U.S., while Bonnie Blair triumphed in the 500-meter speed-skating event. But, as usual, the Soviets and East Germans took home most of the medals from the Winter Games. At Seoul, American swimmers Matt Biondi and Janey Evans won five and three gold medals respectively while the immensely popular Florence Griffth-Joiner, known as FloJo to her fans, won three golds in track events, breaking the world 200-meter dash record.
Though marred by Cold War politics, the Olympics gave Americans in the 1980s a lot to cheer about -- and it all started with the underdog "Boys of Winter" who did the impossible at Lake Placid.

Olympic Medal Winners in the Eighties
XIII Winter Games, 1980, Lake Placid:
1. USSR--10 gold, 6 silver, 6 bronze.....2. GDR--9 gold, 7 silver, 7 bronze.....
3. USA: 6 gold, 4, silver, 2, bronze
XXII Summer Games, 1980, Moscow:
1. USSR--80 gold, 69 silver, 46 bronze.....2. GDR--47 gold, 37 silver, 42 bronze.....3. BUL--8 gold, 16 silver, 17 bronze
XIV Winter Games, 1984, Sarajevo:
1. GDR--9 gold, 9 silver, 6 bronze.....2. USSR--6 gold, 10 silver, 9 bronze.....
3. USA--4 gold, 4 silver
XXIII Summer Games, 1984, Los Angeles:
1. USA--83 gold, 61 silver, 30 bronze.....2, ROM--20 gold, 16 silver, 17 bronze.....3. GER--17 gold, 19 silver, 23 bronze
XV Winter Games, 1988, Calgary:
1. USSR--11 gold, 9 silver, 9 bronze.....2. GDR--9 gold, 10 silver, 6 bronze.....
3. Switz.--5 gold, 5 silver, 5 bronze
XXIV Summer Games, 1988, Seoul:
1. USSR--55 gold, 31 silver, 46 bronze.....2, GER--37 gold, 35 silver, 30 bronze.....3. USA--36 gold, 31 silver, 27 bronze


People Weekly, 30 January 1984

Newsweek, 27 February 1984

Time, 8 August, 1983, 17 October 1983, 30 January 1984, 13 February 1984,20 February 1984, 27 February 1984

U.S. News & World Report, 30 January 1984, 6 February 1984, 20 February 1984, 27 February 1984

Pursuit of Excellence: The Olympic Story 1980
Associated Press & Grolier (Danbury, Conn: Grolier Enterprises, Inc., 1980