A couple of nights ago, I watched the expensive and extravagant opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics Games in Vancouver, Canada. Despite the opulence of today’s Olympics, I still watch some Olympic events because 30 years ago I was the announcer for the luge events at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. That job enabled me to get a seat at the very modest opening ceremonies, and, a week later, for a wild, ice hockey game.
Watching the opening ceremonies this week in the Vancouver Olympic arena, I got goose bumps when I remembered the Canadian connection to our games in Lake Placid 30 years before.
The Cold War Symbolized in the Lake Placid Olympics
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The cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was in high gear in the 1970s and 1980s, and 1979, the year before the 1980 Olympics, was an incredibility tense year in the cold war.
In 1979, with the assistance of the Soviet surrogate Cuba, revolutionary groups took power in Nicaragua and Grenada, forming, at least in the Carter administration’s mind, a triangle of Soviet influence and possible military bases in America’s backyard.
In 1979, the Soviet Union saw US influence in the Middle East increasing as the Carter administration’s work with Israel and Soviet former friend Egypt resulted in their signing a peace agreement in March 1979.
In 1979, the US sent 20 ships into the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea in response to the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy, sold 5,000 missiles and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia and supplied forces against the communist rebellion in North Yemen.
In 1979, the Soviet Union’s strong relations with Iraq were undermined by Saddam Hussein’s purchase of weapons from the United States, France and Italy, instead of from the Soviet Union.
Cheers for Canadian Help Getting US Diplomats Out of Iran
Back to the Lake Placid Olympics. As the Canadian Olympic team walked into the small outdoor stadium during the opening ceremonies in February 1980, a huge roar greeted them from the largely American audience. That response was a cheer of thanks for Canadian help in getting US diplomats out of Iran.
Just two weeks before the Olympics began, Canadian diplomats had spirited six US diplomats out of Iran. The diplomats had escaped capture on November 4, 1979, when thousands of Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Teheran. The students were angry because the United States had provided refuge and cancer medical care for the Shah of Iran, who had been forced from Iran in February 1979 by the Iranian Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran. A 1953 CIA-sponsored coup against Iran’s democratically-elected government had brought the Shah to power. The Shah reopened Iran to international business interests and allowed the country to become an American military base to thwart Soviet involvement in the region.
The six American diplomats had evaded capture during the embassy takeover and made their way to the Swiss and Canadian embassies where they were hidden from Iranian authorities. In late 1979, the Canadian Parliament met in secret for the first time since World War II in order to pass special legislation allowing Canadian passports to be issued to the American diplomats so that they could board a January 28, 1980, flight from the Teheran to Zurich undetected.
That small victory was very present to the Olympic attendees that February 1980 day, who did not yet know that 52 US diplomats were to remain hostage in the US Embassy for 444 days after a failed Carter administration rescue attempt in April 1980 and some GOP skullduggery that delayed their release to January 20, 1981, the day the Carter administration left office and the Reagan administration was inaugurated.
No one knew that seven years later, as US-Iranian relations continued to deteriorate in 1989, the United States Navy’s guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, would shoot down a large Iranian civilian airliner, an Airbus 300 on its established daily flight path from Bandar Abbas, Iran, to Dubai, UAE. All 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children, were killed, making it the seventh deadliest airliner disaster. The Captain of the Vincennes said he thought the plane was an Iranian military fighter, an F-14 Tomcat, not a civilian airliner. The crew was awarded a combat action ribbon and the captain of the Vincennes was given a Legion of Merit. The United States later agree to pay $61.8 million in compensation for the Iranians killed by US military action.
Ongoing Consequences of US Hostility to Iran
In 1980, during the year the diplomats were held hostage, Iraq invaded Iran. Saddam Hussein was emboldened to invade Iran because of US animosity toward Iran due to the overthrow of the Shah and the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran. During Iraq’s war on Iran, the US supplied Iraq with weapons, ammunition, helicopters and satellite intelligence used to select bombing targets in Iran.
Chemical weapons supplied by the United States and other countries killed 20,000 Iranian forces and injured 80,000 and, in the attack at Halabja, killed 6,800 Iraqi Kurds and injured another 10,000. Because of its involvement in providing Saddam with chemical weapons, the Reagan administration initially refused to condemn Saddam’s use of those weapons on the Kurds and instead accused Iran of being partially responsible for the gas attacks.
Ten years later, in 1991, Saddam’s forces invaded Kuwait over an alleged oil dispute and the international community mobilized 500,000 military to force Iraqi forces out of Kuwait after a six-week bombing campaign on Iraq and a 100-hour land war. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Gulf War veterans have come down with “Gulf War syndrome” as well as abnormally high cancer rates, possibly from chemical and depleted uranium contamination from our own US military arsenal.
For the next decade, the United States and the international community systematically destroyed Iraq’s weapons, applied sanctions, including limiting food and medicines that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and enforced two no-fly zones over Iraq with over 400,000 air sorties that destroyed large numbers of Iraqi military facilities. In 2003, the Bush administration used the pretext of weapons of mass destruction to invade and occupy Iraq without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council and to overthrow former US ally Saddam Hussein.
Back to the Cold War: The Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan
On December 24, 1979, two months before the Lake Placid Olympic Games began, the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan to protect their allies in Afghanistan’s Marxist government. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan continued for nine years, ending on February 15, 1989.
With all these cold war events taking place in 1979, the ice hockey competition at the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games took on remarkably symbolic importance.
“Miracle on Ice”- the United States Amateur Ice Hockey Team Defeats Powerhouse Soviet Team
The Olympics semi-final, ice hockey game between the powerhouse Soviet Union team, considered the best in the world, and the United States team, composed of amateur, college student players, was later portrayed as a battle between ideologies, rather than between sportsmen only.
In what has become known as the “Miracle on Ice,” the underdog US team defeated the Soviet team four to three, and then went on to win the Gold Medal against the Finnish team. The victory was depicted on the March 3, 1980, Sports Illustrated cover, which, to this day, remains the only one in the magazine’s history to run without caption or headline.
In a continuation of cold war tensions and US displeasure over Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, six months after the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games, the Carter administration decided that the United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
Now 30 years later, the United States is in its ninth year of the occupation of Afghanistan, its seventh year of the occupation of Iraq, and still continues to hold 175 persons in an offshore prison in Cuba for their alleged involvement in crimes against the United States.
America still has tense relations with Iran, subsequent to the derailment of US economic interests in Iran (oil and military weapons contracts) by the Iranian Revolution, Iran’s support for Palestinian and Lebanese militia groups challenging Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and parts of Lebanon, and, most recently, Iran’s nuclear energy program.
The Soviet Union dissolved and the Russian government has attempted to communicate the lessons learned from its own failed invasion and occupation of Afghanistan to the United States.
And, in my mind, I will always see the Olympic games through a tragic prism of history where more international action plays out on military battlefields than on sports playing fields.