Do you Believe in Miracles? When sport truly matters

At a time when there is so much going on in the world- the threat of global terrorism, innocents seeking asylum being impoverished and imprisoned, and the potential election of a highly conservative government in the world’s most powerful country, sport seems like a trivial irrelevance. With this in mind, I thought it would be prudent to write a follow up article to my earlier piece about my time in student politics to show why sport matters.

During my time as a sports journalism student at La Trobe University, I have gone from being a cricket loving highschool student with a passing interest in most other sports, to one who can write and commentate on a number of sports. Along with this, I have also developed a rounded understanding on what sports means to both individuals and communities across the globe.

Nothing solidified this knowledge more than my failed tenure as a student politician. Being around those who loathed sport with the same passion I loved it, helped me realise sport’s potential to shape the world for the better, despite what my colleagues said.

In my earlier piece, I wrote about sport at its best has the ability to right many of the world’s social wrongs, despite the fact that sport at it’s worst brings those social ills right under the microscope.

In this piece, I will attempt to shine a light on the times when sport, through a miracle victory, a triumph in a politically charged game, and on those rarest of occasions, a combination of both, truly galvanises a community.

I would agree with my colleagues and other liberally minded critics of sports that the ardent fan has a tendency to exaggerate losses. The cricket commentary doyen Richie Benaud once turned to his colleague Mark Taylor after the latter said that a batsman’s dismissal in the 90s was a “tragedy.” Benaud remarked “a batsman getting out in the 90s is not a tragedy. Heart attacks and car accidents are a tragedy.”

A liberal uni student is likely to say that the rollout of a major welfare program or the failure of a left wing politician are far greater in significance than a sporting loss. But is it possible that a great sporting victory could be as important as say, the ending of a war, or the reunification of a nation? Indeed it is, and our sports journalism tutors have often reminded us to watch closely for the politically charged occasions when there is more than just a game at stake for the victor.

A victory on the field can have a unifying and even transformative effect on a nation. Just think of Germany during the 1990 FIFA World Cup. In an otherwise dull and colourless tournament, much of the world was openly thrilled when the Germans went on to lift the trophy, just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Winning the world’s largest sporting event would no doubt have brought the soon to be reunified country together as they revelled in the shared joy of victory in their national pastime.

And who could forget the sight of the revered Nelson Mandela in a Springboks Jersey as he strode out to the centre of the great cauldron that is Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. It was the final of the 1995 World Cup, a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history. Not only did Mandela embrace a cornerstone symbol of Afrikaner culture at a time when the Dutch descended ethnic group felt their place in South African society was threatened, the Springboks defeated New Zealand against all odds. In doing so, they united South Africans of all colours and creeds, and brought a black audience to a sport which was previously seen as the sole preserve of whites.

In the realm of the miracle comeback, it is Sri Lanka’s victory in an ODI in Melbourne that strikes up particular emotions for me, and indeed many other Sri Lankans. Just a year after the end of the nearly three decade long Sri Lankan civil war, the nation’s government was facing the furore of international enquiries into war crimes, and was under scrutiny for it’s approach to the reintegration and rehabilitation of the northern and eastern Tamil communities.

And it was on that cold Melbourne night that a Sinhalese fast bowler and a promising young Tamil allrounder came together to perform one of the greatest cricketing miracles of all time. With Sri Lanka out of the contest at 8/107 chasing a seemingly impossible 240 runs for victory, Malinga and Mathews bashed and bludgeoned their way to a world record 132 run ninth wicket stand.

I remember sitting in my living room crying and feeling as though I was going to drop to my knees at any moment as the winning runs were hit. Sri Lankans at home and their expat counterparts alive went wild with celebration as a few days later Sri Lanka clinched their maiden series win in Australia. Seeing a young Tamil from a marginalised community exercise leadership potential so early in his career gave a country torn apart and struggling to rebuild itself something to believe in once more.

But as a passionate ice hockey fan, I think no single game sums up sport’s great miracles, and the potential to set a nation aflame with joyous passion than Team USA’s victory against Russia in the 1980 Ice Hockey semi final, popularly known as the Miracle On Ice. This game was one of the most politically charged sports matches in history, and involved an million to one underdog making a scarcely believable comeback.

The game was voted the number one international ice hockey story of the century by the International Ice Hockey Federation and has the story has since been told in a Disney box office hit, Miracle.

At the height of the Cold War, with tensions running strong between both nations, both teams met in Lake Placid. Whatever the end result, there was no doubt, that in many senses, this was a game of gargantuan importance.

The Russians were the strongest outfit ever to take the ice. Their Soviet style discipline and team oriented focus, coupled with an unparalleled sense of creativity, had seen them dominate the world. The team had won the World Championship twice, and claimed the Gold Medal in the previous Olympics. They would also take out the Gold in 1984 and 1988.

The American team, by contrast, was nowhere near as strong on experience. A team of ragtag, unknown college students, they had come together under the leadership of coach Herb Brooks. They had somehow, stunningly, made it to the semi final game, but even then, they were given no chance against the most ruthlessly efficient team the game had seen.

And it looked like just another ordinary win for the Soviets when Vladimir Krutov slid one past US goaltender Jim Craig in the first period. The US struck back, but Sergei Makarov made it 2–1 before Mark Johnson tied it for America to end the first period at 2–2.

Team USA needed something remarkable at the end of the second period after Russia outshot them 12–2 and carried a one goal lead into the final period of the game. True to fairytale form, the USA tied the game with a goal that was a miracle in itself, coming just seconds before the end of a crucial powerplay as Mark Johnson smashed a slapshot from long distance. The puck was in and it was 3–3. America took the lead not long after when Team USA captain Mike Eruzione scored.

It is the end of those tense, final 5 seconds, where we reach the crux of the piece. Caught in the excitement of the moment, commentator Al Michaels gave what is regarded by some as the greatest individual piece of commentary ever, yelling:

“Do you believe in Miracles?”

“….YES!” screamed Michaels at the precise moment the clock ticked down to zero. Coupled with Michaels perfect, succinct summary of everything that the game stood for, and Mark Isham’s highly emotive score, I dare say even the most hardline of my colleagues may shed a tear witnessing the final moment of Miracle.

The day after the game, speaking over the phone to President Jimmy Carter about the win, Team USA Coach Herb Brooks remarked “our way of life is better.” The relative truth of Brook’s claim is a matter of opinion, but what is for certain is this- in a game of immense political importance, for one day, a nation had triumphed. Like South Africa, Sri Lanka and Germany, for one day, the entirety of the USA could say that they had won.