Ask a more serious fan and he'll say: "No, that's a popular misconception. The Americans beat the Soviets in the semifinal. They beat Finland in the final."
They're both wrong.
Oddly enough, there was no final or semifinal in the tournament. Instead, the medals were decided in a second group stage, a strangely anticlimactic format that has thankfully faded in popularity.
There were 12 teams in the 1980 tournament, divided into two groups of six. The United States won four games and drew one, as did Sweden. These top two teams joined the top two in the other group, USSR and Finland, not in the semifinals, but in a new four-team group.
Results between the teams that advanced "carried over" into this round: the 2-2 draw between USA
and Sweden and the USSR's 4-2 win over Finland. So before the medal round actually began there were already standings, based on that one carried over game:
The first game of this medal round was the famous miracle on ice, with the Americans beating the heavily favored Soviets, 4-3. Later that night, Sweden and Finland skated to a 3-3 tie (there was no overtime at any point in the tournament). That left the standings like this with one game to play:
Clearly, the gold medal hadn't been decided yet. All four teams still had a chance.: The U.S. could clinch it with a win, but if Finland beat the U.S., the winner of Sweden -U.S.S.R. would take gold. And it's not hard to construct a scenario in which Finland wins the gold medal. Imagine if Finland beat the U.S. by 3-0 and the Soviets and Sweden played a 3-3 tie. Then we'd have these standings:
Finland would have been gold medalists, and despite the miracle on ice, the United States would have gone home with nothing.
In the end, though, the U.S. did beat Finland, 4-2, while the Soviets pasted Sweden, 9-2, leaving the final standings and the medals as follows:
No Olympic team events end with a group stage any more. The perceived fairness of determining the medals based on performance over several games against top competition has been trumped by the excitement that knockout games provide..