CURATOR CORNER: FEBRUARY 2023
1980 Soviet Silver Medal
Imagine what it must feel like to win an Olympic medal: emotional, surreal, and a feeling of intense excitement. A very similar feeling was described when the American hockey team was awarded their gold medals at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. In the February 28th, 1980 issue from Lake Placid News, journalist Linda Lumsden wrote that when the IOC President Lord Killanin was handing out the medals “some of the Americans were so excited when Killanin draped the gold around their necks they ignored his extended hand and instead shook their hands over their heads.”
Surely, we would all feel excitement like this in winning Olympic gold. When you look at the odds of winning one, it seems deserved. For instance, at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, there were 38 separate events with corresponding gold medals and 1,072 athletes. That puts athletes overall odds of winning gold at 3.5%. That’s for those given any chance at all by even making an Olympic team!
But here’s a different point of view. For the Soviet hockey team at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, excitement for winning the silver medal in ice hockey was not the emotion felt by all of the Soviet team members. In fact, several of the Soviet hockey players left their silver medals behind or sold them after the Lake Placid Winter Games, like the one shown here.
Many people know the incredible story of the “Miracle on Ice”: a ragtag group of U.S. college students and amateurs pulling off the greatest upset in sports history by defeating an army of professional Soviet athletes who were the undisputed gold medal favorites.
What made this hockey game in Lake Placid especially important was the political and cultural climate in the United States and around the world at the time of these Games. In 1980, America was experiencing a myriad of issues such as the ongoing Cold War, recession, inflation, and gasoline rationing. Internationally, events like the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took center stage. Taken together all these events created a highly charged environment when the Soviet and US hockey teams met on the ice on February 22, 1980. To many, it was much more than a hockey game.
The Soviet team entered this game confidently. After all, they just crushed the American hockey team 10 – 3 at Madison Square Garden only a week earlier. This game should have been no different. When the Americans and Soviets finally met in the semi-final game, TV sport commentator Al Michaels perfectly summed up the meaning of this hockey match before the puck dropped:
“What we have here is the rarest of sporting events: an event that needs no build-up, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, I’m sure this game is being viewed with varying perspectives. But manifestly, it is a hockey game. The United States and Soviet Union on a sheet of ice in Lake Placid, New York. They will be playing against a team, a team that is better than they are and after that time, after it’s all over, this team will find out an awful lot about themselves and simply find out how good they are.”
When the U.S. achieved a stunning upset by defeating the U.S.S.R. 4 – 3, the Soviet team was left in shock. The Lake Placid News reported that “Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov was tightlipped after the defeat. He said, ‘the people in the Soviet Union will be upset by this.’”
It’s easy to imagine the disappointment, even embarrassment, the Soviet players felt – the number 1 ranked team in the world toppled by amateur hockey players. However, the reality is that not all Soviet players felt animosity towards the young American team or disappointment in their silver medal outcome. In the 2015 documentary Of Miracles and Men directed by Jonathan Hock, several Soviet players reflected on their experience in Lake Placid. The loss to the Americans and their silver medal outcome is still felt deeply for some players, like Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, when he stated, “thirty years later, I can blame myself”. Some players, while disappointed it wasn’t gold, were proud of the outcome. Vladimir Petrov said “to me, that silver medal is still worth a lot. I sacrificed blood for it.” Vladimir Myshkin reflected that “maybe the gods deemed that day that the Americans deserved their Miracle on Ice.”
This medal came into the Lake Placid Olympic Museum Collection around 15 years ago. It is not known which Soviet player left this medal behind. And though not knowing the provenance makes telling its complete story a challenge, museum staff believes there is some benefit to this – it adds to the mystery, curiosity, and emotion of the story. Still today, Soviet silver medals pop up for auction. Most recently, Sergei Starikov’s silver medal from Lake Placid went to auction and sold for $86,136 when it was only expected to sell for around $15,000.
Visit the Lake Placid Olympic Museum to see the Soviet silver medal in person and learn more about the Miracle on Ice. The museum is open daily, 10 am – 5 pm.