From True/Slant on February 13, 2010:
The Olympics Are Here and I’m Misty for the Old Soviet Bear.
I may be the only person outside the Leonid Brezhnev family to say this, but, damn, I miss the Soviet Union. Not usually, mind you. Not on some random March day when I’m puttering about the house thinking about the promise of spring. It’s the Olympics. They do this to me every time. And like seasonal affective disorder, it is much more pronounced during the Winter Olympics.
Imagine that, like George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Josef Stalin is never born. The course of human history is much different and perhaps much to the better. The Soviet Union, instead of ruling with an Iron Fist, is a benign superpower: there is no backing of Mao, no Krushchev posturing and shoe-banging at the U.N., and no Cold War. Millions of people are free of suffering at the hands of cruel dictators, cultural revolutions and the Stasi. Two generations of American children do not grow up in fear of a nuclear holocaust.
All good things, except that, without the Iron Curtain looming, casting it’s long, ominous shadow around the globe, the Olympics lack a lot of punch and zing. They still matter, of course, from the perspective of watching amazing athletes compete and performers perform. But from a jingo-istic, “my country is better than your country,” kind of way, do they matter that much? As Americans, are we rooting for the U-S-A over the Russians? Over the Germans? Or are we just rooting for NBC to show us more sport and less personal backstory?
I remember when Vasiliy Alekeseyev would stride to a massively loaded barbell, all hairy, beastly and disheveled looking, in his Soviet red onesie. I actually felt sorry for the barbell. He was going to own it, rape it and, when he was through violating it, toss it away like an empty blintz wrapper. He was awesome and terrifying. He represented all the might of the sinister power lurking behind the walls of the Kremlin in my young mind.
I remember when the East German women’s swimmers were announced and the offensive line of the 1958 New York Giants would walk out. Good times.
But mostly, without the Iron Curtain falling over Russia and eastern Europe, the winter Olympics are just blah. There are no villains, just flamboyant figure skaters. Without the Soviets, there is no Miracle on Ice.
There’s no Boris Mikhailov leading the Red Army hockey team to gold medals in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. There’s no Viktor Tikhonov behind the bench, looking every bit a KGB assassin as hockey coach. There’s no Vladislav Tretiak in net, his own Iron Curtain, impenetrable, imperturbable, and unbeatable, until the game with the U.S. when Tikhonov pulled him in the 2nd period.
Without the Soviets, where are we? Surely Sidney Crosby and Team Canada, Alex Ovechkin and the Russians, and Sweden and Henrik Lundqvist will provide incredible hockey and any of these three teams could easily bring home the gold. For the players of whichever team wins it all, each will remember this tournament for the rest of his life.
But there are no miracles in store, no Leviathans to fell. The stage shrunk the moment that wall came down.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose.
Because I love hockey, I’m curious to see if the Swedes with cagey Lundqvist in net and most of the roster of the Detroit Red Wings in front of him can win another gold.
I can hardly wait to see the first line of the Russians swooping down the ice – Ovie, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk – the three skaters of the apocalypse bearing down on some helpless netminder. Somebody’s gonna lose their liquor license.
Sidney Crosby has the hopes of an entire nation pinned on him and I’m looking for him to spin his magic while the great Marty Brodeur stops time in net long enough to enter a different dimension and make another mind-boggling save.
But still I miss the larger than life, geo-political themes and antipathy. Without the Cold War looming over all the games like some glowering, spectral depiction of a propaganda-style Stalin, it’s just hockey. It’s simply sport.
This year, even in the unlikely event team USA manages to get to the medal stand, it will simply be that – unlikely. Not a “miracle” and certainly not a miracle with a capital “M.”
God, I miss the Cold War.