The two greatest moments of the Olympics, the ones that have been passed down through legend and archival footage, involve the Cold War. There was Al Michaels shouting “Do you believe in miracles?” at the 1980 winter games in Lake Placid when the unheralded U.S. hockey team faced—and defeated—the mighty Soviets. There was also the ill-tempered finish to the 1972 basketball final, when the Soviets were awarded gold after a controversial judging decision. As Mike Bantom, who was on the U.S. team, later said: “We didn’t get beat, we got cheated.”
The Cold War’s U.S.-Soviet rivalry dominated the games from 1952, the first time the Soviet Union participated, until the demise of the USSR in 1991. The Soviets used sports to showcase their strength, pouring money into producing champion after champion. The U.S. embraced the competition. The all-time national Olympic medal counts for the Summer and Winter games are illustrative: The U.S. is No. 1 on the all-time Summer list with the Soviet Union at No. 2 (and East Germany at No. 9). On the Winter list, the U.S. is No. 2, with the Soviet Union at No. 4 (and East Germany at No. 11). This despite the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow games and the Soviet reciprocation at the Los Angeles games in 1984—and despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.