[The following is an encore piece that was originally published 13 January 2010]
From an American sports enthusiast’s perspective, if the February 22, 1980 win over the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team is regarded as the greatest moment in sporting history, then the 1972 Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XX Olympiad held in Munich, of what was then West Germany, were the worst.
The ’72 Summer Olympics were the second set held in Germany after the ’36 Games in Berlin. A mere twenty-seven years had passed since the end of the Second World War, and, the Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. was very much alive, which served to make the Games more political than sporting. In no other event but men’s basketball was this fact evidenced more clearly.
Despite the Munich Massacre that had occurred ten days in, the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) had resolved to continue the Games, nonetheless. Entering the tournament with seven consecutive gold medals and a 63-0 Olympic record, the U.S. Men’s Basketball Team had dominated its first eight games, and, was slated to face the Soviets in the final that has since become the most controversial three seconds in Olympic history.
At the end of the second half, the U.S. was trailing the Soviets by one point. American guard, Doug Collins had stolen a pass from the Russians at half court and was subsequently knocked down and then rewarded with a couple free throws for the foul. With three seconds remaining on the clock, Collins stepped up to the foul line and sunk both shots making the score USA 50 – USSR 49.
Play had just resumed when the horn sounded signaling what most believed was the end of the game. Instead, bedlam had erupted from the sidelines. An assistant Russian coach was adamant that he had called a timeout, but whether he had actually signaled for one is a matter of debate.
With one second showing on the clock, the officials attempted to calm everyone down so the game could continue. The announcement from the P.A. was that the clock was being returned to three seconds. Television cameras zooming in on the scoreboard showed the clock frozen at fifty seconds. Play had barely resumed when the horn sounded again and the network announcer concluded that the game was over and that the Americans had won their eighth consecutive gold medal.
Television news camera crews, announcers, photographers and fans had then poured onto the court to congratulate the jubilantly triumphant Team USA, but the celebratory melee was short lived. Referee whistles were blown and FIBA Secretary General, R. William Jones was on court conferring with officials and scorekeepers to tell them that the clock was “unofficial.” Despite having no formal authority to do so, he ordered that the clock be set back to three seconds.
Players were then rushed back out onto the court, and, before play resumed, one of the officials motioned to American player Tom McMillen to back away from the Russian in-bounder, Ivan Edeshko, who was holding the ball. Fearing repercussion from the official, McMillen complied and in doing so, left the court wide open.
Edeshko was then able to whip the ball down the length of the court where it went to Aleksandr Belov who then out-jumped American defenders Kevin Joyce and Jim Forbes and easily scored a layup for the win bringing the score to USA 50 – USSR 51. The horn sounded for the final time and the announcer then stated again that the game was over while Russian fans crowded onto the court to mob Belov. Confusion erupted again from the sidelines and Coach Iba was again seen speaking to officials, but the game had been officially called over.
The beleaguered U.S. team immediately filed an appeal with FIBA to contest the game, but this was an appeal where the outcome was a foregone conclusion given the nationality of the participating judges. FIBA officials took approximately fourteen hours before rendering a decision voting along communist-bloc national lines. Italy and Puerto Rico voted for the USA, and, Poland, Cuba and Hungary sided with the USSR awarding the Gold Medal to the Soviets.
When Team USA was told by their manager that they had won the Silver Medal, the team had unanimously decided to refuse to accept, and, instead, both staff and team boarded the first flight home without attending the official awards ceremony.
Thirty-seven years have passed since that September day in Munich, and the Silver Medals that were to be awarded to the 1972 U.S. Men’s Basketball team still lay unclaimed and locked in a vault in Lausanne, Switzerland. Since then, the team receives letters from the Olympic Committee every few years asking to accept their medals, but only two sellouts members of the team have told Sports Illustrated that they would. Under the terms of the offer, the IOC has specified that in order to receive the medals, the entire team must be in agreement.
The majority of the team has made it known that they will never, under any circumstances accept the medals, and, at least one member, Ken Davis, has set forth in his Will that no member of his family may accept the medal even posthumously.
Tom McMillen has since become a U.S. Congressman and has used his power to appeal to the IOC to revisit its 1972 decision awarding the Silver to the United States. Basing his appeal on the 2002 Winter Olympics figure skating scandal, he argued that William Jones’s unauthorized intervention brought similar undue pressure upon the officials and scorekeepers of the 1972 game. The IOC refused to relent and has instead instituted more stringent rules for international competitions in an attempt to prevent similar incidents from occurring again.
Black Canyon Productions had a most excellent documentary that aired on HBO during the summer of 2002 entitled, :03 Seconds from Gold, but unfortunately, the film may be yet another victim of the distribution/copyright wars waged by big company content providers. Sadly, I have not been able to find it either from HBO directly via their DVD website or anywhere else. The Journal of Sport History, however, published a piece written by Chris Elzey that is the next best thing to the documentary itself.
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