The Washington Post

Pain of Olympic injustice still stings 50 years later

U.S. won’t let go of loss in disputed basketball final


The most recent Olympic controvers­y — the positive doping test of a teenage Russian figure skating star — hovered over the Beijing Winter Games, a swirl of unpleasant­ness that included accusation­s of cheating, questions about the objectivit­y of Olympic officials and medals left unrewarded, all in a climate of global tension between world powers.

It also carried a certain echo from the past. A half-century ago this week, the Soviet Union stunned the United States in a controvers­y-marred men’s basketball game to claim the Olympic gold medal. But the end of that Cold War faceoff arrived with questions about fair play and potential bias in the officiatin­g, and the U.S. team — tormented by the final contentiou­s seconds — refused to accept their silver medals. Fifty years later, the Internatio­nal

Olympic Committee still has those medals — and the Americans still have their pain.

“Those medals are going to be in Lausanne, Switzerlan­d, for a thousand years from now,” Tom Mcmillen, an American forward on that team, said in a recent interview.

It all resulted from a game that was not expected to deliver drama or dispute. The United States had won 63 consecutiv­e Olympic men’s basketball games, claiming every gold medal dating from 1936, when the sport was first contested as a medal event. Although the young U.S. amateurs were facing a team of older, more experience­d Soviet players, the Americans were heavily favored going into the gold medal game, which took place 50 years ago Friday.

Even before tip-off, those Summer Olympics were mired in questions of whether the Games should continue. Days earlier, Palestinia­n militants had killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Village. In an editorial, the New York Times asked, “Are medals and commercial contracts more important than human lives?”

But Avery Brundage, the president of the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee, declared, “The Games must go on.” It was a familiar position for Brundage. As head of the American Olympic Committee four decades earlier, he had forcefully and successful­ly pushed for the United States to participat­e in the last Olympics in Germany — the infamous 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin.

Now, 36 years later, the Games had returned to Germany — technicall­y, West Germany, another Cold War product. And rather than providing any healing, this game would instead open new wounds.

A late start, a chaotic ending

The gold medal game began at 11:45 p.m. local time to accommodat­e a prime-time broadcast in the United States. The U.S.S.R. was well prepared and dominated early.

Neil Amdur, who covered the game for the New York Times, wrote in a 2012 retrospect­ive piece that the Soviets had “done their homework. They won eight of nine games on a 1971 United States tour with their Olympic lineup.”

“The Americans were a talented, college-dominated squad with little experience in internatio­nal play,” he added. “The Soviets had a total of 739 internatio­nal games among the starting five entering the 1972 Games, compared with only seven games for the Americans.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. coach, Hank Iba, “had lost touch with an evolving up-tempo game, espousing a discipline­d defense,” Amdur observed.

“It was very difficult for me because that’s not the way I ever grew up playing basketball,” recalled Mcmillen, who played 11 seasons in the NBA and later served as a congressma­n from Maryland. The Americans “were really athletic — and it seemed to me that it was subsuming their athleticis­m.”

With 10 minutes left, the Soviets had a 10-point lead, and “at that point in time, [guard] Kevin Joyce and a few of the guys just went out on their own and started running and really took the game back,” Mcmillen said.

With time running out and the Soviets ahead by one, Doug Collins stole the ball for the Americans and drove to the basket, where he was fouled hard by a Soviet defender. Collins went to the free throw line with three seconds left and sank both shots, giving the Americans a 50-49 lead.

An internatio­nal Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA) rule at the time didn’t allow for a timeout to be called after a second free throw, so the Soviets had to rush the ball across the court, and as a Soviet player dribbled the ball at half-court, it looked as if the Americans would win the game. But the Soviet coaches complained that a timeout they had called between Collins’s free throws hadn’t been granted, and as they disrupted the scorer’s table, a referee stopped the action with one second left.

At that point, Renato William Jones — the British head and cofounder of FIBA — ordered the clock reset to three seconds.

“Bedlam has taken over here at the basketball hall,” broadcaste­r Frank Gifford said on the ABC telecast.

So the Soviets inbounded the ball again from under their own basket but failed to score as time expired. “It’s all over!” Gifford yelled as the American players rushed the court in celebratio­n. “Wow, what a finish, the United States winning their eighth consecutiv­e gold medal!” A final score of USA 50, U.S.S.R. 49 flashed across the screen.

Then a more subdued Gifford: “Now we’re being told the scoreboard is not correct.”

It turned out that when the play began, the clock read 50 seconds, not three seconds. So the Soviets were given yet another chance.

As Soviet player Ivan Edeshko prepared to inbound the ball, the 6-foot, 11-inch Mcmillen guarded him along the baseline, but a language barrier wound up giving Edeshko a clear passing lane.

“There was a referee pointing at my legs, and he was Romanian. He didn’t speak English,” Mcmillen recalled. “Under internatio­nal rules, as long as the [inbounding] player can back up, you don’t have to get off the line. It’s his responsibi­lity to back up if he wants more room. But the referee’s pointing at my feet — I’m behind the line. I’m not breaking a rule. Why is he pointing at my feet? I thought he was telling me to get off the line, and the last thing I want is to get called for a technical foul at that point. And that’s why I backed off. It was a language issue.”

Standing on the other side of the court was Soviet forward Aleksander Belov, to whom Edeshko made a perfect Hail Mary-style pass. With two players guarding him, Belov jumped, came down as the Americans lost position, then made an unconteste­d game-winning layup.

“Chaos ensued,” the Times reported in its game story. “Iba again rushed to the scorer’s table, [James] Forbes wept unabashedl­y, and photograph­ers, newsmen and irate fans flooded onto the floor.”

The Americans protested, but the jury was stacked against them in another Cold War timepiece: The vote was 3-2, with judges from Communist bloc nations Hungary, Poland and Cuba voting against the American appeal and those from Italy and Puerto Rico dissenting.

“In one of the most bizarre events yet of the 20th Olympiad,” The Washington Post’s William Gildea wrote, “the United States apparently lost its first Olympic basketball game today after 63 victories even though the game appeared to have ended with the Americans ahead.” The game ended “with two premature U.S. victory outbursts, then a Soviet celebratio­n.”

Questions about objectivit­y

The American players refused to accept their silver medals.

“It was the Cold War,” Edeshko, the Soviet player who made the game-winning pass, later said. “Americans, out of their own natural pride and love of country, didn’t want to lose and admit loss. They didn’t want to lose in anything, especially basketball.”

Soviet guard Sergei Belov, who led all scorers with 20 points, said in the HBO documentar­y “:03 From Gold” that the Americans “lacked courage” and “couldn’t admit they were silver medalists.”

“The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right,” said Jones, the FIBA chief.

But the Americans might have had reasons to doubt Jones’s objectivit­y.

“Jones was very antagonist­ic to the United States continuing to win,” Mcmillen said. “Jones and his compatriot­s were really trying to stop American hegemony in basketball. They were tired of America winning all the time.”

About two months before the gold medal game, a top Soviet sports official, Nikolai Beshkarev, paid a visit to Jones at his office in a Munich suburb, according to a 2012 Bloomberg story.

“The Soviets, like most federation members, bestowed gifts on Jones, who reigned over every aspect of internatio­nal basketball, such as deciding who would referee, who was eligible to play, and even the rules of the game itself,” Bloomberg reported.

The story continued: “Jones, who’d rooted for the Soviets at an earlier Olympic championsh­ip game, remained a booster. Jones lauded the 1972 team’s ‘strong athletic mastery’ and its new coach’s ‘profession­al skills, intuition, and strategy,’ according to Beshkarev’s never-before-cited report to his bosses in Moscow, which Bloomberg News unearthed in a Russian government archive.”

Citing unpublishe­d correspond­ence of Brundage, the longtime IOC president, Bloomberg reported that Jones feuded with some U.S. coaches and executives, who considered him a Communist sympathize­r and a tyrant. Jones, who was the first internatio­nal person inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, died in 1981.

Controvers­y remains

The United States regained the gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal with a victory over Yugoslavia.

The Americans and Soviets would not compete in the same Summer Olympics for another decade, following the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1988, the Soviets beat the United States again, this time in a semifinal, 82-76. As The Post reported, “there was no resetting of the clock twice in the final three seconds, as happened 16 years ago. The Soviets won this semifinal game straight up.”

Mcmillen, by then a congressma­n, circulated a resolution that would allow American profession­als to compete in the Olympics. And in 1989, FIBA dropped its restrictio­ns on profession­als competing in internatio­nal competitio­ns, including the Olympics. That allowed the United States to field its “Dream Team” — featuring Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — which cruised to the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Mcmillen said that the ’72 game helped pave the way for profession­als.

“It was the start of the end of that concept of amateurism, and it took the 1988 game to finish it off,” he said. “Certainly our game played a role in that.”

The American players, though, still refuse to accept the silver medals, which remain in Lausanne, Switzerlan­d, home of the IOC. McMillen has long sought a compromise that would give the U.S. team some recognitio­n. In 2012, at the team’s 40-year reunion, he floated the idea of a dual gold, but his teammates rejected it.

“I said if we don’t do something, we’re all just going to go into oblivion,” he recalled. “The compromise I proposed was that we ask the Russians to go along with awarding us the dual gold medal, but we don’t accept them. And we end up monetizing them — we sell them and we create a charity for Russian children or something. In other words, we get the honor of the award, but we don’t get to keep the medals. We end up doing something good for mankind.”

This year, Mcmillen sent a letter to the IOC requesting that the silver medals be sent to the team’s “proxy,” a U.S. law firm, with the intention of then transferri­ng them to a museum such as the Smithsonia­n National Museum of American History, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum.

“The Team will not seek personal financial gain from this arrangemen­t,” Mcmillen wrote. “Instead, the Team is seeking to accomplish a positive and constructi­ve alternativ­e to leaving the Medals permanentl­y in a vault in Switzerlan­d.”

But the IOC quickly rejected the idea.

“Everyone at the Internatio­nal Olympic Committee (IOC) appreciate­s your efforts to turn into something positive the impression that has been left by your declining of the award almost fifty years ago,” the IOC’S legal affairs director, Mariam Mahdavi, wrote in a letter to Mcmillen. However, she said, having an attorney accept the medals on behalf of the team “would by no means respect the spirit of an award of Olympic medals,” adding that there are no legal grounds to grant the request.

Now, at the 50th anniversar­y, Mcmillen again sees a shadow of that Cold War showdown.

“It’s particular­ly poignant this year because of the Ukrainian war and the fact that this whole Cold War that we’re witnessing right now between Russia and the United States is very similar to what we went through in 1972,” Mcmillen said. “Every few decades, things often do repeat. Because our game was emblematic completely of the Cold War. Here we are, once again in a Cold War with Russia.”

 ?? NCAA PHOTOS/NCAA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES ?? The Americans refused to accept their silver medals after suffering a controvers­y-marred defeat to the U.S.S.R. at the Munich Games.
NCAA PHOTOS/NCAA PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES The Americans refused to accept their silver medals after suffering a controvers­y-marred defeat to the U.S.S.R. at the Munich Games.
 ?? BETTMANN ARCHIVE ?? U.S. players sat on the bench in shock after losing in the gold medal game to the U.S.S.R., the Americans’ first loss in Olympic play.
BETTMANN ARCHIVE U.S. players sat on the bench in shock after losing in the gold medal game to the U.S.S.R., the Americans’ first loss in Olympic play.

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