An exuberant network report called it "the greatest upset in the history of sports." The Washington Post and the New York Times were almost as giddy in reciting the glory of it, the upheavel at Lake Placid, where those U.S. kids had just licked the big, bad Soviet hockey team, champion of every Olympics since 1960.
The darlings went on to win the works, the gold medal. Pull out all the stops. Wave the flag and remember Afghanistan. The sports world had never seen anything quite like it.
But the biggest upset of all time? Whoa. That is at least debatable and on reflection is probably an overstatement. In terms of sheer shock, and never mind elation, it didn't compare with even more surprising results in other sports, too quickly forgotten in the celebration of the U.S. hockey gold.
Where the victory of the U.S. hockey kids stood alone, undeniably, was in impact. No contest ever commanded such a sweep of national and emotional involvement for American. The United States versus the Soviet Union in anything so soon after Afghanistan guranteed an intensity of focus never known to any other sports event. When the Americans brought it off, never before heard was such a ringing of bells.
But if any single upset in sports were ever calculated to induce a concussion, it happened at the Saratoga race track on Aug. 16, 1930, in the Travers Stakes, a four-horse race. In the grandstand 36,000 were wondering by how much Gallant Fox, the Triple Crown winner, could beat the up-and-coming Whitney colt, Whichone, if at all.
William Woodeward's Gallant Fox had won everything, the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont, the Wood and the Dwyer, with the incomparable Earl Sande riding. H. P. Whitney's Whichone was a 2-year-old champion of the season before and had just won his last three stakes with Sonny Workman up.
On the bookmakers' slates they were, respectively, 1-to-2 and 6-to-5 shots. The other tow in the race didn't count.
Now, let the Associated Press racing writer tell it:
"A total stranger came pounding the Saratoga horse track late this afternoon flinging huge muddy divots into the countenance of the aristocratic Gallant Fox. A chestnut colt by the name of Jim Dandy won the Travers, by six lengths. . ." At odds of 100 to 1.
The Washington Redskins versus the Chicago Bears at Griffith Statium in December, 1940, for the National Football League title. One month before, Sammy Baugh and the Redskins had held the Bears without a touchdown and beat them on the same field 7-3.
Now it was for the title. But by the third quarter, the panicked game officials were taking a novel plea to the Bear coaches on the sidelines: "Please don't kick any more points after touchdowns. Go to the forward pass. "We're running out of footballs kicked into the crowd." The Bears agreed.
By that time the score was climbing toward 54-0, Bears, and later it would be a final 73-0. Eleven touchdowns against the Redskins defense. Eight Redskins passes intercepted. The Redskins were held to a net of three yards rushing all day. Biggest wipeout in the history of the NFL.
So, examine that one, if you're asessing upsets.
Or go to Miami on that January day in 1969, when the Baltimore Colts were poised to chew up and spit out the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. Had not Vince Lombardi's Packers demonstrated that the AFL couldn't win one of these things by obliterating Kansas City, 35-10, in the first one, and Oakland, 33-14, in Super Bowl II?
But now a brash young Joe Namath was bragging that he and the Jets could lick the Colts, and he guaranteed it, he said. Because the Colts were 17-point favorites, nobody paid much attention. Yet, who quickly asserted ball control? Namath and Matt Snell of the Jets. Who won the game? Jets 16-7. Who was surprised? The whole known world.
On a February night in 1964, Miami was the scene of another memorable shocker. Sonny Liston, the heavy-weight champion, an invincible armored tank of a man, an ex-con who used to scare his prison guards, the man who twice knocked out Floyd Patterson in one round saw young fresh-faced Cassius Clay, now known as Muhammad Ali, as his next victim. Liston was a 6-to-1 favorite, forbidding odds on a prize fight.
Ali caused a hysterical scene with his antics at the weigh-in. A boxing commission doctor described him as a man "overcome with mortal terror." And the fight appeared to be off. But there was a decision to proceed and at the opening bell, Ali was not only composed but began to sting Liston with jabs. His behavior at the weighing-in had been an act.
But in round five, a panicked Ali rushed to his corner and demanded, "Cut my gloves off." His eyes were blurred and smarting from medication that had rubbed off Liston's shoulder. Trainer Angelo Dundee shoved him back in the ring. Ali's eyes cleared and he won the fight and the title when a tired, beaten Liston wouldn't come out for round eight. That was an upset.
So, too, was it when the New York Mets ("Can't anybody here play this game?") came off their ninth-place finish in 1968 and won both the penant and the World Series in 1969. It was an upset, also, a big one when the 1913 Kentucky Derby was won by Donerali, in the fastest time ever. He was 91 to 1.
Nobody is saying these feats were as thrilling as what the U.S. hockey kids did to the Soviets last week. But by dead reckoning they were probably rated less likely to happen.