By Michael LeCompte
The first modern act of terrorism was committed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by terrorists. Another tragic event from those games 43 years ago is less well remembered, but the injustice of the Gold Medal Men’s Basketball game between the United States and Soviet Union has been felt ever since by the twelve American players.
Since its inclusion as an Olympic sport in 1936 the United States had dominated on the basketball court, winning gold at every summer games. 1972 figured to be no exception. Ten of the twelve men on the team would go on to become first round picks in the NBA. Team USA won its first 8 games in the Olympics to reach the final against the Soviet Union, unfortunately that is where Cold War politics interfered, robbing them of gold.
The Gold medal game was a physical, hard-fought match from the start. Finally, with under 5 seconds to play Team USA’s Doug Collins stole the ball at half-court and was immediately fouled. When Collins stepped to the line for two free-throws there were 3 seconds on the clock.
Collins sunk his first free-throw and lined up for the second, however, as he raised the ball to shoot the horn sounded from the scorer’s table. He made the second shot anyway to put the U.S. up 50-49, but chaos soon ensued.
The Soviet team inbounded the ball under the basket and began racing down court to get off a last-second shot, however, their coach ran onto the floor claiming he called timeout prior to Collins’ second free-throw attempt and that it hadn’t been granted. As the coach argued the clock ticked down to 1 second.
The referees conferred and let the Soviet team inbound the ball again, this time at half-court. For some reason the clock was reset to 3 seconds and the ball was inbounded. The buzzer sounded correctly after one second as the Soviets took a shot that clanked harmlessly off the backboard. The referees ruled that the buzzer should not have sounded after only one second and so they put 3 seconds back on the clock and let the Soviets inbound the ball yet again.
As is so often the case the third time was the charm. The Soviets inbounded from half-court and a player managed to go up and snag the ball in between two Americans and lay it in for the 51-50 win giving the Soviet Union the Gold medal.
Essentially the Soviet team was given 9 seconds (3 seconds were put back on the clock 3 times) when there were only 3 left in the game.
The United States immediately appealed the results of the game, but to no avail. A 5 member jury denied the appeal, somehow ruling 3-2 that the Soviets had legitimately won Gold. After the Olympics it was revealed that the 3 judges who ruled in favor of the Soviets were from Soviet-Allied nations.
While the Soviet team returned home as conquering heroes, the United States team refused to accept their Silver medals and went home feeling empty. As Doug Collins, whose free-throws should have given the U.S. the Gold, explained on the 40th anniversary of the game, “it becomes real every time I see a medal ceremony and hear the national anthem and see an athlete represent his country. It’s the moment that I feel was stolen from us, being up on that podium together, wearing that gold around our necks.”
Since 1972 the International Olympic Committee has periodically contacted Team USA to inquire into whether they are interested in receiving their Silver medals. To this day team members steadfastly refuse to accept the Silver (which are worth as much as $25,000 now) when they know they won Gold.
Sports, especially the Olympics, often have the power to unite disparate individuals and groups of people, however, that purity can be diluted and betrayed when politics enter the arena. Unfortunately the 1972 Olympics became a literal and symbolic battlefield for competing ideologies and the athletes lost, even though they really won.
The unclaimed Silver Medals for the 1972 United States Men’s Basketball team currently sit in a vault in the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.