Tuesday, February 16, 2010

30 Years Ago 7: Geopolitical Context

Perhaps I should follow the lead of the great political blogger Paul Mirengoff, who unapologetically takes time out to write about sports whenever he feels like it. I tend to try to come up with a political angle on a sports story. There are many connections between the two subjects, and I'm often able to link them.

Politics and the Olympic Games are like conjoined twins. And the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey tournament was definitely no exception.

Those games were held three years into Jimmy Carter's presidency. Carter's message attracted many voters early on in his campaign for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination. But that glow started to fade, even before his party's convention. That Democratic wunderkind, then-Governor Jerry Brown of California, won some late primaries, but Carter had already built up an insurmountable lead.

In the 1976 general election, Carter defeated the Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford, by a narrow margin. Carter's poll numbers kept dropping during the fall campaign. The electorate was not quite willing to stay with the charisma-challenged Ford, who was still in the national doghouse due to his having granted a pardon to his predecessor, Richard Nixon, shortly after Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. By the time of Ford's death in 2006, most Americans had come around to the point of view that the pardon had been a courageous act that served the national interest.

There were economic problems during Carter's term. That was the period during which "stagflation" entered the national lexicon. But multiple crises in foreign policy had come to a head during the lead-up to the Winter Olympics.

Carter had taken what many considered to be too passive a stance in reaction to the continuing military buildup by the Soviet Union, a left-wing takeover in Nicaragua, and the overthrow by Islamists of the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran. In part, I suppose that was an overreaction to charges that the U.S. had acted as an aggressor during the Vietnam War.

Then, on November 4, 1979, Iranian terrorists seized the American embassy in Tehran. Dozens of Americans were held hostage for the remainder of Carter's presidency. That was followed, in December of that year, by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the long run, that military adventure was a significant element in the undoing of the Soviet regime, but, as 1979 ended, it seemed as though American power was fading, and the USSR and other adversaries of the U.S. were supplanting us.

The Cold War was colder than at any time since well before Nixon's Beijing and Moscow summits of 1972 (with the possible exception of an international game of "chicken" in which the U.S. and the USSR engaged during the Yom Kippur War of 1973).

So, as the Winter Olympics began in upstate New York, formally dedicated to peace, but with the usual national rivalries involved, Americans were feeling put upon, especially in relation to the Soviet Union. That largely explains the intense interest in a winter sport that had, until then, largely attracted the attention only of those of us in particularly cold regions of the U.S.

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