On the 40th anniversary of their shocking victory over the Soviet Union in one of the greatest upsets in sports history, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team was back in the spotlight this weekend — but in the eyes of some observers, it was more for political than patriotic reasons.
Members of the gold medal-winning “Miracle on Ice” squad, including team captain Mike Eruzione, appeared on stage at a Las Vegas rally Friday night for President Donald Trump wearing red hats emblazoned with Trump’s “Keep America Great” slogan.
The first time I ever heard the moronic “USA USA USA” chant was in 1980.
All through the 1970s, the American media had presented the Soviet Olympic hockey team as an unbeatable team of supermen, a gang of Ivan Dragos on ice. What’s more, very few of the best NHL players back then were Americans. Most were Canadians. I used to be a big fan of New York Rangers center Phil Esposito. The fact that he had a name that sounded like any New Jersey Italian only added to the appeal. We didn’t have the Internet back then. You couldn’t just Google. So when my uncle remarked that Esposito wasn’t from New Jersey and that he wasn’t even an American I refused to believe it. “No way Uncle Charlie. I go to school with 5 or 6 guys named Esposito. He’s got to be from New Jersey.” Later, in the small bookstore they used to have at the Two Guys department store on Route 22 in Union, when I looked up Esposito’s name in The Encyclopedia of Hockey, I realized the horrible truth. He was Canadian, born in some place I couldn’t even pronounce, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
You can imagine my joy, therefore, When I turned 15, and the American hockey team made its run for the gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Neal Broten, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Mark Pavelich, none of them were Russians or dirty Canadians. Each and every one of them was a one hundred percent, red, white and blue American from the Midwest, a place I had never been to but was convinced was more truly American than New Jersey. When they beat the Russians, it felt like we had won the Cold War. While the “USA USA USA” chant had been ubiquitous in the media, I had refrained from joining in myself, but when NHL great Ken Dryden — alas another Canadian — started his famous count down in the last few seconds of the final game, I couldn’t help myself. “USA USA USA,” I shouted, “USA USA USA.” My father, who was zonked out on the couch in the next room, was having none of it, former United States Marine though he was. “Shut the hell up,” he shouted. “I’m trying to sleep.”
I even brought my patriotic fervor to school. To understand what that meant, you have to understand that I went to an urban high school just outside of Newark, New Jersey where being a leftist was not only socially acceptable. Thirteen years after the Newark Riot and five years after the last American helicopter took off from that roof in Saigon, it was almost socially required. Millennials, you cannot imagine what the world was like before 9/11. In spite of the fact that Ronald Reagan had just been elected President, most people hated the United States military. In fact, Reagan was never quite as popular as the corporate media would have you believe. He won mostly because of the incompetence of the increasingly neoliberal Democrats. Remember when Walter Mondale promised to raise taxes during his run for the Presidency? You don’t but I do. In any event, I sometimes have trouble understanding all of the outrage over Colin Kaepernick. In my high school, nobody was required to say the Pledge of Allegiance. They simply read it over the loudspeaker during homeroom and you could stand if you wanted. Nobody did. In fact, standing for the Flag Salute was considered the mark of an asskissing stooge, and doing it put you at the risk of having your ass kicked in the parking lot. But that February I didn’t care. I not only stood for the flag salute, when it was all over I kept standing.
“USA USA USA,” I chanted. “USA USA USA.”
“Oh sit the fuck down you dumb Polack,” one of my classmates said. “You’re being a fucking retard.”
“Fuck you,” I shouted back. “USA USA USA. And nuke the fucking Iranians.”
At that moment, our homeroom teacher — I forget his name but I do remember he was friends with the guy who wrote the novel The Exorcist — told us both to take our seats.
“Mr. Holmes,” he said to my antagonist. “Ethnic slurs and profanity will not be tolerated in my homeroom. And Mr. Rogouski,” he added, “neither will calls for genocide.”
“Genocide” I said. “What’s that?”
I sometimes wonder what I would have been like if Carter had won in 1980 and the United States had not gone down such a right wing path. I wasn’t really a super patriot back then. In fact, the next year I became an atheist after I finally saw Life of Brian by Monty Python on cable TV. I had been too young to see it in the theater. The ticket clerks, mostly older high school kids, had insisted on seeing my driver’s license to prove I was 18 and old enough to go unaccompanied into an R rated movie. They wouldn’t give me a break. Monty Python, not Karl Marx, turned me into a leftist. In any event, I wasn’t a genuine super patriot when I was 15. I had simply gotten it into my head that everybody else in the world was a dirty Vietcong worshipping hippie who hated their country and didn’t care that the Iranians were humiliating us each and every day. Being a super patriot was a way to be a rebel. Being a pot smoking leftist who listened to too much heavy metal would have meant being a miserable conformist. The American Olympic Hockey team of 1980 wasn’t the “dream team” that dominated the basketball court 12 years later. They were underdogs who seemingly had no chance of winning.
Now it’s the opposite. In spite of the rise of Bernie Sanders, we still have a racist, right-wing President and every white man in New Jersey over the age of 40 seems like some sort of Republican or “libertarian.” At best, they’re “economically conservative and socially liberal.” And the American hockey team of 1980? To nobody’s surprise they’re attending Trump rallies. Too bad they’re not Canadians. At least they’d have better healthcare.