Thirty-seven years ago, a “Miracle” happened in Lake Placid, New York. Eleven months later, there was another one overseas. Both have been recounted as pivotal moments in American history. The former was when the USA Hockey Team defeated the heavily favored Russian cohort during the 1980 Winter Olympic Games; the latter was the release of fifty-two Americans held hostage in the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran.[1]  Although the circumstances that led to both events were stark in contrast, the two are almost synonymous in regard to the effect they had upon the American public. Upon the anniversary of such events, the United States, Iranian, and Russian governments find themselves with tensions high as ever.

Amidst turmoil and riots, Iran protested American influence by holding fifty-two American hostages for more than a year. The Iranian Hostage Crisis was a result of conflicts between the transitioning government of Iran and the American government’s involvement with the power struggle.[2]  The Iranian Revolution came to a head in the late 1970’s, when United States President Jimmy Carter granted Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former Iranian king whom the US had supported in the past, asylum. That sparked protests which resulted in Iranian students marching on the embassy and taking the Americans hostage. Iran’s new leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, saw it as an opportunity to “consolidate his power around a potent symbol.”[3]

Khomeini supported the students’ decision to not release the Americans until the Shah was returned to Iran for trial. It would not be for another 444 days that those Americans would be released. Although Carter vehemently attempted to negotiate their return, it proved fruitful only minutes after Ronald Regan was inaugurated. The event showed even the mightiest of superpowers had weaknesses. Across the nation, “people were looking for something to hold on to…[t]hings were so bad for so long.”[4]  While the Iranian Hostage Crisis caused turmoil among the country, Americans found hope in the Olympic spirit.

The Miracle on Ice, Boycotts of ’84 Olympic Games

The 1980 Winter Olympiad showcased a talented Russian hockey team, winners of the last four Winter Olympics gold medals. With a roster full of seasoned professional players, the worldwide consensus was that this time around would be no different. USA was represented by stars in their own right, but the collegiate athletes lacked experience the Russians displayed. Only amateurs in the sport, they sought to win America’s second gold medal.[5]

The US team found themselves facing off against the Russians in the medal round, winner advancing to the gold medal match. Both teams were familiar with one another, too, facing off in an exhibition game one month earlier; the Soviet icemen walked away with a virtually uncontested victory, 10-3. This time, the USA shocked the world and upset the powerhouse 4-3. One of the American hostages, Barry Rosen, was brought up to speed with all the events they had missed while in Tehran. Rosen stated, “That game may have been the moment when American [started] feeling pride again.”[6]

While the both teams’ athletes were training for the XIII Winter Olympiad, the two nations found themselves amid a power struggle. The effects of that struggle eventually trickled down to athletes across the world. In December of 1979, the Soviet Union, to much of the world’s dismay, invaded Afghanistan.[7]   As many had feared, the Soviet’s presence in the Central Asia only intensified the ongoing situation in Tehran. With little options, President Carter and the United States led the push towards boycotting the looming Summer Olympics, which would be held in Moscow.[8]  The effort was polarizing, especially to athletes caught in the middle; although many countries initially joined the boycott, many more wound up sending representatives including Afghanistan.[9]

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC), supported President Carter’s decision and chose not to send a formal team; American athletes that dared to travel were threatened with the confiscation of their passports.[10]   In retaliation to America’s boycott, the Soviet Union chose to lead one of their own and forwent the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles.[11]   These decisions to boycott are just two examples of how foreign relations can negatively affect athletes caught in the middle of strife.

The Intersection of Sports and Politics Today

In 2017, the three governments find themselves in a familiar game of chess with tensions just as high. There seems to be new reports—almost weekly—regarding Russia and their ties with the United States government. Regarding Iran, President Trump’s issuance of a travel ban caused backlash from Iranian officials. The US Wrestling team was the scapegoat Iran chose to place that backlash upon. Just a week ahead of the 2017 Wrestling World Cup—Tehran being the host site for the tournament—Iran stated they would not grant visas to the American grapplers.

Fortunately, Iran lifted the sanction after the United States court ruling suspended the immigration ban along.[12]   Ironically, the championship match featured the United States and Iran. After Iran jumped out to a 4-0 match lead, the US rallied wins in three-straight matches. Ultimately, the Iranian grapplers won the final bout to clinch their sixth-straight World Cup Title.

Though the competition lived up to the hype, many were worried how the Iranian people would treat the western wrestlers. “It’s incredible. I actually get a better reception here than I do in the States,” remarked Olympic gold medalist wrestler Jordan Burroughs (Sicklerville, N.J.).

Though 40 years of conflict still has the countries’ governments wrestling, it seems as though the amateurs are the best examples of diplomacy.


[1] Richard Sandomir, How ‘Miracle on Ice’ Helped Restore FaithN.Y. Times (Feb. 2, 2001).

[2] The Iranian Hostage Crisis, (last visited Feb. 19, 2017).

[3] Id. 

[4] Sandomir, supra note 1.

[5] The 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame (last visited Feb. 19, 2017).

[6] The Olympic Boycott, 1980, U.S. Department of State: Archive (last visited Feb. 20, 2017).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Kay Armin Serjoie, Iran: Team USA Wrestlers in Iran Practice Hands-On Diplomacy, (Feb. 17, 2017).