It was February 22, 1980. The American men’s ice hockey team were in a locker room in upstate New York, preparing for a game against the Soviet Union in the Olympic Winter Games. Bill Cleary was the head coach of ice hockey power, Harvard University, and he stopped by the locker room to wish his friend, Coach Herb Brooks, good luck. They talked, and then Cleary left the room.
“Then I see the trainer chasing after me and says Herb wants me to go back in to talk to the boys. So I went back and this is what I said: ‘I know what’s going through your mind. You feel isolated here in upper state New York, oblivious of what’s going on in the rest of the world. But you have captivated our entire country and everyone is pulling for you. There are 20 guys pulling for you more than anyone. And that’s the 1960 team. There is only one outcome. You’re going to win!'”
To Cleary, member of the 1960 US ice hockey team, the first American team to win gold in the Olympics, being an Olympian is an honor. When he attended his first Olympics in 1956 in Cortina Italy, he remembers being 21, a kid who never left Boston thrust into the incredible beauty of the majestic Alps. “I thought the sky was so beautiful and was so close it was going to come down on you. Heaven was right there. And we were marching in the parade during the opening ceremony, not long after World War Two and the Korean War, and in came the Russians, the ogres.” But they weren’t there to fight. They were there to compete in sports. “That’s what makes the Olympics so special,” said Cleary. “Olympians can do more for world peace and good will than all the politicians in the world.”
But Cleary believes being an Olympian is also an obligation, an obligation to demonstrate a bond across nationalities and generations, to continuously uphold an Olympic spirit. He remembers the performance and the behavior of the US Men’s ice hockey team at the 1998 Nagano Games. He didn’t like the addition of professional athletes, but when they reacted to poor performance at the Games by vandalizing the locker room, he was miffed. “I was really upset about that. They should have been proud to compete, but instead they were burning their uniforms. We are Olympians. We should take great pride when we represent our country.”
In contrast, Cleary remembers a time in Czechoslovakia he will never forget. In 1983 Coach Cleary took his Harvard hockey team over to Prague. It was Christmas time, but you could tell the locals were having a tough time, he said. On the second to last night of this tour, the interpreter informed him that a fellow Olympian from the 1960 Czech ice hockey team wanted to see him. And when they pulled into a small coal-mining town called Koln, Cleary stepped off the bus to be greeted by Czech goaltender, Vladimir Dvoracek.
“And all of a sudden Dvoracek, he sees me, and shouts ‘Bill, Bill!’ He brings me inside to a room and says ‘coffee, beer, coke?’ He wanted to know what my life was like, about my teammates, about the US. It was almost like he was interrogating me, he had so many questions. Finally, I said I got to go and prepare the team for the game. We warm up, and at the end of the warmups, they play the national anthems. I see my friend Dvoracek and he grabs the microphone. He tells the audience, ‘I want you all to welcome my good friend Bill Cleary. We have not seen each other in 25 years. Our countries are not friendly, but we are friends. We are Olympians and we are friends.’ I am getting goosebumps right now just thinking about it.”
After the game they met again, and Dvoracek brings out a scrapbook with pictures of his hockey career until it comes time for me to leave. “He was sad, kind of tearful that I was leaving. It was almost like he was saying, ‘could you put me in that duffle bag and take me with you?’ The next day, the interpreter tells me that Dvoracek died. I still have his business card, and he wrote on the back of it, ‘To Bill, a memento of our reunion 23 years later.’
“It is not about Jordan or Barkley arguing whether to wear Nike or Reebok apparel on the medal stand. it is about people, competition and friendship.”