Starr Gazing: The Last Miracle?

In the winter of 1980, my life was in disarray. I was residing on Chicago's North Side, in a fleabag hotel where time seemed to be measured in piles of yellowed newspaper inside my room. The hotel was an unlikely survivor in an increasingly upscale neighborhood. One of its few virtues was a 24-hour coffee shop where, in the weekend's wee hours, life's winners and losers stared grimly at each other across the overlit room.

I certainly didn't think about it back then, but I was a pretty good metaphor for the whole country, which was suffering its own dislocation--"paralysis and stagnation and drift," as President Jimmy Carter said in what became known famously as his "malaise" speech. Americans had begun to lose faith in the future, in the American dream. At home there was the triple threat of recession, inflation and an energy crisis that had motorists queuing up for hours for a trickle of gas. Abroad, Islamic students had invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taken Americans hostage, while the Soviet Union was again flexing its muscle by invading Afghanistan.

We were a nation desperately in need of some kind of uplift. What we got was a miracle--and even by miracle standards, an unlikely one. A bunch of anonymous hockey players from Boston and Minnesota, average age 21, were having a great run in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. Having reached the medal round undefeated, our kids would be pitted against the mighty Soviet hockey machine, which had won every gold medal since 1964 and had thrashed the same U.S. team by a score of 10-3 a few weeks earlier.

It's a game that everyone who was alive in this country at that time now claims to have watched. But in truth, though there was certainly a big buzz emanating out of Lake Placid, hockey was no more of a national passion then than it is now. I never believed that all of America rearranged its Friday night to watch. I, however, a Boston boy raised skating on local ponds, would never have missed the game, though I really didn't have much of a life to rearrange. It was an afternoon game, shown tape-delayed in prime time. But back in the pre-Internet era, it was much easier to avoid results. So I sat in my shabby little room, huddled with an ancient black-and-white TV and watched in growing disbelief.

How to measure that victory? "Do you believe in miracles?" was Al Michaels's immortal call. I am certainly not one to underestimate the impact of sports on our collective psyches. I have seen how miracles (the '69 Mets or the Super Bowl XXXVI Patriots) can galvanize an entire community, or how the sustained absence of one (The Boston Red Sox, 85 years and counting) can haunt one. At the very least the 4-3 triumph at Lake Placid (and the subsequent gold-medal victory over Finland) provided a catharsis for a nation in the doldrums. And quite possibly it delivered far more, a trigger point for a broader, more sustained emotional uplift. Then along came Ronald Reagan with his sunny disposition and his unquenchable faith in America and its new-morning resurrection.

The new Disney film, "Miracle," does a superb job of recapturing both the despair and the uplift that were the emotional bookends of the movie. (It also has the finest hockey choreography, of an admittedly small sample, ever presented on film.) And while one might complain about a sentimental overload in the film, it was a pretty sentimental affair in real life back in 1980, too. The movie certainly doesn't soft-soap the late Herb Brooks, the brilliant, hard case of a coach who figured out that before he could unify his squad as "USA," he could first unify them in their collective distaste for him and his taskmaster methods.

I suspect that, watching the movie, we were supposed to sense a great change in the American landscape across almost a quarter of century now. But frankly I was struck instead by similarities far more profound than whether today's kids know what a gas line is or that the classic Olympic dream has given way to professional dream teams. Despite all our current economic, political and military muscle--we are the last superpower standing--there's something of a malaise simmering here once again. We can relate to 1980--to the perils of economic uncertainty; to the invasion of Afghanistan, which resonates in ways we never could have imagined back then, and to the trauma of the Iranian hostage situation which now pales next to the perils of our Iraqi engagement.

How welcome another miracle of that "miracle on ice" magnitude would be today. But we're just going to have make do with the synthetic, film version. Because I don't think this country can every produce anything resembling that kind of miracle again. There is no bigger power--or bully as most of the world would have it--that exists today that would enable us to cast ourselves once again as the underdog, let alone an underdog that other nations can embrace. When we beat the Soviets at hockey, the whole world was in our corner. Now we've got Britain's Tony Blair. We are the big boys--and, in most of the world's eyes, the bad boys--on the block.

That may not matter all that much when we play our world championships like the World Series or the Super Bowl without inviting the rest of the world to compete. Or when the best baseball, basketball and hockey players hie their way here to play in our leagues for our cups and trophies. But it does matter when our teams and athletes venture beyond our borders, as they will for the Olympics in Greece this summer and as the U.S. soccer team did last week when it went to Mexico for the qualifying tournament for that Athens Olympics. The Mexican-U.S. soccer rivalry has become pretty heated in recent years, as the Americans have begun to turn the tables on the region's longtime soccer superpower. Nobody--at least nobody south of the border--was prepared for how the U.S. dominated Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, booting them, 2-0, out of the tournament. So there is plenty of edge in this rivalry without any infusion of politics.

But it was politics that seemed to put it over the edge. Throughout the tournament, Mexican fans tried to drown out the U.S. national anthem with jeers and shouting. They booed and hissed the American players repeatedly, regardless of who their opponent was, and showed their contempt with derisive chants of "Osama! Osama!" With the Olympic berth on the line, our boys got shellacked by Mexico 4-0. Had they won, it would have been an upset, not a miracle. The era of American sports miracles--on ice, turf, water or anything else--may be over for good.

Starr Gazing: The Last Miracle? | News