[As we get closer to what some are predicting will be another rough winter, a series AmericanStudying significant winter events from our history. Leading up to a special weekend post on Pearl Harbor!]
On the symbolic role of sports in society, and the line between history and story.
For a solid five-year period in the early 1980s, the sports world and the Cold War felt inextricably linked. Beginning with the February 1980 Olympic hockey semifinal between the U.S. and Soviet Union teams (on which a lot more momentarily), continuing through the two prominent Olympic boycotts (the US boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and the retaliatory Soviet boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles), and culminating, of course, with 1985’s Rocky IV and its climactic, Cold War-ending boxing match between American underdog Rocky Balboa and Soviet machine (literally and figuratively) Ivan Drago, the stories and images of international sports in the period mirrored quite strikingly the political and cultural clashes between the two superpowers.
One of those four sports events is not like the others, of course—the fight between Rocky and Drago, compelling as it undoubtedly was, took place only in the realms of film and fiction, unlike the actual historical events surrounding the 80 and 84 Olympics.Yet I don’t believe that the line between those categories of events is nearly as clear as it might seem. While the Olympic boycotts of course had very tangible and often desctructive effects, not only for the athletes and teams but for the respective host cities and countries, they were, first and foremost, about the manipulation of and contests over images and narratives. And while the 1980 hockey semifinal was not scripted by a team of Hollywood screenwriters, however much it might have felt that way (and the subsequent TV and Hollywood films notwithstanding), the narrative of the “Miracle on Ice,” which was developed quite literally in the moment and has become the defining image of that game, represents image-making at its most potent and enduring.
The question, though, is even more complicated than whether the phrase “Miracle on Ice” represents an image rather than the event itself (it certainly does). I would ask, instead, whether we collectively remember the event not only through but also because of the image; because, that is, of how the event was turned into a story that can have cultural and symbolic resonance far beyond even the most striking individual historical moment. Whether the image and story are accurate to the history is a separate (and important) question, and in this case I would say that they largely are (the US team was a huge underdog to the powerful Soviet squad, and the victory thus one of the more unexpected in sports history); but to my mind, the question of accuracy can blur the importance of the process of image-making, can make it seem as if “miracle” refers to the game rather than to the narrative that was and has been developed in response to it. A great deal of the Cold War was defined by such image- and myth-making, never more so than during the Reagan Administration; to recognize the way in which sports can be folded into such narratives is thus a historical analysis, as well as one with contemporary and ongoing implications.
Last AmericanWinter tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other winter events you’d highlight?
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