Russian wins ice hockey gold
China Xinhua News

 

It went, miraculously, to overtime.

No one thought it would. No one believed the Germans, 66:1 bet to win gold in PyeongChang, would stay competitive with the Russian men in the ice hockey finals. In the end, in sudden-death overtime, Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov took a pass from Nikita Gusev and blasted a shot into the net to end Germany’s incredible run, and take the game 4-3.

Team OAR won gold. Team Germany won silver….a most unexpected silver.

After losing their first two games in the tournament, Team Germany started winning, and then defeated Sweden in overtime 4-3, and Canada 4-3 in the semifinals, setting up their improbable match against the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR). Germany had never been to a finals before, and were happily aware that a silver medal was still all gravy.

But they realized early on, they had a chance for gold. At 16:44 of the third period, Jonas Muller took a pass from Yasin Ehliz, held the puck looking for an opening, and then rocketed a shot into the net. Germany led 3-2. All they had to do was hold on for a little over 3 minutes to achieve their first ever gold medal.

Thirty seconds later, Russia got called for a penalty. Could it really be that easy? Did they really believe in miracles?

With only a minute 11 seconds left in the game, the Russian goalie, Vasili Koshechkin, went to the bench. Players on the ice were five on five, but the Russian net was empty. Then, at a most inopportune time, the Germans had a brain cramp. As they approached the Russian blue line, the Germans dumped the puck, essentially handing the puck back to the Russians. They could have passed it back towards their own zone, and killed off more precious seconds, but instead, the Germans gave up control of the puck to the Russians.

And they took advantage.

The Russians carried it into the German zone, and you could feel an opportunity building. The puck came loose to the left of the German goalie, and the Russian forward, Gusev swatted at the puck, somehow knocking in a shorthanded goal, with only 55 seconds left in the game to tie the match.

As NBC analyst Mike Milbury intoned, “Just when you thought it was destiny for Germany….”

When the game goes to overtime, they play four on four, which is thought to be an advantage for the better skating, better passing team. That would be the Russians. And while Team OAR did not dominate, they made the great passes when they needed, the final snap pass to Kaprizov putting an end to an incredible ice hockey finals.

So for a second time in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympiad, we saw the raising of the Olympic Flag in place of the Russian flag, and the Olympic anthem playing in place of the Russian anthem.

But you could sense that the crowd and the players were singing a different song.

The Russians didn’t care. They won one of the most incredible Olympic ice hockey finals ever. And they were the champions.

Advertisements
Germany celebrates victory over Canada
German players celebrate their Olympic men’s hockey semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

When the USA upset the Soviet Union in the semi-finals of the men’s ice hockey tournament at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, it was dubbed “The Miracle on Ice”.

Maybe we can call the 2018 version “Das Wunder auf Eis”.

Germany shocked Canada 4-3 on Friday, February 23 at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It was the first time that Team Canada, both men and women, failed to win gold in an Olympiad since 1998.

“Crazy, just crazy,” said German coach, Marco Sturm. “It’s unbelievable, what the team achieved. We had never before been in a situation in which we had been under positive pressure before. We had to stay cool. This is unique. The lads need to savor it.”

Equally shocked were Canadians. Here’s the first line of The Vancouver Sun’s article, “Dark Day for Canadian Hockey.”

The worst possible outcome for an Olympic team without NHL players landed like a spear to the gut in an embarrassing night for Canadian hockey Friday at the Gangneung Hockey Arena.

Canada has won gold in ice hockey three of the last four Winter Olympics. In the past 29 meetings between the two nations, Germany had won only once, and had lost the previous 11 matches. Ice hockey is essentially Canada’s national pastime, and there are over 630,000 registered hockey players in that country. By contrast, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are only some 20,600 registered hockey players in Germany.

This was a huge upset.

As German defenseman, Christian Ehrhoff, said in his interview with Pierre McGuire of NBC, “It’s unbelievable. I am out of words. Right now, it’s such a huge day for German hockey. So proud right now.”

“Is it fair to say this is the German 1980?” asked McGuire.

“I can agree with that,” replied Ehrhoff. “No one really had us on the list. For us we’re just living a dream, day by day right now. The ride continues. It’s just amazing. Everybody is already so proud of us already. Everything that’s coming now, it’s just a bonus. For us to guarantee ourselves a medal, it’s….wow.”

Team Germany celebrate victory over Team Canada 2
German players celebrate their semifinal win over Canada on Feb. 23. Brendan Smalowski / AFP / Getty Images

Germany was an overwhelming underdog, but they took advantage. And in hindsight, the circumstances that brought the men’s hockey players to the PyeongChang, may have worked in Germany’s favor.

The second biggest hockey league in the world is the KHL, and the bulk of the Russian squad is made of KHL players, which allowed their players to participate. That is probably a good reason why the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR) squad is in the finals of the men’s ice hockey championship.

The NHL, the biggest and best professional hockey league in the world, forbade their players from participating in the Olympics this year. That heavily impacted most of the other competitive hockey nations, particularly those from North American and Scandinavia. Germany, which is far from being considered an ice hockey power, which did not even qualify at the Sochi Olympics, only had 10 Germans in the NHL. So, as this article states, perhaps “the absence of the NHLers has not hurt the Germans as much as most.”

A lot of credit is given to the German coach for raising the level of play of the German team. Sturm, who played nearly 1,000 games in the NHL over 14 seasons with 6 teams, took over the German national team in 2015. According to this DW article, written after Germany upset #1 seed, Sweden (4-3), the German players have responded well to the retired NHLer who had lived in the States the previous 20 years. As they began to win, they began to attract more and better players, and come together as a team.

Compared to many of the teams that had previously relied on NHL players, like the Canadian and American squads that came together only weeks before, the German players, on the whole, have played together for years leading up to PyeongChang.

The Canadian team members were announced on January 11, a little less than a month before the start of the PyeongChang Olympiad, so there was little chance for the team to gel. Even though Team Canada had some momentum into the match with Germany, having shut out both Korea and Finland, anything can happen in short tournaments. Even miracles.

Ice hockey coaches are trained to be emotionless when talking about their teams, unmoving anchors in the shifting winds of a storm, particularly before their teams have won it all. But when McGuire ended an interview of Coach Sturm, saying, “We’re going to see you on Sunday afternoon in a gold medal game. Marco Sturm, Congratulations,” Sturm’s face exploded in glee, and he wrapped his arm around McGuire in a big hug, giggling like a schoolboy who just pulled off the greatest practical joke of all time on his teacher.

Germany is no joke. They play the Russians for gold.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

McMaster tweet

In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.

anti terror drill in Tokyo
A police officer practices disposing of a bag supposedly containing an explosive during an antiterror drill at Prince Chichibu Memorial Rugby Ground in Tokyo on Monday. Photo: KYODO

On September 25, police ran a simulation based on a scenario – what if terrorists planted a sarin gas bomb in an office building during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

About a thousand people were involved in this massive drill to see whether anti-terrorist plans on paper have any founding in reality. The drill was held not far from where the new national Olympic stadium is being built in Tokyo. Some 800 people were evacuated from the area and a bomb disposal team, using a robotic arm, successfully removed a bag that was said to hold a bomb.

These kinds of drills are important to gauging feasibility of anti-terrorist plans and readiness of relevant security and safety groups. But when it comes to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, which is to commence on February 9, there are nations that are beginning to think no anti-terrorist plans or level of readiness of security personnel that will comfort them.

Thanks to the belligerent talk and the test launches of ballistic missiles by the North Korean government in recent months, France and Austria are saying they may turn down their invitation to the upcoming Winter Games, as quoted here.

  • We will never put our team in danger. If it gets worse and we do not have their security confirmed, our French team will stay here. – Laura Flessel, Sports Minister of France.
  • If the situation gets worse and the security of the athletes is no longer guaranteed, we will not go to South Korea. – Karl Stoss, the head of Austrian Olympic Committee.

Germany is also reportedly mulling a decision to not send their athletes to South Korea.

Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)
It wasn’t a 7-1 victory. The universe did not bestow such poetic justice, the redemptive opportunity for Brazil to equal their slaughter at the hands of Germany at the World Cup in 2014. Brazil hosted that World Cup, losing to Germany by 6, and ending that tournament in shame.

On August 20, 2016, the day before the closing of the Rio Olympic Games, Brazil defeated Germany in the soccer finals, on the razor-thin edge of a penalty shootout. Despite the brilliance and success of Brazilian soccer over the decades, Brazil had never won an Olympic championship. On their 13th attempt, Brazil struck gold, and all of Brazil exhaled, and then danced.

After a tense 90 minutes of play that left the two powers tied 1-1, and then an additional 30 minutes of extra time, it came down to penalty kicks. Germany’s Matthias Ginter was up first, and he slotted the ball into the lower right corner, the Brazilian goalie, Weverton, guessing correctly but not able to handle it. The German goalie, Timo Horn guessed correctly on Renato Augusto‘s shot, but the ball zipped into the upper right hand corner of the net. On Germany’s second attempt, Weverton had Serge Gnabry‘s shot lined up, but it slipped under his arm pit and into the net. Marquinhos of Brazil sent his shot into the upper left hand corner of the net to equalize. And on it went, Julian Brandt, then Rafinha, Niklas Sule, and then Luan, their aim, all true.

When Germany’s Nils Petersen stepped up, with penalty kicks tied at 4-4, momentum was hinting at another score from Petersen. But momentum doesn’t last forever. Petersen’s shot went to Weverton’s left, and the Brazilian goalie got his hands out to block it. When the ball fell harmlessly aside, the Maracanã exploded. Everyone watching knew Brazil was on the verge of a magical moment.

BRASIL E ALEMANHA
Weverton saves the match. Foto: LEONARDO BENASSATTO/FUTURA PRESS/FUTURA PRESS/ESTADÃO CONTEÚDO
Up stepped Brazilian sensation Neymar, who had performed superbly during this Olympic run, and in fact scored Brazil’s only goal on a perfect free kick in the first half of the match. Gold and glory for Brazil was his alone to grasp, as billions around the world held their breath.

Neymar nailed it, his knees buckling as he fell to the grass. A flood of tears streamed down his face, tears for so long kept at bay by the repressive weight of a nation. As he lay there on his back, his hands covering his face, there was nothing left for Neymar to give. But to Brazilians, he had given them everything as the stadium erupted in a cathartic fit of joy.

The fears of the zika virus. The pollution of Guanabara Bay. The impeachment of the Brazilian president. The worst economy in decades. The constant news of corruption and crimes, and the concomitant and constant criticism Brazilians endured not only by foreigners but within their own ranks.

At the moment the ball hit the back of the net, Neymar made it all right.

Willi Holdorf on medal stand
Rein Aun of the Soviet Union (silver) Willi Holdorf of Germany (gold) and Hans-Joachim Walde of Germany (bronze)

To be honest, he looked more like an accountant than a decathlete. He had thinning hair and sloping shoulders, and wasn’t dominant in any of the ten events. And yet, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Willi Holdorf of Germany broke the US stranglehold on the decathlon to be the first non-American to win the prestigious event since 1928.

According to UPI, when the 24-year old student was asked by the press how it felt to be the “World’s Greatest Athlete”, Holdorf replied “‘Nicht ich, nicht ich’, vigourously shaking his head when the question of how it felt to be regarded the greatest of them all wad put to him. In slow, deliberate English, he conveyed the idea that he did not think of himself as No. 1, but genuinely believed (Bob) Hayes was the all-round best even though the speedy Floridian never even competed in the decathlon.”

While decathletes like Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias had created an American stranglehold on this ten-discipline event of running, jumping and throwing, the overwhelming favorite to win gold in 1964 was the Asian Iron Man from Taiwan, C. K. Yang. Yang barely lost to his close friend and UCLA teammate at the 1960 Rome Olympic. The fight, they said, would be for silver. As it turns out, Holdorf won gold, while his German teammate, Hans-Joachim Walde took silver, and a third German finished sixth – an amazing result.

Willi Holdorf_The Olympic Century
Willi Holdorf in the decathlon high jump, from the book The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Highly publicized changes to the decathlon rules prior to the Tokyo Olympics resulted in fewer points assessed to decathletes who had a specialization that was far superior to others in the field. In other words, if an athlete was dominant in a particular event, prior to 1964, they could get an outsized number of points and take an outsized lead. But that advantage was diminished with the rule change. Fortunately for the German squad, they had a decathlon coach, Friedel Schirmer, who had the philosophy to take advantage – consistency uber alles.

Returning home to Germany as a sickly solider after surviving captivity in the Soviet Union shortly after the end of World War II, Schirmer went on to become a seven-time all Germany champion in the decathlon, representing Germany as the flag bearer in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. He placed eighth in those Olympics, but it was his philosophy that had such an impact that Germany would consistently medal in the Olympic decathlon in the years following 1964. Here’s how Carl Posey explained it in the book, The Olympic Century XVIII Olympiad:

Every elite decathlete’s score took a dip because of the table revisions, but the least affected was a group of Germans. These men were all coached by Friedel Schirmer, who stressed consistency in every event rather than excellence in one or two. Foremost among his protégés was Willi Holdorf, a balding, 24-year-old physical education student from Leverkusen. Holdorf took the decathlon lead after the first event, the 100-meter dash. He fell back as far as fourth place after the shot put and high jump, while the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Storozhenko surged to the front on the strength of a tremendous put. Holdorf regained the lead after the 400 meters and maintained it through the final five events. The gold medalist’s score of 7,887 points was well short of a record, nevertheless, the Tokyo Games validated Schirmer’s decathlon philosophy. Germans claimed three of the top six spots, and Schirmer-trained athletes would dominate the event for the rest of the decade.

Willi Holdorf after 1500 meter race
Willi Holdorf after the decathlon 1500-meter race, from the book, Tokyo Olympiad Kyodo News Service

Sports Illustrated in their November 2, 1964 issue explained that Schirmer had studied up on Soviet and American training techniques and after becoming coach of the German decathlon squad worked them hard in a series of biweekly training and competitive sessions, gearing them for Tokyo. In the end, as is the case in many decathlons, it came down to the tenth and final event, the 1500-meter race. Like Johnson in 1960, Holdorf did not need to win, but he needed to do well enough to maintain his point lead.

In Tokyo, Holdorf took an early lead and held it, though as the exhausting 1,500-meter run, the final event, began, three men were still close enough to beat him. Particularly dangerous were Russia’s Rein Aun and America’s Paul Herman, both of whom could run much faster 1,500s than the German. “I knew that I could win if I could stay within 60 meters of Aun and 100 meters of Herman,” said Holdorf, a tall, balding blond who is built like a wedge of custard pie standing on its point. Aun took an immediate lead, with Herman in desperate pursuit and Holdorf gradually falling farther and farther behind. But at the finish Holdorf, tottering half-conscious over the line, was close enough to salvage victory from Aun by the narrow margin of 45 points.

Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964
Stars and Stripes Front Page_October 7, 1964

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, East and West Germany competed as one team, under a single flag, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (Ode to Joy) their national anthem. But the unity of the “German” team was more of a mirage, as geopolitical realities extended Cold War distance to the athletes.

At the time, the Iron Curtain was a philosophical metaphor for the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Berlin was a very real barrier. Only three days before the opening of the 1964 Olympic Games, it was reported that 57 people had successfully escaped from East to West Berlin through a tunnel dug under the wall. As was written in the AP report, “it was believed to be one of the biggest mass escapes since the Red Wall was erected in the summer of 1961.”

During the existence of the Wall, from 1961 to 1989, around 5,000 people escaped in a variety of ways – balloons, tightrope, and tunnels. The 57 who escaped made it through what is now known as “Tunnel 57”.

A civil engineering student in East Berlin named Joachim Neumann was able to sneak past border guards to West Berlin posing as a Swiss student in 1961. And while Neumann continued his studies in West Berlin, he also began to apply his learnings to the building of tunnels under the Wall.

Neumann’s first project was on a team building a tunnel in 1962, resulting in the successful escape of 29 people over two days, September 14 and 15. Neumann had a girlfriend in East Berlin, but was unable to inform her in time of the day of escape. But Tunnel 29, as it is now known, was Neumann’s realization that he would have other opportunities to bring his girlfriend to freedom.

Unfortunately, the next attempt to build a tunnel ended in calamity as the East German secret police uncovered the existence of the tunnel under progress. One of the people arrested was Neumann’s girlfriend, Christina, who was held for 8 months before being sentenced to two years in prison.

Joachim and Christina Neumann
Joachim and Christina Neumann

And Neumann continued to work on tunnel projects from the West Berlin side, including an excavation from April to October in 1964, the very one cited in the AP article above. Here is how the site, Berlin Wall Memorial, tells the rest of the story.

The escape operation was supposed to begin on October 3, 1964. But Joachim Neumann had to take an exam that day. When he returned to his apartment, he found a letter from his girlfriend. She wrote that she had been released early from prison and was back in Berlin. Joachim Neumann had to be at the opening to the tunnel in three hours and wasn’t able to find a courier on such short notice. He asked his friend to help and rushed to Bernauer Strasse. It was his job to greet the people escaping on the East Berlin side. It was quite late when his girlfriend appeared before him. She was one of 57 people who