Q: I saw that a woman Canadian hockey player ripped off her silver medal during the awards ceremony to show her disgust at losing the gold to the Americans. I think I remember a similar incident when the American men’s basketball team lost the title game to the Russians and protested at the awards ceremony? Can you confirm this?
Bill C., of Fort Russell
A: Long before the days of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the rest of those U.S. “dream teams,” Americans battled the best the world could offer on the basketball court with squads of relative youngsters pieced together from the college ranks.
It was hardly ideal when you faced teams from the Soviet Union that were bankrolled by the state, trained together constantly and were “amateur” in name only. Yet for 50 years, the United States was literally unbeatable, winning the first seven gold medals from the year the sport was added to the Olympics — 1936 in Berlin — straight through 1968.
But in the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 1972, in Munich, that streak came to a crashing and still hotly disputed end when the Soviets were given not one, not two, but three chances in the final moments to pull off a 51-50 championship upset that stunned the sports world. Today it remains the three most controversial seconds in Olympic history, and, as a result, 12 silver medals still lie in a storage room maintained for the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The International Olympic Committee is waiting for the U.S. to claim them. The Americans probably would answer that they will do so when Hell freezes over. Here’s why:
According to press reports at the time, the U.S. entered the Olympics with its youngest squad ever. Making the quest for an eighth gold even more challenging, it faced a Soviet team that boasted such players as 28-year-old Sergei Belov, who later would be inducted into the International Basketball Federation Hall of Fame. And rightly or wrongly, the Americans believed the federation, the game’s governing body, was against them because it was tired of the U.S. stranglehold on the sport.
Considering how the 1972 finals ended, many still believe the United States had a legitimate case in feeling that way.
Granted, the Soviets outplayed the Americans much of the game. After blitzing many of its first eight opponents (including a 68-38 romp over Italy in the semifinals), the U.S. found itself in trouble against the Soviets’ steady, mechanical play. A five-point halftime deficit grew to 10 after the intermission. The Americans’ 63-game Olympic win streak suddenly was in real jeopardy.
Finally with six minutes left, the Americans woke up, pressing and hustling to cut the deficit to 49-48 with 10 seconds left. Then as the Soviets tried to run out the clock, Kevin Joyce deflected a Soviet pass, and the ball was scooped up by Benton High School and Illinois State University star Doug Collins. Collins immediately drove for the basket, only to be knocked out cold as he barreled down the lane.
“(The Russian player) got into a position to flip me, so I knew I was a going to take a nasty fall,” the future NBA star said later. “I hit my head on the basket and was knocked out for a while. Coach (Hank) Iba said: ‘If Doug can walk, he’s shooting these free throws.’ It was like someone sending a bolt of electricity through me.”
With an aching left wrist and a bruise welling under his left eye, Collins came to and stepped to the line. He said he concentrated on those days on his school playground when he imagined sinking the winning basket in the big game.
“I thought about the one thing that I had always counted on regardless of the situation,” Collins told the Guardian during an interview for the book “Stolen Glory.” “Three dribbles, spin and shoot it.”
He sank first one, then the other, giving the United States a 50-49 lead with three seconds left. The 6,500 spectators went wild, figuring the Americans had just secured their eighth straight gold. But as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over” — and this one wasn’t over by a long shot.
With the clock starting to tick after the second free throw, the Soviets called a timeout with one second left. Again, victory seemed inevitable. But the Soviets argued that they had actually called the timeout after Collins was fouled but that it had not been granted. They argued that two seconds should be put back on the clock after the timeout. The basketball federation officials granted the Soviet request.
That set up play number two. Ivan Edeshko threw a short inbound pass to Modestas Paulauskas, who tried to relay it to Sergei Belov, but the horn sounded just as the ball left his hands. Spectators flooded the court, and U.S. players began jumping up and down. But wait a second. For reasons still unclear, the head of the basketball federation ordered that the court be cleared and the Soviets be given yet another three seconds for another play.
That was all the Soviets needed. Aleksandr Belov, whose pass had been stolen to set up Collins’ nearly decisive free throws, leapt high to grab a near full-court inbound heave, eluded two defenders and put in an easy layup for a 51-50 lead. This time, there would be no do-over. The Soviets were declared the victors. Belov ran over to his bench to join in a raucous celebration that reportedly included bottles of vodka that had appeared out of nowhere.
In the American locker room, the mood ranged from abject despondency to seething anger. Soon, the players reached a unanimous decision: If the IOC did not overturn the Soviet victory, they would refuse to accept the silver medals. Even today, players are still asking that they be awarded gold medals retroactively just as Canadian pairs figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier were upgraded to gold after a judging scandal in 2002.
“If we had gotten beat, I would be proud to display my silver medal,” Mike Bantom said. “But we didn’t get beat. We got cheated.”
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