Kevin Smith stood in his high-school gym wondering where all the guys were.
It was the Olmsted Fall High School dance in Akron, Ohio, a week after Valentine’s Day. The 18-year-old senior came alone and couldn’t help but notice that the odds of dancing with a girl had increased with the decreasing number of boys in attendance. So he thought, “Do I take advantage of the improved odds, or do I find out where the guys are?” He turned and locked eyes with one of the girls at the dance before walking away to find his classmates.
The search didn’t take long. He found them huddled around a television set with one of the janitors in a classroom across the hall. They had left to watch a hockey game. A glimpse of the screen revealed men dressed in red uniforms with CCCP in white lettering across their chests, competing against others in red, white and blue.
It was early in the third period when Smith walked in. More students followed him, to the point that the dance almost emptied. They were all in this room watching, waiting for a winning shot—a shot that would determine the final outcome of the game.
Smith knew little about hockey, but he knew this wasn’t just any game. The dance was the same night as the U.S. vs. Soviet Union men’s hockey game at the Lake Placid 1980 Winter Olympic Games. But the match was bigger than the Olympics. It was a competition between two world powers that had been rivals for the last 40 years. A win would symbolize the strength of a nation and provide comfort to its people.
The atmosphere in the room was tense. With 10 minutes left in the third period, U.S. player Mike Eruzione scored the winning shot that sealed the final score to 4-3. The room broke out in a roar of cheers and cries at the American victory. It was more than pride that overwhelmed them. It was a feeling that everything was going to be OK. It wasn’t the gold-medal game, but it was the one that mattered.
The U.S. win over the U.S.S.R. was dubbed the Miracle on Ice because it was considered the classic underdog story: the amateur American athletes beating the professional Soviet Union players.
The game had been a vignette to the bigger tension that had been manifesting between the two nations throughout the Cold War. It took place during a time when the general perception was that the United States and the Soviet Union would always be at war.
As A.W. DePorte wrote in his textbook, “Europe between the Superpowers,” published in 1979 and 1986, “The Cold War has been going on for 40 years and will go on for another 40 years.”
Three years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and there was no third edition to that book, said Smith, now chairperson of the department of history and associate professor at Ball State University. However, the book captured the sensation of a never-ending war.
“We’d been through so much,” said Smith— the Vietnam War, a massive recession, tripling gas prices.
“Those were tough years [and] that game said to us, symbolically, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to bounce back.
“That’s silly to put all that on a hockey game.”
Today that game doesn’t hold the same significance. In a Pew Research survey, 37 percent of Americans had a favorable view towards Russia in 2013. For Americans ages 18-29, that view is 49 percent, compared to 29 percent of Americans 50 and over.
The shift in views was influenced by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The imminent threat of a nuclear attack that troubled Americans 20 years ago is gone.
“We just don’t pay that much attention to Russia,” said Dina Spechler, associate professor of political science at Indiana State University. “It’s not the center of our radar screen. We’re worried about other threats.
“If we do, it’s because the Russians are at odds with us in regards to how to solve other world problems [Iranian nuclear weapons or ending the conflict in Syria]. It’s not because we are focused on them per se, but we are eager to try and convince them to cooperate with American efforts.”
Smith says that there is frustration amongst Americans with the Russian government today, but the disagreements between the nations are natural.
“It’s going to sound like a strange answer, but it’s more normal,” said Smith. “It is normal for nations to disagree. It is normal for nations to say, ‘Based on our perceptions of our national interest, this is what our policy is.’”
“It reached a point [during the Cold War] where, if Russia passed a resolution in favor of fatherhood in the United Nations, we would be obliged to suggest a resolution in favor of motherhood,” said Smith. “Just simply because we have to take the opposite side.”
That isn’t the case today.
“We disagree on some things, [but] the things we agree on don’t get much attention because that’s not news, but it’s normal.”
Issues like drug and human trafficking are common interests that the two countries share today, said Spechler.
Smith said rivalry during the Olympic Games is more patriotic today than ideological.
“It’s a sense of you have to win for your home country”—rather than a political competition.
BSU at the Games is a freelance news agency operated by 22 student journalists reporting from the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games through an immersive-learning program at Ball State University.