In PAWN SACRIFICE, the championship game in Reykjavík, Iceland between American legend Bobby Fischer and Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky garnered so much public and press attention that it was quickly branded the “Match of the Century.” The intense spotlight on the game demonstrated the degree to which sports in the Cold War era had become, to paraphrase military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, politics by other means.
Fischer and Spassky became pawns in a larger game that was being played between two superpowers vying for global dominance. Many Americans who had never paid attention to chess were suddenly drawn to their TV screens, as the match unfolded day by day, talking “queen sacrifice” strategies at the water cooler. For them, this was not simply a game of chess; it was a battle between the East and the West. When Henry Kissinger phoned Fischer in Reykjavík to encourage him, he was speaking both as a chess fan and as the U.S. Secretary of State. This was certainly not the first time that politics entered the sports arena. There are many examples throughout history of games that were as much political as they were athletic.
African American Joe Louis was riding high with a 23-0 record when the German-born Max Schmeling challenged him to a match. When underdog Schmeling was victorious, the German government saw a chance to land a solid propaganda punch. The political stakes increased exponentially in the 1938 rematch and the event became the hot ticket of the summer with stars and figureheads in the audience and thousands more following on the radio. This time, Louis emerged victorious. But as much as both countries politicized the match, the two fighters just wanted to box. Years later, Schmeling remarked, "Looking back, I'm almost happy I lost that fight. Just imagine if I would have come back to Germany with a victory. I had nothing to do with the Nazis, but they would have given me a medal. After the war I might have been considered a war criminal."
When the Hungarian water polo team arrived in Australia for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the athletes learned that while they had been training in their mountain compound, the USSR had sent in 200,000 Russian troops to counter massive student protests, killing more than 2,500 Hungarians. The ill-fated Hungarian revolution was followed by a wave of arrests that broke down the nation’s spirit. For the Hungarian water polo team, their scheduled match against the Russian team was going to be their one chance to strike a blow for their homeland. With a minute left in the game and the Hungarians leading 4-0, a Russian player jumped up out of the water and punched one of Hungary’s top players so hard that the pool went red. Local police had to be called to get the Russians back to their locker room safely. After winning the gold medal, many Hungarians were resigned to the fact that they had lost the war back home - only 38 of the 83 athletes returned to Hungary.
In 1971, China had been closed off to Americans and American influence for years until an accidental friendship at a ping pong match helped thaw years of isolation. The U.S. table tennis player Glenn Cowan missed his team’s bus and was offered a ride with the Chinese team, where he struck up an awkward conversation with Chinese player Zhuang Zedong. Zedong, out of courtesy, presented his new American friend a silk-screen painting of the Huangshan Mountains. The international press snapped photos of Cowan stepping off the bus clutching his new gift, and a news article in which Cowan expressed a sincere interest to visit China made it all the way to Beijing.
China’s leader Mao Zedong, having read about the encounter, supposedly remarked, “This Zhuang Zedong not only plays table tennis well, but is good at foreign affairs, and he has a mind for politics.” Within a matter of days, a group of 9 players and 6 others stepped onto the Chinese mainland, thus reversing an isolation policy that few believed would ever change. The next year, President Richard Nixon became first American president ever to visit Communist China.
The most celebrated sports win for the U.S. in the Cold War appropriately took place on the ice. In 1980, a rag-tag team of college hockey players banded together to beat the Russians at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY, a game that was quickly dubbed by sports pundits as the “miracle on ice.”
To a large degree, the miracle’s engineer was Herb Brooks, a University of Minnesota coach who was chosen to lead the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980. Brooks transformed his hand-picked team with a mix of drill sergeant brutality and messianic vision to believe that they could actually win. When Team USA beat the Russians and went on to win the gold, Brooks was the least surprised person in the auditorium. Before the game he’d written out this simple message for his team: "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours."
The meaning of this game has outlived the Cold War. In 1999, Sports Illustrated crowned the hockey game the “Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century” and the story has been adapted into film and TV several times, including the 2004 Disney hit Miracle.