Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

When the game was for more than gold

By Bob Greene
February 23, 2014 -- Updated 1504 GMT (2304 HKT)
NASA says an object about the size of a small boulder hit the Moon in Mare Imbrium on March 17, creating an explosion bright enough to be seen on Earth. "It exploded in a flash nearly 10 times as bright as anything we've ever seen before," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. NASA says an object about the size of a small boulder hit the Moon in Mare Imbrium on March 17, creating an explosion bright enough to be seen on Earth. "It exploded in a flash nearly 10 times as bright as anything we've ever seen before," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.
HIDE CAPTION
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
Big moon moments
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says Olympics thankfully didn't echo 1960s competition between superpowers
  • He says when Soviets, U.S. competed in space race, the goal galvanized Americans
  • He says they saw Kennedy's moon goal as repudiation of Khrushchev's "bury you" remark
  • Greene: U.S. got there first; today, there's no race, just friendly competition, like in Sochi

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," which has been named the One Book, One Nebraska statewide reading selection for 2014.

(CNN) -- Midway through this month's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, there was a bright and glorious full moon that lit the night sky high above the Earth.

Down below, men and women from around the world competed for medals on behalf of their countries. As usual, special attention was paid to the contests between American and Russian athletes.

On Sunday the closing ceremonies in Sochi will lower the curtain on the Winter Games. The ceremonies, as is tradition, are expected to center on two themes: competition, and the common ground that exists between different nations.

The view of that full moon during the Olympics, though -- so far away from the sights and sounds of the athletic contests -- brought to mind an era, not so very long ago, when competition between the United States and what was then called the Soviet Union was a much more serious game than anything played out on ice rinks or ski slopes.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

There were two quotes that galvanized the world back then, two quotes that set the urgent game in motion.

The first was from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. He spoke the words in 1958, directed at Western nations and their capitalistic way of life. Translated from the Russian language, the words appeared in banner headlines in big cities and small towns across the United States:

"We will bury you."

In an America already on edge during the stare-down atmosphere of the Cold War, it is difficult to imagine Khrushchev's warning being any more unequivocal than that.

The second quote was from President John F. Kennedy, delivered in 1962 at Rice University. Even now, the concise confidence of his pledge, the contrast in tone from what Khrushchev had said, is stunning:

"We choose to go to the moon."

Neil Armstrong's famous quote analyzed
See moment lunar rover lands
Jade Rabbit begins exploring the Moon

Just like that. That impossible thing -- that thing no one had ever done, that thing that all but defied dreams.

And, in case anyone missed the extent of his determination, Kennedy explained why the United States was going to attempt such feats: "not because they are easy, but because they are hard ... because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

Talk about high stakes. The United States had been woefully behind the Soviets in the space race. Now the president was promising to go to the moon, not just someday, but "in this decade."

It still seems almost beyond belief, except that it happened.

The race into space that followed those two famous declarations -- "We will bury you" and "We choose to go to the moon" -- mesmerized the nation in ways difficult to describe for those who were not born in those years.

There was one day in particular, early in the effort, when the United States was still trying to catch up with the Soviets and put a man into Earth's orbit. It was in 1962 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Walter Cronkite, reporting for the CBS television network, was doing his best to be dispassionate and objective as the giant Atlas rocket, with an American inside the tiny capsule atop it, thundered fearsomely into the skies.

"Flight seems to be on target so far," Cronkite said. "Looks like a good flight."

And then the emotion of it all, the importance of the contest at hand, overtook him. If it is possible for a baritone voice to keen, that's what it sounded like: so unexpected and so right, a proud and almost prayerful keening as the rocket lifted:

"Oh, go, baby!"

Then, not long after, a disembodied voice from beyond where anyone could see, the voice of the man alone in the capsule, John Glenn, telling a waiting world that he was in orbit and had achieved weightlessness, that he was free of the Earth's gravity.

The sound of that faraway voice on that day, the flat Midwestern cadence, no more tense or jittery than if he were back in his hometown of New Concord, Ohio, ordering a cheeseburger and a milkshake at the corner hangout:

"Zero G, and I feel fine."

The United States would win the contest; Kennedy was dead before the end of that decade, but, just as he had vowed, Americans walked on the moon by the time the 1970s commenced.

There have been only 12 people in the history of humankind who have stepped onto the moon. All were Americans. The Soviets never made it.

Was it worth the effort? Have the fruits of the victory meant much, in the long run? Those are questions for each American to decide for himself or herself.

This month athletes from the United States and Russia have engaged in spirited and friendly competition at the Sochi Games. No one was threatening to bury the losers of the contests. It is Khrushchev himself who is now buried; he has been gone since 1971. Today, in space, Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts circle the Earth in harmony together, traveling aboard the International Space Station.

A different world in which we all live. The old race -- the race to conquer space, that deadly earnest competition -- is consigned to history. On Sunday, two weeks of beautiful and immeasurably less momentous games will come to a close at a stadium in Russia.

And above those games this month, there was that moon. A reminder of a time when, in ways sometimes difficult to recall, anything at all seemed somehow possible.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT