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By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia Feb 13 (Reuters) - As would be expected, Russian and American memories of the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics 'Miracle on Ice' are as different as the Cold War philosophies that provided the backdrop for a sporting contest that left an indelible mark on both countries.
It was 34 years ago in a small arena in upstate New York that a group of American college players faced off against the former Soviet Union's 'Big Red Machine' in an ice hockey mismatch of David and Goliath proportions and scored a shock 4-3 victory that propelled the group of unknowns into sporting immortality.
For Americans, weary of oil shortages and burdened by the Iran hostage crisis, it was much more than a round-robin win en route to a highly unlikely Olympic gold medal.
Played out in the waning days of the Cold War, with Russian troops recently invading Afghanistan, it was viewed by Americans as representing victory for amateurism over State-controlled sport, democracy over communism, freedom over repression and at, its most basic, good over evil.
In the United States, where multi-million dollar baseball and NFL vie for top billing, it is an ice hockey game played for fun by college kids that has become a cherished piece of American folklore; the subject of countless books and documentaries, two movies and, according to numerous polls, the greatest moment in the country's sporting history.
In Russia it is something very different - a national embarrassment and a lasting stain on a period of widespread sporting supremacy.
It was a humiliating defeat that decades later still stings, and the need for retribution burns hot.
RUSSIAN HORROR MOVIE
Though the political backdrop is unrecognisable from that of 1980, Russia wants revenge and has its chance to take it on Saturday in the marquee matchup of the preliminary round of the Sochi Olympics ice hockey competition.
"There are seven sports here, they all have amazing competitions, but hockey is one of the great narratives of the Games," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams as the Sochi Olympics got underway. "We all know the various stories that there have been.
"In fact (Games chief) Dmitry Chernyshenko was making a speech last night. He said as a child there were three horror films he knew from the West.
"One was Nightmare on Elm Street, the second one was Friday the 13th, and the third was Miracle on Ice."
It was certainly a painful memory for Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretyak, a triple Olympic champion but who watched the 1980 defeat unfold from the bench after being pulled at the end of the first period.
"In '84, we managed to rectify our mistakes," said Tretyak, now head of the Russian ice hockey federation in reference to the reclaiming of the title four years later.
"But we have to give it to the U.S. team. In 1980, it was a miracle and, in fact, it made it possible for ice hockey to develop so fast in the United States and gave it great impetus."
It is a different memory for American netminder Jim Craig, who was snapped in one of the most enduring images of that evening wrapped in the American flag standing on the ice amid the wild celebrations and chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" searching the stands for his father, barely a day passes without someone asking about the game simply referred to as "The Miracle".
"I'm sure there's a day that goes by, but not very many," Craig told Reuters. "It's funny, when you're a young adult, as young as we were, you only know things as a 20-year-old.
"But as you get older and older, there are different chapters in your life. And you realise how important that was on so many different levels other than a hockey game at the Olympics.
"I'm really happy because too many things that are enduring, that people remember, are tragedies.
"This is not. This is something that's very powerful and positive.
"It was something that everybody wishes they could do. Have a dream, work at it collectively, and be the underdog and win."
At a Sochi Games designed to showcase Russia's modern face nothing could be more symbolic of the country's resurgence as a global player than a return of the men's hockey team to the top of the Olympic podium.
Once international hockey's undisputed super power, Russia's dominance faded following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Winners of six-of-seven Olympic titles from the 1964 Innsbruck Games to Calgary in 1988, the last traces of the mighty Russian hockey empire were seen at the 1992 Albertville Games when a "Unified Team" of former Soviet republics took the gold.
In the five Winter Olympics since, Russia has had to settle for one silver and a bronze while slumping to a new low in Vancouver with a sixth place finish.
Unlike in 1980, there will be no clear favourite when the two teams take to the ice at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome and though Russia v Canada is seen by enthusiasts as the ultimate and enduring hockey rivalry, not even the most dyed-in-the-wool Canadian can deny that this clash holds a special place in the sport.
While some of the old Cold War rhetoric has bubbled up at the Sochi Olympics - with Western activists attacking Russia's new "gay propaganda" laws - there is none of the deep, underlying tension that enveloped the Lake Placid Games.
The Olympics are likely never again to experience the perfect storm of politics, sport and timing that converged on a tiny rink in 1980 to produce what Sports Illustrated named the Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century and the International Ice Hockey Federation singled out on its 100th anniversary as the century's number-one hockey story.
"The climate at the time, as a nation we were looking for something to feel good about," Mike Eruzione, captain of the U.S. team told Reuters. "The Soviets being at the height of the Cold War, the (U.S.) hostages had been taken (in Iran), inflation, gas lines (petrol queues).
"As a nation it was something that we needed.
"The fact that we were college players - amateurs - playing against professionals, that had a lot to do with it as well.
"It was those ingredients that led it to be and what it became.
"I tend to think it could not be repeated, and I'm not saying that to pat ourselves on the back.
"The Cold War, the political aspect isn't there. Nor pros versus amateurs.
"We were in a little place, Lake Placid. The Olympic Games are so much bigger now.
"The whole world is very different." (Additional reporter by Steve Ginsburg in Washington. Editing by Mitch Phillips)