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1972
Olympic Basketball Loss

            The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich held arguably the most contentious
basketball game ever played. Two of the best Olympic basketball teams had
squared off in the final game for the gold medal. This game between Soviet
Russia and the United States would go down in history as one of the most shocking
losses of the century. Such a loss for the United States caused enough turmoil and
outrage that ultimately caused the team to not accept the silver medal. Was this
reaction warranted? The reaction by the United States was more escalated due to
the already underlying conflict of the Cold War,      even though the game was won fairly by the Russians.

            The Russian team was a strong group who’s “abilities
reflected broader trends in the sporting tastes of the Soviet Public.”
(Edelman, 1993). Consisting of multinational players including notable figures
such as Modestas Paulaskas, Mikhail Korkia, and later U.S. hall of fame elect
Sergei Belov, and Alexander Belov playing center. On the American team was a
group but consisted of Doug Collins, Kevin Joyce, and James Forbes. The Vietnam
War would attribute to the United States having a weaker team during this
Olympics as many American college athletes took protest to representing the
country because of it. One of the most notable players being center player Bill
Walton (Edelman, 1993).

            The game had started and for most of the game, continued
with the Soviet team having a steady lead until a foul on Doug Collins was
called with three seconds left on the clock. Before he had stepped up to the
free throw line the Soviet team had the lead by one point with the score being
49-48. “America’s perfect Olympic record at stake, he made one, then another,
nudging the Americans ahead.” (Rivals, 2010). With that, the U.S. had taken the
lead for the first time during the game. Before releasing the second free throw
Russian coach Kondrashin had called timeout, which had called a decision to be
made to set the clock back to three seconds once more. Getting those three
seconds back had proven to be a challenge for the Russian team. “According to
the rules then in force, a coach had a choice of taking the time-out before the
first or second foul shot but not after both shots had been taken.” (Edelman,
1993).

            This three second decision was just the start of when
this chain of events would take a turn to becoming more complicated and
controversial. Kondrashin had intended to call the timeout before the first
free throw, but the German officials, not reading the situation correctly, had
thought he had decided otherwise and had given the Soviet team no time out at
all (Edelman,1993). After much screaming and a frantic display by Kondrashin
and assistant coach Sergei Bashkin the game was stopped, and FIBA
(International Amateur Basketball Federation) Secretary General Robert Jones
stepped out and held three fingers in the air, insisting three seconds be put
back onto the clock to revert back to the time when Kondrashin had first called
the timeout (Large, 2012). As expected, the American team would protest this
call, but to no avail and the game would then continue.

            Ivan Edeshko was put into the game with the intent that
he would pass the ball to Alexander Belov. As he threw it the length of the
court when the horn rang which would have originally signaled the end of the
game. With premature celebration by the American team and confusion coming from
the German officials, the play was stopped since the clock had not been reset
to match the call made by Jones. When the clock was reset, fifty seconds had
been added to the timer instead of three but was then corrected. Edeshko was
handed the ball and sent a Hail Mary pass that would reach Belov on the far end
of the court. Belov then faking threw the ball up and scored off of the glass
just as the horn would once more go off. The game was over with a final score
of 51-50 in favor of the Soviet team.

            Hank Iba, the United States basketball coach, was quick
to protest but was ultimately turned away as the call had been made by the head
of FIBA. Another argument made by Iba included claiming that Belov had knocked
down Joyce and Forbes and that “they certainly didn’t trip themselves” (Ellis,
1972). A major turning point in Olympic history had taken place for the first
time ever, America had lost in basketball. This wouldn’t be the end of the
fight for the American team as U.S. officials would file an official protest.

            The decision came in front of a crowded room where the
five person jury voted in favor of the Soviets in a vote of 3-2. The three
votes denying the claim would be from delegates representing the countries
Cuba, Poland, and Hungary while the votes for the claim would come from Italy
and Puerto Rico. It had been obvious that Cold War loyalties had a play in this
vote and unfortunately for the United States, Russian loyalties represented the
majority of this committee. There was already discord among the USOC at this
point as for the lack of challenging the call made by the referees for this
game, out-of-date schedules, and disqualification for illegal substances. A
memorandum to President Nixon in 1973 would say “When the teams and coaches dispatched
as Ambassadors of goodwill are less than our best as a result of organizational
mismanagement and conflict, US image is damaged internationally” (Hunt, 2007).

            Clifford Buck of the USOC had recommended to the
executive board that the United States should no longer participate in any
future Olympic basketball competition. This would be in protest to the decision
made by FIBA in what he called an “unconscionable injustice” done to the U.S.
basketball team. The USOC board did not follow suit with what Buck had tried to
accomplish but the American team had a unanimous vote to not attend the award
ceremony following their defeat to accept their silver medals (Large, 2012).
Medals that still have not been claimed even to this day.

            This decision made by the FIBA jury had caused a lot of
animosity as the Americans claimed being victims of maltreatment from
officials. The game had become headlining news around the United States as it
was called “‘the biggest robbery since the famous Brinks job in Boston’, ‘theft
by stopwatch result'” (Rivals, 2010). Complaints from upset Americans had begun
flying into Munich. Interestingly, much of the blame had gone toward the
Soviets. They had cried out anti-American sentiment by the IOC. Shirley Povich
of the Washington Post wrote “They used Russian terror mathematics to stretch
the one remaining second on the electronic clock into a useful six, then said
they just come from behind to beat the American team by one point.” (Rivals,
2010). Of the course the winning team would claim no wrong doing as for the
belief that their victory adhered to the rules and was won fair and square.

            What is interesting is that the blame wasn’t pushed onto
the call made by Robert Jones or the other officials of the game. The blame game
had just been another remnant of the Cold War as this would be one in many
examples of the U.S.S.R. and United States just butting heads. It makes one
wonder what the reaction would have been if such a loss had occurred today in a
time after the Cold War. While the spirit of competition has potential to bring
out such animosity, it can’t be denied that the two parties at hand also factors
into why a reaction like this was received from an event such as this. In this
case, the U.S.-U.S.S.R. rivalry had escalated the loss so much more as it
seemed like an attack to the country itself.

            Looking back at the game it seems more of a matter of
inexperience and circumstance that ultimately lead to the defeat of the
American team rather than bias. The bias itself came after the votes from Cold
War loyal countries came into effect. The difficulty behind the time out ordeal
is where attention should be focused the most. Had the timeout been accepted
correctly, there’s no telling what the ultimate outcome of the game would have
been. Collins still could have made those two free throw shots and the game
would have potentially been over. The decision of whether the time out was
valid or not shouldn’t have been a question. The referee being unaware of this
rule or not knowing whether Kondrashin had cancelled the time out or not should
not have been in question. A referee should always be able to note when a
timeout is called and if it complies with the rules or not; and in this case it
should have complied. As for the matter of him and his assistant coach running
around and screaming disrupting the game to do so should not have been allowed.
If anything should have been taken away, it should have been that extra point
Collins had made if the call for timeout was recognized before the second free
throw.

            So then they are left with one second left on the clock
from the other side of the court. The chances of the Soviets winning at this
point would be slim unless by some miracle they could pull it off. What is
interesting though, is Jones’s decision to put three seconds back on the clock.
That does strike as a little nonsensical as “FIBA rules made no provisions
whatsoever for play to have stopped so a timeout could be awarded.” (Elzey). It
seemed that in this moment, the head of FIBA himself was the one who would
decide the outcome of the game by giving the Soviet team another chance. Again,
the ire of the American people seemed to be more focused on placing the blame
in the Soviets rather than this call by Jones at the time. Only now reflecting
back on the game do we see that the call made by Jones himself was the true
issue behind the matter.

            The rest would be history as the Belov did make that
final shot, it was all a matter of skill at that point. Edeshko made a fair
pass that Belov had met with a fair shot, anything of the sort would most
likely have been called. A lot of the anger comes unwarranted it seems due to
this idea that America has been unbeatable at basketball on one half. On the
other half you have that the Soviets of all countries would be the one that
stopped that reign. It’s not entirely like America was completely in the lead
and victory was stripped away from them. The Soviets did lead for a very large
part of the game and it did only happen that Collins was fouled and allowed for
a one point lead.

            Perhaps when looking at the level of skill, the Soviet
lineup proved to be more formidable than that of the American lineup. As stated
before, the Soviet team was ahead of the United States for a better part of the
game which only changed due to Collins being fouled. “We had showed up with the
wrong offense: a carefully disciplined five-man affair with meticulous
ball-handling, great patience, no-risk movements, and selective shooting.” “A
deliberate offense may minimize your errors, but it will also minimize your
scoring potential. And that can be dangerous, especially when you’re not
playing well and your opponent is.” (Masin, 2003). Edeshko made a pass that
could have been stopped, the Russian team had beated the United States in a
fair game. It was always a match of skill, the issue of Cold War politics came
after it was over. The players and coaches should have seen that rather than
see the opposing team rather than anything else.

The
tension between the players to this day will still not ease. Sergei Belov was
quoted saying in 0:03 Seconds from Gold,
“I’ve always been terribly insulted that the Americans never accepted our
victory.” Another specific example would be the interactions Edeshko and
Collins have had since the event. While Collins was coaching for the Chicago
Bulls, he had ended up being in the same summer league as Edeshko. Edeshko had
made a request for him and Collins to meet up which Collins had promptly
refused to do (Stein, 2012). Years later during coverage of the 1994 World
Championships in Toronto he had requested a pregame visit from Sergei Belov to
which during the interview he had answered all questions in Russian with an
interpreter the entire time. Later he would tell Collins in perfect English, “Tell
your son Chris good luck at Duke this year.” (Stein, 2012). Now that last
example could have been interpreted incorrectly by Collins as he may have been
speaking Russian during the interview more for his own home country’s audience.
Collins did take it as a personal attack though as he said “That sucker got me
again.”

An
individual there hasn’t been much commentary from is Hank Iba. Aside from his
arguments during the game there isn’t much he has added. His voice was there in
that he chose to take the high road in this situation. In the end he had chosen
to accept that defeat regardless of the American team choosing not to accept
their gold medals. He was quoted saying. “I represent the U.S. We need to put
our best foot forward. Go with world protocol.” (Tramel, 2012). In the end his
career was ultimately destroyed by the loss. This gives insight on how it
really wasn’t just a game between basketball teams but rather the common trend
at the time of world powers struggling to gain the upper hand. How Iba chose to
react compared to the rest of the United States shows that representation had
outshined the actual desire to compete and win.

The
United States was set on the idea that they were robbed of victory. It was
never the fault of the U.S.S.R. as it may have seemed but rather questionable
decisions that happened on the court. The politics of the Cold War would only
come later when those decisions were called out. On one end it is fair to say
that the United States would have had the right to complain about Robert Jones
coming down from the stands and suggesting that the clock be set back to three
seconds. On the other end it is also fair to say that the Soviets had their
call for a timeout ignored which could have also robbed them of victory in a
similar manner. However it was the skill of both Edeshko and Belov that won the
Soviets that game. It was a victory that was earned as fairly as it could have
been.

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Masin,
Herman L. “Basketball’s Most Unforgettable Game.” Coach and Athletic
Director, vol. 73, no. 5, Dec. 2003, pp. 27–29. Proquest ,
search-proquest-com.colorado.idm.oclc.org/docview/208046249?pq-origsite=summon.
Large,
David Clay. Munich 1972: tragedy, terror, and triumph at the Olympic
Games. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012,
ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucb/reader.action?docID=902584.
Elzey,
Chris. “:03 Seconds From Gold.” Journal of Sports History. Purdue
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Edelman,
Robert. Serious fun: a history of spectator sports in the USSR. Oxford
University Press, 1993.
Wiggins,
David Kenneth, and R. Pierre. Rodgers. Rivals: Legendary Matchups That
Made Sports History. University of Arkansas Press, 2010.
JACK
ELLIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 11, 1972. “Russian cage
gold upheld; U.S. turns down silver.” Stars and Stripes, www.stripes.com/news/russian-cage-gold-upheld-u-s-turns-down-silver-1.23293.
Hunt,
Thomas M. “Countering the Soviet Threat in the Olympic medals race: The
Amateur Sports Act of 1978 and American athletics policy reform.” The
International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 24, no. 6, 2007, pp.
796–818., doi:10.1080/09523360701265115.
Stein,
Marc. “Chapter 3: The Russian Reaction.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 9
Aug. 2012, www.espn.com/olympics/summer/2012/basketball/story/_/id/8242402/remembering-1972-us-olympic-squad-40-years-later-russian-reaction.
Tramel,
Berry. “Olympics: Revisiting Henry Iba’s role in USA basketball’s lowest
moment.” NewsOK, 17 Aug. 2012, http://newsok.com/article/3701868.