Normally I don’t wake up on weekends until it’s absolutely necessary. But this Saturday, I broke my personal rule and got out of bed at 7:00 a.m. The Olympic showdown between the American and Russian men’s hockey teams was simply too good to pass on.
And the game certainly did not disappoint. American goalie Jonathan Quick and his Russian counterpart Sergei Bobrovsky made some of the most spectacular saves of the tournament so far. Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk, likely playing in his last Olympics, scored two goals to send the game into overtime.
After a 65-minute stalemate, the game came down to a nerve-wrecking shootout. T.J. Oshie, selected for Team U.S.A. partially for his shootout skills, finally took down Bobrovsky after seven rounds to give America a 3–2 victory.
Even though this game will go down as one of the greatest ever played in Olympic hockey history, the intensity of the game far exceeded the importance of the match. The arena was filled with chants of “Rossiya, Rossiya” — the Russian equivalent of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Players on both teams sacrificed their bodies to block shots fired at nearly 100 miles per hour. While victory was sweet for the Americans, it did not substantially affect their standings for the playoff round.
The real reason behind the ferocity displayed by both teams is the rivalry between the U.S. and Russia dating back to the Cold War. Some of the most memorable games in Olympic history took place between the Americans and the Soviets.
In 1980, a U.S. team filled with amateur and collegiate players took down a Soviet powerhouse at Lake Placid en route to a gold medal. The game became forever known as the Miracle on Ice and is still fondly remembered among hockey fans. Its lasting place in our memory is in part due to the fact that the game represented an American victory against Soviet hegemony during the Cold War.
Whenever the United States and Russia face off against each other in an international sports competition, the game takes on more than just athletic significance. The winner receives a hero’s welcome back home, while the loser sometimes struggles to find some deeper reason behind its loss.
Take the Russians after Saturday’s game, for example. With a few minutes left in regulation, the Russians seemingly scored a goal against Quick, which would have given Russia the lead. But after referees reviewed the tape, they decided that Quick accidentally dislodged the net and waved off the goal.
After the shootout loss, Russian fans and media quickly began to circulate conspiracy theories regarding the discounted goal. Some believed that the referees were crooked. Others speculated that Quick cheated by intentionally dislodging the net. All of them wanted to believe that there were reasons behind the heartbreaking loss besides just sheer luck and ability.
But it’s hard to imagine the same kind of postgame ruckus had the U.S. taken down, say, Canada. There is more than athletic glory or bragging rights at stake when historical rivals — once bitter enemies — like the United States and Russia compete internationally. The winner gets to show that its political, economic and cultural systems are able to produce superior athletes. A victory is an affirmation of the winner’s way of life.
This is why treating the Olympics, or any major international athletic event, as non-political is akin to burying your head in the sand. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Olympics have had a long history of political connotations.
In 1936, Jesse Owens traveled to Berlin and shattered Hitler’s image of Aryan racial supremacy, denting the pride of the Nazi state. Ironically, despite his heroics overseas, Owens was still treated as a second-class citizen after coming back to the United States. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists atop the medal podium in support of the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1972, Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and eventually killed 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. From 1964 until 1992, South Africa was barred from the Olympics for its apartheid regime. Numerous countries during the Cold War have boycotted the Olympics for political reasons.
More often than not, the Olympics have a strong political undertone. Ignoring it and pretending that these events are non-political only bury conversations that we need to have. Despite all the unease with issues like corruption and human rights abuses in Russia, after the opening ceremony, all the concerns have seemingly disappeared from the purview of the media. The international spotlight that exposed wrongdoings in Russia has all but been extinguished for the sake of entertainment.
The Olympics have rarely been without some form of political controversy. Of course, politics should not dominate over athletes’ performances in their arenas. But instead of hiding behind a veil of feigned politeness, maybe it’s time to stop avoiding the difficult conversations during the Olympics.