The Debunker: Ken Jennings vs. Sports Myths, Part 2

by Ken Jennings


January has the big college bowl games, and March has its madness. But when it comes to sports, February is no slouch either. Since 2004, the Super Bowl’s been a February game. There’s the NBA All-Star weekend. Every four years, there’s even a February Olympics. There’s no Winter Olympics this year to brighten your February, so we’ve asked Jeopardy! mega-champ Ken Jennings to show off his jock side and throw a flag on some deeply cherished sports facts you thought you knew. Nobody takes more pride than sports fans in knowing their stuff—but as we’ll see, they’re not always right.

Sports Myth #2: The U.S. men’s hockey team beat the Soviet Union to clinch its 1980 “Miracle on Ice” gold medal.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve seen the clip many times: the U.S. hockey team pulls off one of the greatest upsets in sports history by bringing the Soviet hockey machine (apparently some kind of diesel-powered cloning lab?) to its knees. Al Michaels announces, “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” Millions of Americans care, briefly, about that least American of sports: ice hockey. Hollywood even made a Kurt Russell movie out of it, for crying out loud. How many of ESPN’s “Top Sports Moments of the 20th Century” got made into Kurt Russell movies? (Oops, sorry, that was rhetorical. You want an answer? Okay, three. This and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Captain Ron.)

After the game, you know what that heroic hockey team received for beating their Soviet overlords? Nothing! Almost everyone who sees the jubilant “Miracle on Ice” clips assumes that the U.S. team must have just won the gold medal. In fact, the upset came as part of a round-robin medal round. A round robin! The U.S. could, mathematically, still have finished out of the medals after their win against the Soviets.

Luckily, two nights later, the American team ended the tournament by beating Finland, the world’s fifth-ranked team, which finished the medal round winless and out of the medals. If that sounds anticlimactic, at least the Americans made it exciting by almost blowing the medal-clinching Finland game. They were down 2-1 in the final period before coming back with three late goals. But “We just upset Finland to win gold!” lacked that Cold War, David-vs.-Vladimir sizzle. The earlier win over the undefeated Russians is the one that made all the magazine covers.

Quick Quiz: On the same day as the “Miracle on Ice,” the Soviet Union declared martial law in what country, to end rioting there?

Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.