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.