OGIC points out a good story in the New Yorker about Igor Larionov going to see Miracle, the film about the 1980 US hockey team. Larionov was just a youngster then, and he just missed out on making that Soviet team. His memories were not quite as happy as the film’s.
My memories of the 1980 Olympics were a bit different, as well. In 1979, my parents divorced and I moved with my mother to Sweden, after spending my first thirteen years in California. It was my first real winter, and I guess my young body wasn’t prepared for it. Just days before the 1980 Winter Olympics started, I caught pneumonia.
If you’re going to be bedridden for two weeks in the middle of winter in Sweden, you couldn’t pick a better time than during the Olympics. Sweden only had two TV channels back then, both government-run. They usually only broadcast from about 6pm-11pm, and most of their programming was horrendously boring stuff like pottery making and polka music. But during the Olympics, they broadcast nearly every event live and in its entirety. I watched it all.
The TV commentators were rooting for all the Swedes, and I got caught up rooting for them, too, especially after Thomas Wassberg won the 15km cross-country gold medal. He passed the finish line just 0.01 second ahead of a Finn, Juha Mieto. I had never imagined cross-country skiing could be exciting, but that was an amazing race to watch. The commentators went absolutely nuts. They showed the finish over and over again for days. In the smallest fraction of a second, Wassberg became a hero for life in his homeland.
Swedes have a small-town attitude towards their country, a refreshing humility about their little place in the big world. They don’t really expect to win. They don’t expect anyone else to pay any attention to them. Victories of any sort are always a surprise. Losses are not scandals, just the expected outcome for such a small group of people. But there is one big exception to this: ice hockey.
When the Swedes and Americans tied in the first hockey game of the tournament, the commentators were extremely disappointed, even upset. The Swedes were expected to win, and the tie with this lesser team would hurt their chances at a medal. Although the outcome suited my background, I empathized with the Swedes’ disappointment. Little did anyone suspect that this would be the only game USA wouldn’t win.
In 1980, there was also another exception to Sweden’s typically low expectations: Ingemar Stenmark.
Now, I’ve seen Michael Jordan. I’ve seen Barry Bonds. I’ve seen Wayne Gretzky. But to this day, Ingemar Stenmark is the most dominant athlete I’ve ever seen.
Most Americans would probably guess that Björn Borg is Sweden’s biggest sports hero. After all, he won Wimbledon five times in a row. Stenmark and Borg were both born in 1956, so I was lucky enough to live in Sweden during both their peaks. Borg was big, of course, but Stenmark was bigger.
Stenmark completely dominated slalom and giant slalom skiing. In his career, he ended up winning 86 World Cup races. Alberto Tomba is second, and he trails Stenmark by a whopping 36 wins. But the number of victories only tells part of the story.
Stenmark was so good, he didn’t really even try during his first run. Basically, all he did was make sure he didn’t fall down. In the second run, he would go all out. If he finished in the top 10 after the first run, you could be pretty sure he would either win the race or fall down trying. I remember one time he decided to go all out for both runs of a giant slalom race. He won by almost four seconds.
Whenever Stenmark skied, the entire country of Sweden would stop. I remember being out the town market one day during a World Cup race, and one of the vendors had a TV. When Stenmark’s turn came, everybody in on the square stopped what they were doing, and huddled around this one TV set to watch his run.
Because Stenmark was so dominant, I think Swedes felt more worried about a fall than excited about him winning Olympic gold. So when Stenmark ended up winning gold in both slalom and giant slalom (coming from behind each time, of course), they didn’t really explode with joy and surprise like they did about Wassberg. The prevailing emotions were pride and relief.
When the final round of the hockey tournament arrived, my illness was over. I watched the Finland-Sweden matchup, which was another tie. But I missed the USA-USSR game, because it didn’t start until 2AM Sweden time, and I had to get up early for a morning basketball practice. Besides, I didn’t want to see the Americans get clobbered, anyway.
When I got to the practice, my teammates were talking about the Sweden-Finland match. I was tying my shoes. Then someone asked about the USA-USSR game. One teammate said, “USA won.”
I looked up, surprised.
“No way,” said another teammate.
“You’re joking, right?”
“No, USA won, 4-3.”
Nobody could believe it. Then they all turned and looked at me, the American. I looked back with a “hey, I’m cool” smile, and resumed tying my shoes.
Even at that point, the medals were not assured. Sweden still could win gold, if Finland beat the Americans, and Sweden beat the Soviets.
But that wasn’t going to happen. USA was a team of destiny. Sweden had the unfortunate fate of being the next team the Soviets played after the Miracle on Ice game. The Soviets absolutely clobbered Sweden, 9-2, to take the silver. Sweden settled for the bronze. From the Swedish point of view, the results were acceptable, but not great.
When I hear stories about Al Michaels call, part of me wishes I had been in America to be immersed in the pure joy and surprise of gold, instead of the mild satisfaction of bronze. But then I would have missed a similar joy and surprise when Wassberg won, and would not have experienced the total dominance of Ingemar Stenmark. I guess I’ll just have to follow Larionov’s lead, and go see the movie.