Cynics might insist that 1980 was the year of Rosie Ruiz in sports -- a season of sham and scandal, rather than grit and glory -- but they would probably be outvoted by sentimentalists and the stout of heart.
No matter how many disillusioning events sullied the sports year, no matter how many times we were buffeted with stories of greed, drug abuse, political manipulation, cheating, excessive violence and other conduct unbecoming, the athletic happening that had the single greatest impact on America was a precious reminder of how good, enthralling, and unifying sport can be.
The Olympic victory of the U.S. ice hockey team was for all of us: a triumph of will, of human spirit, a source of pride and celebration. It made us feel good, no mean feat, given the melancholy of the times.
The hostages were in Iran, the Soviet army was in Afghanistan, the economy was in a shambles, the Cold War was back. There would be no Summer Olympics for Americans, as a matter of foreign policy. Domestically, our embattled president had told us, we were suffocating in our own malaise. There wasn't terribly much for America, as a nation, to be optimistic about.
And then along came this improbable hockey team, performing miracles on ice, restoring our faith and self-esteem, personifying the words of poet Matthew Arnold:
"The seeds of godlike power are in us still:
Gods are we! Bards, saints, heroes if we will!"
Spectator sport at its best is a splendid form of escapism, a cathartic amalgam of art, drama, and passion that lifts us and takes us on an emotional bobsled run. It thrills and fascinates us, dazzles us with skill, excites our sense of what the human body can do, fulfills our hopes and dreams, breaks our hearts, makes us hold our breath and, ultimately, leaves us richer for the experience, win or lose. It makes us feel better, about our heroes and ourselves.
The U.S. hockey team did that. It made us feel great .
It started out seeded seventh in a field of eight teams, scored a goal 27 seconds from the final buzzer to tie Sweden in its first game, then upset Czechoslovakia, 7-3. "At the end, 7,000 people stood as one, chanting 'U.S.A., U.S.A.'," noted the report on Page 3 of the sports section of this newspaper.
That was a portent of things to come, but we didn't know it yet. We didn't imagine that those roars of "U.S.A. U.S.A." would grow to deafening crescendo and echo across the land.
This was still just a hockey tournament until the apple-cheeked Yanks put their surprising undefeated record and impossible dreams of a gold medal on the line against the Soviet Union, the awesome Big Red Machine that in 1979 had humiliated the National Hockey League All-Stars.
The kids won.They beat the Soviets, 4-3, and became America's Team. Not because the Soviets represented the government that was in Afghanistan, but because they were the best the Goliath of hockey.
Sure, it helped that they were Russian. It was satisfying to symbolically push around the Big Bad Bear whose army was pushing around the Afghans. But that was not why this was such an emotional victory. "The fans displayed excellent sportsmanship, even though we have different ways of life and different governments," stressed U.S. Coach Herb Brooks. "There was no politics on behalf of the Russians, and no politics by us. I don't think the fans were an ugly lot. They were positive."
They were positive because the underdog Americans rose above themselves and beat the unbeatable foe.
"I don't think you can put it into words," said Mike Eruzione, the captain of modest talents but indomitable will who scored the winning goal with 11 1/2 minutes left in a final period that seemed to last an eternity. "It was 20 guys pulling for each other, never quitting, 60 minutes of good hockey. I don't think we kicked their butts. We just won. It's a human emotion that's indescribable."
Was it ecstasy? he was asked.
"That's not strong enough," the captain said. "We beat the Russians. We BEAT THE RUSSIANS!"
All the Americans had going for them was some raw talent, youthful ambition, a martinet of a coach who imposed discipline the way it used to be, and a will that wouldn't quit. Somehow, that was enough.
The American Dream was alive, and wearing skates.
All across the land, the jubilant cry went up: "We beat the Russians, we beat the Russians!"
Pilots informed their passengers, and spirits soared to 30,000 feet.
The score came over car radios, and suddenly highways all over America were alive with flashing headlights and blaring horns and people screaming to strangers: "Hey, we beat the Russians. We beat the Russians!"
It was really quite remarkable. After all, sports is not often the blessed sanctuary from real world tribulations that it used to be.
The age of innocence is gone. The traditional, idealistic values that high school coaches used to preach so convincingly have been sacked too often in our "big-time" sports. Ethics have been thrown out stealing. We have sadly grown accustomed to violence, boorishness, bad taste.
Who's on first?Gluttony, Cynicism is the designated hitter. Loyalty became a free agent, and pride wants to renegotiate his contract.
The '60s and '70s knocked our athletic heroes off their pedestals, and the first year of the '80s turned up some new scoundrels and scandals.
The perfect symbol may have been Rosie Ruiz -- say it fast, and it sounds like "Rosie Ruse" -- taking a shortcut to the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and perhaps the subway to the tape of the New York Marathon.
This was the year the Summer Olympics became the ultimate political football, and the Winter Games were so poorly organized that they wound up with a limited state of emergency and a $5 million deficit. Who knows, there may still be frozen souls waiting for a bus in Lake Placid.
It was the year that bantamweight Johnny Owen and several other prize fighters died from injuries suffered in the ring, and two of the greatest pugilists of all time -- Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight champion, and Roberto Duran, only the third to win both lightweight and welterweight crowns -- tarnished their images in sorry multimillion-dollar spectacles.
It was a year of transcript-faking and shameful scandals in college sports . . . of drug busts and dirty laundry in football, baseball, basketball . . . of bad losers and hopelessly spoiled superstars, lawsuits and holdouts, and free spending that one team owner characterized as "economic madness."
It was a year in which an ex-jockey was convicted in the biggest U.S. horse-racing fix scheme of all time . . . baseball players earning an average of $150,000 went on strike during spring training . . . and approximately 50 nations, including the United States, Japan, West Germany, Canada and China, skipped the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest Soviet aggression.
But enough, enough. It is at such times of ennui that we should remember the Olympic hockey team, and what it did at Lake Placid, for this was a throwback to the good old days. This was a team we could admire, even love. And there were other people and events worthy of affection.
Despite manifold problems and frictions, court cases and sordid episodes, the manic overemphasis on winning and the bottom line, there was much that was good and rich, exhilarating and memorable in the sports year 1980.
This was also the year of:
Bjorn Borg, who won his fifth successive Wimbledon title in a masterpiece of a match against John McEnroe, who on this occasion stopped being an enfant terrible and became a man. The four-hour final built to an unbearable pitch of tension, McEnroe saving two match points at 4-5 in the fourth set and five more in the ensuing tie breaker, which merely provided the grandest 22 minutes of concentrated great tennis in the sport's history. McEnroe won the tie breaker, 18-16, but Borg coolly played a near-flawless fifth set to win.
Jack Nicklaus, 40, who played golf like a kid again, ending a frustrating two-year victory drought with magnificent victories in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship at an age when he could truley appreciate them. A birdie-birdie finish enabled him to finally shake Japan's Isao Aoki and win his fourth Open at Baltusrol, where a vast crowd gave him a moving tribute. "I don't know where to start," Nicklaus said, beginning his victory speech. "If you don't mind, I'm just going to stand here and enjoy this." Which is exactly what he did, smiling euphorically out at the mountains of the New Jersey countryside as the cheers and applause swelled. For an encore, he won his fifth PGA championship by seven strokes, the biggest margin ever, for his 19th career major title.
Magic Johnson, 20, the sensational rookie playmaker of the Los Angeles Lakers, who moved to center for the sixth game of the National Basketball Association playoffs to replace injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and scored a career high 42 points in one of the most dazzling individual performances in basketball history. He also had 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a blocked shot, leading the Lakers to a 123-107 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers and their first championship since 1972. And he smiled all the way.
Sugar Ray Leonard, who lost his welterweight championship to Roberto Duran in a 15-round slugfest that was splendid in its primitive, brutish intensity, then regained the title five months later with an artful display of boxing and psychological intimidation that caused "Fists of Stone" Duran to do something no one ever thought he would: quit cold. The rematch left fans at the Superdome and in closed circuit theaters where ticket prices reached $50 a pop feeling ripped off, but Fight 1 at Montreal was the Real Stuff.
Genuine Risk, the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby since 1915, proved to all equine chauvinists that the lady is a champ, even if she was muscled out of the Preakness by a big colt named Codex and barely outrun in the Belmont Stakes by a 53-to-1 longshot named Temperence Hill.
The Philadelphia Phillies, who edged the Montreal Expos in a scintillating National League East race, won the pennant in a madcap extra-innings game after a wild and wonderful five-game playoff series with the Houston Astros, and then whipped the Kansas City Royals to win their first world championship, ending 96 years of frustration and proving that even perennial losers can sometimes win the big one. The Series was good, but the NL playoff was wonderful. When it finished, Tug McGraw, the stalwart reliever ("You gotta believe!) who also was on the mound at the end of the Series, said: "I feel like I've just gone through an art gallery on a motorcycle."
George Brett, an old-time ballplayer, flirted with a .400 season for a tantalizingly long time, rocketing the three-run homer into the third deck that clinched the Kansas City Royals' three-game sweep of the damnable Yankees in the American League playoff series. He finished the season with a .390 batting average, highest in the major leagues in 30 years.
Larry Holmes, unbeaten heavyweight champion and uncommonly decent man, $2 million richer after winning every round of his bout with Muhammad Ali, acknowledged that there was no pleasure in beating this shadow of the old Ali. "When you fight a friend, and when you fight a man you call a brother, you do what you have to do," Holmes said after the legend couldn't answer the bell for the 11th round. "You can't get happiness out of that. I was in a no-win situation. All I got out of it was money."
The Pittsburgh Steelers, flying high again with the aerial circus of Terry Bradshaw to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, won their fourth Super Bowl, 31-19, over the unexpectedly feisty Los Angeles Rams, extending what was beginning to look like an unassailable dynasty. Who would have thought then that 11 months later the Steelers would be a 9-7 team, looking in at the National Football League playoffs from the outside?
Steve Stone, 33, of the Baltimore Orioles, a self-described "baseball hobo" after spending 12 major league seasons with four teams and never winning more than 15 games, earned the American League Cy Young Award with a 25-7 record and 3.23 earned run average.
Evonne Goolagong Cawley and Chris Evert Lloyd, whose rivalry provided some of the most enchanting songs of the '70s in women's tennis, played it again to start the new decade. Goolagong, 28, upset Evert in the final to win Wimbledon for the second time, nine years after the first, and said: "It means much more to me now." Evert, 25, won her fifth U.S. Open title in six years and regained the No. 1 world raking for the year, after a hesitant start and a four-month sabbatical during which practically everyone wrote off her chances of ever dominating her game again.
There were other big winners during the year.
The New York Islanders seized the Stanley Cup for the first time and (in the words of Denis Potvin) "told the media to take that 'choke' label and stuff it." Alabama won its second straight college football national title, this one undisputed. Louisville captured its first NCAA basketball title, scoring nine unanswered points in the last 4 1/2 minutes to beat UCLA. The Cosmos ruled North American Soccer for the third time in four years.
Spain's dashing Severiano Ballesteros became, at 24, the youngest golfer to win the Masters. Amy Alcott won the U.S. Women's Open by a record nine strokes. Tom Watson won his third British Open and six other titles, becoming the first golfer to earn more than a half-million dollars in one season.
Buddy Baker ended 18 years of futility by winning his first Daytona 500. Johnny Rutherford took the Indy 500, Alan Jones the Grand Prix drivers' title.
Borg had his dream of a possible Grand Slam dashed in the U.S. Open final by McEnroe, the first man to successfully defend the U.S. title since Neale Fraser in 1959-60. Spectacular Bid finished his 4-year-old season undefeated, set a new thoroughbred earnings record, then was retired to stud for $22 million. Denis Conner skippered Freedom to a successful defense of the America's Cup.
Grete Waitz set a women's world record at the New York Marathon for the third successive year. Alberto Salazar, running the 26-mile, 385-yard distance for the first time, was the fastest of 14,000 starters in New York, his 2:09.41 the swiftest first-time marathon time ever recorded. Bill Rodgers, winner the previous four years, fell and finished fifth, but he earlier had won his third straight Boston Marathon. Jacqueline Garreau was awarded the women's crown at Boston after Ruiz was disqualified. Mary Decker, track and field's comeback kid at 21, set four world records in two weeks in the springtime of a brilliant year.
Some classy men retired in 1980: Roger Staubach, the NFL's leading passer; former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ Arthur Ashe; the amazing Gordie Howe, after 32 seasons in major league hockey and 1,071 goals in 2,421 games. Dan devine resigned as Notre Dame football coach and will be replaced by Gerry Faust, 174-17-2 at Cincinnati's Moeller High School. b
There were some tragic deaths during the year, too. Louisiana State football coach Bo Rein perished in a bilzarre plane crash while on a recruiting trip. Former Washington Redskin linebacker Harold McLinton was the victim of a hit-and-run driver. Former Kansas City Chief Jim Tyrer shot his wife and himself. Ex-New York Yankee Elston Howard passed away after a long illness, as did Jesse Owens, the black man who foiled Hitler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
This, too, was a year of Olympian performances by Olympians, despite the boycott that diminished the Summer Games.
Eric Heiden shared the spotlight with the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid, winning gold medals at all five distances in speedskating, from the 500-meter spint to the 10,000-meter marathon and becoming the first athlete in Olympic history to strike gold in five individual events.
Annemarie Moser-Proell climaxed a glorious career in Alpine skiing by winning the gold medal in the women's downhill. Incomparable Ingemar Stenmark took the gold in the slalom and giant slalom. Hanni Wenzel lit up Whiteface Mountain after winning the ladies' slalom and giant slalom for tiny Liechtenstein.
Ulrich Wehling won his third consecutive gold medal in the Nordic combined, his East German countryman Meinhard Nehmer won his third straight gold as driver of the victorious four-man bobsled and Nikolai Zinjatov won the 30-and 50-kilometer cross-country ski races and anchored the victorious Soviet 40 kilometer relay team.
Englishman Robin Cousins glided to the men's figure skating gold, Anett Poetzsch edged favored Linda Fratianne in the women's figure skating and the astounding Soviet husband-wife team of Irina Rodnina and Alexandr Zaitsev took the gold medal for pairs after Americans Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had to drop out -- Gardner tore a groin muscle -- in a tearful, heart-wrenching scene.
Eighty-one nations took part in the Summer Olympics at Moscow, which President Carter had declared an unsuitable site for games of peace while the Red Army was in neighboring Afghanistan. The Soviet Union set records for gold medals (80) and total medals (197) that are not likely to be broken unless another Olympiad is boycotted, but the overall standard of competition was higher than expected, considering the illustrious absentees. Thirty-five world records were set in five sports.
No one can assess accurately the impact of the boycott. Lord Killanin of Ireland, retiring president of the International Olympic Committee, must have been close to the truth when he said it "probably hurt the Soviets' pride a little bit, but I don't think it's hurt them politically in any way whatsoever."
Having failed in its efforts to have the games moved from Moscow, postponed or canceled, the Carter Administration pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee not to send a team to the Soviet capital. The games went on, though not nearly as grandiose or global in impact as the Soviets had envisioned. They had their share of controversy, including accusations of judging irregularities in favor of the home athletes in track and field.
There were some golden performances. Alexander Dityatin became the first man to win eight medals in one Olympics, taking four golds in gymnastics, including the all-around. Yelena Davydova of the Soviet Union was the shocking all-around gold medalist in an acrimonious women's gymnastics competition. Vladimir Salnikov broke the 15-minute barrier for the grueling 1,500-meter freestyle swim, and East Germany dominated women's swimming again with another riptide of world records.
Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz shattered the world record in a marvelous pole vault competition, Gerd Wessig set a world mark in the high jump and Lutz Dombrowski became the first man to long jump 28 feet at sea level. Ageless Miruts Yifter won the gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs, and Waldemar Cierpinski repeated as the champion of the Olympic marathon.
In the two most closely-watched footraces of the games, silent and sullen Englishman Steve Ovett won the 800 meters over his extroverted countryman Sebastian Coe, then finished third as Coe redeemed himself by winning the 1,500 meters. Ovett, who set the world record in for the mile in July, broke Coe's mark for the 1,500 later in the summer.
Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba won his third consecutive Olympic heavyweight boxing championship, but he was not nearly as impressive this time as the winners in other sports. Many athletes gave superlative performances that were all but ignored in the United States.
Americans, originally scheduled to view 150 hours of the Moscow Games on television, paid little attention because no Americans were participating and television coverage was minimal. One got the impression that had Kozakiewicz pole vaulted over the moon, Americans wouldn't have batted an eye.
It may not have seemed like an Olympic year, but to find the thread of the sports year 1980 we must go back to February, to Lake Placid.
The 13th Winter Games had more than their share of troubles, too. There was a long-running court case over Taiwan's status, outrageous foulups in transportation and shortcomings in accommodations. Spectators froze and were gouged by merchants. The heralded "Olympics in Perspective" didn't work, organizationally or financially. Lake Placid, a village of 2,300 inhabitants, was too small.
But the competitions themselves went without a hitch, and were superb. They produced worthy champions. The world watched on television, entranced.
And for hero-starved Americans, along came this hockey team to adore.
A bunch of kids nobody had heard of a week before beat the Soviet Union, and it was like V-J Day. When they beat Finland, 4-2, to clinch the gold medal, the whole country celebrated with them.
We didn't yet know how many perplexing stories 1980 would bring to the sports page. For the moment, all we could see was the hockey team.
We saw Jim Craig, the goaltender who played every minute of every game, who stopped 36 of 39 shots by the Soviets, praising his back-up, Steve Janaszak, for making him a better netminder. "Can I say this? I love him," Craig murmured softly. "Yeh. I can say that."
Janaszak wept. So did we.
It was Craig who gave the television audience its most lasting tableau. At the end, oblivious to the American flag someone had draped over his shoulders and to the bedlam around him, he scanned the stands like a man trying to peer through a blizzard, unmistakably mouthing the words "Where's my father?"
Wordsworth wrote that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of feelings." If so, then surely there was something poetic about the way a nation embraced this hockey team. These 20 young men -- to whom their coach had said, "You are born to be a player, you are meant to be here at this moment" -- became important to us.
And Emily Dickinson could have been writing about that team when she penned the verse:
"The short -- potential stir --
That each can make but once -- That Bustle so illustrious 'Tis almost Consequence."
For Americans, the Olympic hockey gold medalists were the most consequential of all athletes in 1980. In a year that had more than its share of sham and scandal and disillusionment, they rewarded the sentimental and the stout of heart, and reminded us of the best and purest that sport can be.