By In Joe Vault

Kissing Sophia Loren

My friend Jon Hock has a relatively new documentary out, Of Miracles and Men, which looks at what we call the “Miracle on Ice” — the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey victory — through the eyes of the Soviet Union. It is a fantastic piece of work, I think, filled with all sorts of wonderful insights and moments. One of the coolest and most important things that we can do as writers and journalists and storytellers and documentarians and filmmakers and whatever else we call ourselves is try to see the world from an angle, a viewpoint, a perspective the audience has never fully considered. I think it’s stuff like this, when done right, that can bring the world a little bit closer together.*

*It can also spark a lot of Twitter rage, but that’s a topic for another time.

For instance, almost in passing, the documentary shows Bobby Clarke’s famous slashing of Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series putting the Soviet Red Army against Canada’s best player. Now I’ve always had just one perspective on that slash, and it comes from a friend, a big hockey fan, who often refers to it as one of his favorite ever hockey moments. From his viewpoint, Clarke’s slash — which broke Kharlamov’s ankle and was apparently ordered by assistant coach John Ferguson — was something close to heroic. The Soviets were on the verge of winning the series, they were embarrassing the Canadians in their own sport, something had to be done. Bobby Clarke did it. He knocked Kharlamov out of the series, and Canada came back to win. “Hockey’s a rough game,” my friend likes to say. “And Bobby Clarke did what had to be done.”

The doc shows the slash, instead, through the eyes of the Soviet players. The way they saw it was like this: The Soviet Union was playing a new kind of hockey, a beautiful brand hockey, one of passes and angles and teamwork, a huge contrast in style from the rough-and-tumble, drop-the-gloves game the Canadians played. The irony of this contrast is rich, of course. It was the Soviet Union that had a reputation of steel and tanks, and Canada with a reputation as the nicest country on earth. But seeing Clark purposely crack Kharlamov’s ankle, seeing the way the Canadian’s bullied and punched, seeing the gorgeous passing of the Soviets … well, let’s just say you can almost hear a tender hurt  in the voice of Kharlamov’s great friend and teammate Boris Mikhailov when he says, “Yes, Kharlamov plays better than you, but why injure him? Why hurt a person so brutally?

There’s another quote I love even more, this one specific to the Miracle on Ice game. I have this theory that the Miracle on Ice will always be the singular sports moment in American history. They will be doing “Best sports moments” holograms on ESPN 495 in a century, and the Miracle on Ice will remain the top story. Why? I have three reasons:

1. Because it was felt the same way all over America.

— The biggest American sports story simply has to be something that happens internationally — the Olympics, World Cup, Davis Cup, Ryder Cup. I guess this is obvious. The 1969 Mets were a fantastic story but a lot of people despise the Mets (many of them Mets fans). Baltimore fans will never see that as a great story. Also, non baseball fans didn’t care all that much. But the U.S. hockey team wasn’t about hockey. It wasn’t about regional alliances. No American was rooting for the Soviets. Everyone cared in the same way.

2. Because there was a clear and present enemy.

— As the world becomes smaller and smaller, more and more complicated and disjointed, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will ever again have an enemy quite like Cold War Soviet Union. We were enemies, but there was no war. We stood for different things, but there was little understanding between us. We competed in space. There was a constant and scary “the world can end” threat at all times, but there was always the hope that cooler heads would prevail. The 1980 Olympics happened just as the Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan, just as the U.S. was threatening to boycott the Moscow Olympics. Plainly it was the United States against the Soviet Union, and it will never be as clear as that again.

3. Because America felt kind of lousy about itself.

— It’s hard to explain this one to my kids … I was 13 years old in 1980. I don’t remember Vietnam or Watergate or the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in specific or even non-specific ways. But they are in the background of everything I remember. The gas lines — I do remember those, remember when you could only buy gas on certain days based on the numbers on your license plate. The Iranian hostages — I remember the feeling vividly of the nightly news and the countdown for how long they had been gone. I remember Jimmy Carter telling people to turn down their heaters in winter to help out. I don’t recall much patriotic fervor in those days, don’t remember anyone on our street having American flags outside their houses, don’t recall much optimism about America then outside of the song “Tie A Yellow Ribbon.”

So people invested intense emotions into that U.S. hockey team, much in the same way the people invested intense emotions into crackpot chess genius Bobby Fischer when he won the world championship from Boris Spassky, much in the same way that people invested (and still invest) intense emotions into Ronald Reagan when he talked about morning in America. It seems unlikely to me that we’ll ever have the perfect blend of hunger and triumph that came together at the 1980 Olympics.

All of us who are old enough to remember have strong feelings about the Miracle on Ice. Jon Hock looked at it from the other side. Most of the movie is spoken in Russian. He interviewed former players, the daughter of Soviet hockey godfather Anatoli Tarasov (one of the more fascinating figures in sports history) and several journalists, including an interesting and funny Soviet sportswriter named Seva Kulushkin. Jon asked him what his game story looked like the day after the Miracle. Kulushkin seemed confused by the question. What was in it? Game details. It was a short story. The United States had won. When asked if he had included all of the drama (it was, beyond the significance, an amazing game), Kulushkin asked, “What is the drama?” And then he said this:

“Once a crazy kid kissed Sophia Loren. And he’s telling for the rest of his life, ‘Oh, I kissed Sophia Loren.'”

Dramatic pause.

“Ask Sophia Loren if she remembers.”

Another dramatic pause.

“Different point of view.”

I love everything about this quote. I love the imagery of it, of course. I love the small but visible bitterness that still lingers in it. I love the unintentional way that he reveals how painful that loss was.

Mostly, I love how it fulfills what we used to call the “cold water” theory. We came up with the “cold water theory” to talk about sportswriting, but really it is pretty universal. Let’s say you have a two-newspaper town — there used to be a bunch of those in America — and one newspaper breaks a major story. It was then the automatic response of the other newspaper to throw cold water on the story.

So say the Cleveland Press (the old afternoon paper in Cleveland) broke a story saying that the Browns were going to fire their coach. The Plain Dealer would have no choice the next day but to run a major story quoting four people denying the Press story, saying there’s no basis at all. It wouldn’t hurt if one of those sources would say something like, “Unfortunately, there are some irresponsible sportswriters out there …” Cold water.

The Press would then have to run a story throwing cold water ON THE cold water story. Maybe something quoting their source reiterating that the coach would be fired and some anonymous source saying, “People will keep denying this but everyone knows it’s about to happen.”

And the Plain Dealer comes back … and so on. Cold Water. If you think about it, this is true in just about every debate, every argument, every loss. We are cold-water throwers, all of us.

The Sophia Loren story is the greatest cold-water throwing I’ve ever seen. It’s utterly beautiful and brilliant. The Miracle on Ice was our seminal sports moment, the closest thing to Greek myth that we have. And he compares the U.S. to a kid kissing Sophia Loren. It’s beautiful. And it’s probably true too. The U.S. did kiss Sophia Loren. Only thing is: She remembers. She definitely remembers.

40 Responses to Kissing Sophia Loren

  1. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    I won’t be around, but it would be interesting to find out whether this game still means anything in 50 years. My grandfather used to talk about Louis-Schmelling II the same way we talk about 1980. It was Uncle Sam against Hitler, and all of America was glued to the radio praying for the Brown Bomber.

    Ask anyone under 30 how much the fight means today.

    • We don’t talk about Louis-Schemlling now because we have the Miracle on Ice. Maybe the next time we have a nation uniting win – but we need another case of an American squad being a clear underdog against a national rival. I don’t think beating the Chinese in badminton is going to cut it…

      • dalstrs7 says:

        I think the most likely scenario is us winning in soccer in the future. Like winning the 2022 World Cup against England after they get to the final for the first time since the 60’s.

        • Daniel says:

          I think you’re right about the sport. Soccer is the one sport where the US will always be an underdog until they win a World Cup. But even then, though, it would have to be against an enemy. China or Russia or Cuba would have to become an international soccer power. That, or some soccer power would have to piss off America, like if Argentina threatened to conquer Hawaii or something. Then, if the US soccer team beat that country, we’d have our moment.

          • MikeN says:

            The US is an underdog, but not like before. There was one World Cup where the US went in with a ranking of 5 according to FIFA. They then went and beat one of the favorites Portugal in the next World Cup. The US is now in the 10-15 stage, not a favorite, but considered more likely than not to advance.

  2. BobDD says:

    The kid who kissed the lifeguard in “The Sandlot” could never dream higher than Sophia Loren.

  3. Anon says:

    Also saw the special and highly recommend it – fantastic piece and very compelling.

    BTW, point #2 is why I don’t think the James Bond movies were ever quite the same after the 70’s, Some of the recent ones have been pretty good but none of them quite live up to the Connery glory days.

  4. chlsmith says:

    The 30 for 30 specials are all very very good. I think sports documentaries are always the best. I’ve watched many others, like Morgan Spurlock’s schtick or ones about the “evil” food industry. Whatever. Sports documentaries seem to go where the others just don’t. They take something that is truly insignificant to the world and turn it into something bigger than life. Whether it’s the 80’s Miami football teams, crazy stuff about Tyson’s life, or even in a few years when we have shows about Jeter’s baseball teams, they will all ring true for some reason. The Miracle on Ice is really no different, but I doubt you can find a sports fan in the US who can’t hear the call of it from the replays. To see it from the other side is just BRILLIANT!!!

  5. Brad says:

    As usual Joe, great column on a fascinating topic. I watched this the other night and afterwards I went back and watched my copy of “Miracle” with Kurt Russell. Just an amazing moment in our history, and what became the beginning of a moment in Soviet history.

  6. In a way, sports have never been bigger. Yet in another way, they’ll never be as big as they were. Miracle, Ali-Frazier, etc. To elevate sports, it takes circumstances beyond sports that you just don’t see right now.

  7. Kuz says:

    I wonder what ISIS’ best team sport is.

  8. andrew says:

    After watching this, I somehow thought of the Jimmy Breslin column he wrote about the man digging JFK’s grave. It reminds me that there exists another side of the story.

  9. daley says:

    Well now I gotta ask: are there any documentaries out there about the 1972 Soviet Olympic Basketball team?

    • EnzoHernandez11 says:

      Daley, I was thinking the same thing. However improbable the “Miracle on Ice” was, the Soviets’ 1972 basketball win was off the charts. The U.S. hockey team had, at least, won the Olympics before (in 1960, the previous time they had home ice advantage). But U.S. basketball had not only dominated the Olympics, they were (I believe) undefeated dating back to 1936.

      The outcome was controversial, of course, but I always wondered if the Russians remember ’72 basketball the way Americans remember Lake Placid.

  10. Alejo says:

    I just heard your latest podcast, where you discuss fears.

    I am Venezuelan. Venezuela, for Americans who don’t know much about anything outside their home state, is in South America.

    So, listening to this guy describing his biggest fear, a global disaster…yadda, yadda… And how would that play out: “The whole of South America becomes uninhabitable and there is mass migration here”!

    IS THAT YOUR BIGGEST FEAR? IMMIGRATION FROM SOUTH AMERICA? REALLY? Not the end of the world but hungry, fearful foreigners disturbing your comfort zone?

    Ok, I don’t know if you read the comments, don’t care, but let me tell you, these kind of loud voice musings are the very reason the rest of the world dislikes your country and usually think of Americans as ignorant boors.

    Believe you me (check the numbers) the US are one of the worst places to grow up, live, fall sick and die. One of the most unequal and violent countries in the industrial world.

    Your economy relies on talented foreigners because you have abandoned your own school system, your history is that of waves of migrants disembarking and making do, and still you find space in your brain to fear migration.

    My biggest fear is that people like you may come to power in any country, let alone one with so many nukes.

    • DB says:

      Lighten up Francis. US has a population of approximately 320 Million. South America has a population of approximately 390M. Yeah. I think that would cause problems. He did not say that he was afraid of migration but mass migration. I would be happy to have Michael and/or Joe in position of power here in the US. Definitely could be worse, like Maduro.

      • Alejo says:

        Yeah, a sports journalist and a screenplay writer. Who would be prez and who VP?

        After all, you did have Reagan and almost had Palin.

    • Ed says:

      You misinterpreted what he was saying.

      I understand why that would make you upset, but that’s definitely not what Michael Schur meant. It wasn’t “Oh no, people from somewhere else might come here!!!”

    • preterosso says:

      “Venezuela, for Americans who don’t know much except what they get from the mainstream media, was run until recently by a megalomanic dictator.”

      Fixed it for you: so nice to know that closed-minded xenophobia exists outside our borders, as well.

      • Alejo says:

        Who is here defending megalomaniac dictators?

        Read the post mate.

        • MikeN says:

          I would fear a large migration of people who elected a guy like Chavez, multiple times.

          • Ed says:

            Half of the US would say the same thing about a large migration of people willing to elect George W. Bush twice. And the other half would say that about people electing Barack Obama twice.

          • Alejo says:

            I understand your fear, after all you do have a population who voted Nixon, elected W twice and now is looking forward to put another Bush in the White House.


    • mrpinkfloyd71 says:

      Please do not judge all Venezuelans as somebody as dumb as Alejo. I am too a Venezuelan and could not disagree more more with what he is saying.

      It is kind of an international cliche to say that Americans are dumb, that they know nothing outside their country, and blah, blah. Then comes this guy stating incredibly dumb and misinformed stuff, proving that at worst Americans aren’t alone…

      I’m trying to figure out what drove Alejo to go on this rant, and came up with envy: The world envies how happy people seem in the US. Maybe it’s because they think nobody should be happy as long as there is suffering in the world, others are just jealous and resent their own luck.

      But whatever the case is for you Alejo, let me tell you from one countryman to another: you came up very bad to this audience, and whatever you intended to accomplish, well, you certainly did not.

      And finally, I am extremely embarrassed for what Venezuela has become. Being the country that elected as presidents a mediocre soldier and a bus driver is a horrible thing to acknowledge.

      P.S.: Reagan was a great man and the world is very lucky he decided to run for office, and as for Palin, she at the very least would’ve been better than Biden.

      P.S. 2: I live in the US but did not vote for Chavez or Maduro. So nothing to fear about me.

      • Alejo says:

        Hola Mr Pinkfloyd,

        No envidio a los Estados Unidos, ni a la gente que vive allí, lo contrario, me dan un poquito de lastima. Una nación donde un porcentaje significativo de la población cree que la tierra es plana, que la evolución es una mentira y que reniega de la ciencia tiene un futuro gris.

        Por cierto, vivo en Escandinavia, donde llevo una existencia bastante feliz. Por ejemplo, nadie me exige abrazar un nacionalismo obtuso como el que tu abrazas, probablemente empujado por la necesidad de asimilarte como sea.

        Yo no tengo necesidad de agradar a ningún publico. Yo soy yo y tengo mis propias opiniones. Un tipo al que le preguntan por su mayor temor, y contesta “inmigrantes suramericanos” es un xenofobo. Punto.

        Reagan fue un gran hombre… quizá, tambien cometió graves errores, como su política de desregulación bancaria que acabo en la peor crisis desde 1930.

        Por otro lado, si tu crees que alguien como Palin es “mejor” (better) que cualquier otra persona, déjame decirte, eres igual que los chavistas que creen que Maduro es “mejor”.

        En la política norteamericana no hay nadie mas parecido a Nicolas Maduro que Sarah Palin: una persona sin preparación, librando una pelea constante contra su propio idioma, apoyada por nacionalistas que se sienten incómodos en el siglo XXI.

        Pero alla tu, chaval, si te crees superior, todo pendejo tiene derecho a creer que no lo es.

        • mrpinkfloyd71 says:

          So let me get this straight, you think that half of this country (the conservative half) believes that the earth is flat and does not believe in evolution, is that what you are saying?

          The really funny thing is that you are accusing Americans of ignorant, when you are being one yourself. Your generalization of American Conservatives is quite off. I beg you, do yourself a favor and stop it.

          I take that you’ve been visiting this website for a while and you should have realized that the level of decency shown by the readers is pretty high. You are one of the very few that has come and insulted people, and that is pretty embarrassing. Again, please stop.

  11. LoSonnambulo says:

    Isn’t there some story when Sophia Loren actually did this: someone asked her why Sinatra wasn’t in her (earlier) memoir, and she said she only included the important relationships?

  12. Mark says:

    Preterosso, I think you’re misreading alejo’s comment, his was not a political comment, but a human and humanitarian comment. People’s main concern shouldn’t be own commodity but people dying elsewhere. Probably only selfish and egoistic people could not be mainly worried about people dying or been tortured in any other part of the world.

  13. Mike says:

    Documentary is fantastic. I am 3/4 of the way through it (I watch in 20 minute spurts while on the treadmill). One of the rare sports pieces that I have received verbal agreement from my wife that she will watch with me sometime. Previously this only happened for movies involving Jon Hamm, Brad Pitt, or Disney.

  14. I guess I stand apart on this (I do on most things) but I think most of the 30 for 30s are overrated – notwithstanding this particular piece, which I haven’t seen yet. I have a major issue with the fact that the chosen directors were largely NOT artists who ordinarily work with documentaries and, as a result, the pieces have very decided points of view. Which is absolutely not what I want from a documentary.

    From the very first episode, in which Wayne Gretzky mooned about all the Cups he left in the table in Edmonton because of a trade he very easily could have avoided, I’ve felt the stories were enormously narrow, one-sided, and myopic.

  15. tayloraj42 says:

    Having lived with a Russian during the Sochi Olympics, this was a fantastic description of the kind of response I’d get from her every time a broadcaster mentioned the Miracle on Ice. No matter how many times I tried to explain why it’s so important to people in the United States, it would be “Oh, so why does it matter again?”

  16. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    As for Bobby Clarke’s slash in 1972, your friend may think he’s a hockey fan, but he isn’t. No real hockey fan would celebrate a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent. To understand how wrong that is, imagine the Oilers’ opponents taking Gretzky out of the playoffs during the 1980s. Just despicable.

  17. belmontbill says:

    Joe, Joe, Joe! How, in reference to the USA Hockey team’s Olympic victrory, can you say, “No American was rooting for the Soviets. Everyone cared in the same way”.??

    Simply not true. First of all, most americans are not hockey fans. And not all americans are knee-jerk flag wavers who automaticly root for any team or athlete wearing “U.S.A.” on their uniforms.

    Personally I root against the USA in the Olympics because I’d rather see athletes from countries with a third of our population and a twentieth of our Olympic budget do well than see the USA win and then parade around as if they’d won on a level playing field.

    Perhaps the singular moment in US sports history didn’t happen at a gym or stadium or track. My nomination for pivotal moment would be the moment when the Yankees purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. That changed everything.

  18. invitro says:

    I vaguely remember the Miracle On Ice. I was 10, and my family did follow the Olympics, and I was starting to become a sports nut. I have never thought it was that big of a deal. And I usually have the same ideas on big sports events as other people. But not this one. Maybe it’s because it’s hockey, which is about the only sport that I’ve never gotten into, or maybe it’s because it’s the Olympics. Or maybe the mass hype is really annoying.

    I have often cheered for non-US athletes in the Olympics, or tennis, or golf, or basketball. But I didn’t cheer for the USSR, or East Germany, for that matter, in the 1980s. I cheered for some Czech athletes but that was about the line. Soviet/communist stuff was a really big deal back then, even in sports, where perhaps it shouldn’t have mattered so much. (Or perhaps the emphasis on communists as enemies in sports was true, now that we know how often and flagrantly they cheated in international sports.)

  19. Onassis24 says:

    Joe, great story and wonderful 30 for 30 piece,aren’t they all, but you whiffed on the Sophia Loren story. I’m pretty sure it was the Soviet captain, Boris Mikhailov, who used the Loren analogy.

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