So, the puck just dropped on the Gold Medal game. Guess I’m rooting for Canada. They’re a colony of America and have the Queen on their currency…how can you not want them to excel in the one thing that gives them their own identity? I read somewhere that 70% of the country watched the semi-final…how adorable is that? Plus, hasn’t Michael J. Fox suffered enough?
I’m not a hockey fan, but I can understand why this is a huge game. However, there’s one thing it isn’t…any sort of redux of the Miracle on Ice. This is a slightly underrated group of NHL players playing a slightly overhyped group of NHL players, not some epic battle of geopolitical doppelgangers. Given that most of the American players probably grew up in states that border Canada, the teams are differentiated more by the randomness of birth than any cultural difference. Have you been to Minnesota? It’s fucking Canada. A win by the U.S. would be drained of any enjoyment by cable and the internet by tomorrow, and be forgotten by Friday. There won’t be any Kurt Russell movie made about it in 25 years. It won’t do any more for hockey in the U.S. than the death of Bill Wirtz, which caused a big market and hockey town to get back into the Blackhawks. U.S. hockey seems to be on the upswing, but given that the only people who play it are those in the far north who actually have frozen lakes, and rich kids who can afford the ice time, there’s a natural ceiling to how far it can go on a national level. The best thing that could come out of it is saving NHL owners from themselves, the hype keeping them from pulling their players from the Olympics to save two weeks of a meaningless regular season (this isn’t an anti-hockey thing…I think baseball owners are stupid for erasing the sport from the Olympics by not letting their players play…it’s a worldwide audience made up of non-sports fans and kids for christ’s sake…I’d argue the same thing for basketball if there was a conflict…come to think of it, why isn’t basketball a Winter Olympic sport…it’s an indoor sport played in the winter…why are the Winter Olympics only for ice and snow?)
But that hasn’t stopped Bob Costas and Matt Lauer and Al Michaels (jesus, especially Al Michaels) from drawing comparisons to the events of 30 years ago, when a scrappy band of plucky kids, taken from the small towns of northern America, defeated a scary group of monstrous professionals, created in a state-run factory somewhere in Siberia. I’m too young to remember the 1980 Semi-Final game that caused 1,000 sportswriter orgasms (god, how I love things I’m too young to remember). I’m not demeaning it as an awesome game…I’m sure it was thrilling and it obviously was memorable. It has everything you want in a big sporting event…striking images, great announcing, excited crowd, the underdog winning. Also, I understand that the U.S.S.R. was our biggest geopolitical rival, and we were coming out of a pretty tense couple of decades. But, we were also well into detante, and would later that year elect a president who would love to call out Russia like a movie cowboy. You don’t do that if there’s any real chance of a war.
But that’s not why we remember it 30 years on…it’s because it reflects a central American myth perfectly. The myth that America is hard-working and honest, that only gritty bootstrap pulling keeps us in the game with the big boys. That our success comes from ingenuity and Manifest Destiny, and while we might make things harder on ourselves than those countries that don’t value individuals, our victories are sweeter because they’re a triumph of the human spirit. Those Russians were bred for hockey and sneakily paid by the government under the table. The Americans played by the rules, disadvantages be damned, and were David slaying Goliath.
There may be a ring of truth to some of this. But the Americans had won the silver in 1972, and were the last team to win the gold other than the U.S.S.R. in 1960. It’s not like they were a group of coalminers who found some sticks on a lake and decided to make a go of it. Fine, they were amateurs…but they also got training on teams in a state-funded school system and were filtered through a national Organizing Committee. And, besides, the U.S. was so committed to amateurism that we led the drive to have it erased from the Olympics. I’ve always wondered what Russians would say about the game…hopefully they bitch about it with the same whiny fervor as the members of the ’72 U.S. basketball team, who classily refused to accept their silver medals (there was a good HBO documentary about this last year…they got screwed, but mostly by an incompetent ref they couldn’t communicate with because of language reasons, and not nearly as badly as they make out…besides if you leave it close enough to have it come down to a last second shot…)
On some level, it’s fine…every country has myths about themselves, and we obviously enjoy this one (see: Rocky IV). But this particular legend is not doing America any favors. All the problems we see in politics, in business, in society…on some level, it can be traced back to this mythology. There is a large amount of cognitive dissonance between the way America sees itself, and the the way we truly are. I’ve always wanted to conduct a study…to go up to random strangers on a street in the U.S. and ask them the top three countries in terms of land and population. I think a surprisingly large number wouldn’t list the U.S. in either category…in truth, we’re the only one on both lists. America likes to think of itself as a start-up, leading the world on the strength of our ideas…the rest of the world sees us as a huge corporation, leading the world through the strength of our market share and predatory business practices. This is a huge problem…it’s why American citizens get so upset when other countries criticize or protest against us. It’s as if Bill Gates had a breakdown and thought he was Steve Jobs…he wouldn’t understand why everybody hated him. Whereas, I’m guessing that as Bill Gates, he could give a fuck…or at least doesn’t lose any sleep over it.
Until the U.S. starts to realize who we are, why we are who we are, and how that effects our actions and the perception of our actions, we’ll continue to be fucked. We’ll have racist Tea Partiers gaining power, a Congress so divided that nothing can be done, a citizenry that will consistently answer positively to questions that are completely contradictory. And we’ll continue to treat the other people of the world like they work for us. I mean, the Russians in 1980 were kids that grew up playing hockey, too. Drago was just a gawky tall prodigy when he was singled out by the U.S.S.R. government. We don’t own the monopoly on pluckiness, and all of victories aren’t moral lessons from god.