The year 1972 saw two epic contests between the United States and the Soviet Union. The first was American Bobby Fischer defeating Soviet Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov for the world chess championship.
The other took place on a basketball court in Munich in the gold medal game of the Olympics.
It was one of the most controversial moments in Olympic history, and the ramifications of that game are still reverberating today.
Learn more about the finals of the 1972 Olympic basketball tournament on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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Going into the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the American’s had totally dominated basketball on the world stage.
The American men had won every gold meld in basketball that had been given out. They had never lost a single game at the Olympics.
The 1972 Olympics appeared to just be more of the same. In the preliminary games, they crushed their competition. The smallest margin of victory was against Spain where they won by 16 points, and their biggest blowout was against Japan where they won by 66 points.
At the time, the Olympics was strictly limited to amateur players, so the American team wasn’t necessarily made of the best American players, all of whom were in the NBA, but rather the best amateur players, all of whom were still in college. The best American amateur, Bill Walton, declined to play on the team.
The 1972 American Olympic team was the youngest team that the Americans had ever assembled. Prior to the Olympics, the players on the team had never before played together.
The Soviets actually had a pretty good team, but they were very different from the Americans.
The Soviets didn’t have professional sports and they got around the amateurism rules by putting their athletes into token jobs in factories or the military where they didn’t have to do anything but focus on sports.
As a result, the Soviet basketball team was much older and much more experienced than the American team. They had played together for seven years, and one of the players was playing in his 4th Olympic games. The five starting Soviet players had a combined total of over 600 games of international play. The Americans had just 7.
Going into the gold medal game, the Soviets were also undefeated. They too had easily defeated their opponents, but not by margins quite as big as the Americans.
In the semifinals, the Americans beat Italy and the Soviets beat Cuba, setting up an epic gold medal game.
The Americans were riding a 63 game and 7 Olympic gold medal streak into the finals. Despite being younger and less experienced, they were still expected to win.
The Soviets played really well. They lead the Americans at halftime by five points 26 to 21.
They managed to hold the lead for most of the second half. Going into the last thirty seconds of the game, the Soviets were up by one point, 49 to 48.
As the Soviets took to ball to their end of the court, American guard Doug Collins stole the ball and ran down the court to score the game-winning layup.
However, before he could get the shot off, he was fouled with only 3 seconds left on the clock.
Everything which made this game historic, and the reason why I’m bothering to do a podcast episode about it almost half a century later, happened in these last three seconds. Three seconds of clock time which took a lot longer than three seconds to complete.
From the foul, Collins was given two free throws.
On Collins’s first shot, he swished it, and the Americans were tied, 49-49.
Here is where things started to get really weird.
On his second shot, while he was in the middle of shooting, the horn from the scorer’s table when off. Despite the horn, he continued with the shot which went in giving the Americans the lead 50-49 with three seconds on the clock.
After the basket, the Soviets regained control and took the ball from out of bounds, and began to dribble up the court.
Soviet assistant coach Sergei Bashkin charged the scorer’s table yelling that the Soviet head coach had called for a time out which should have been awarded before the second free throw.
The game clock was stopped with one second.
Everyone was on the floor yelling. Had the clock not stopped, the Americans would have won.
The referees conferred with themselves and decided that the Soviet timeout should not have been granted, and they also agreed not to issue a technical foul to the Soviet coach who ran out onto the floor. According to the rules, however, the Soviets should have been issued a technical foul.
Even though the Soviets didn’t have an official time out, the delay in trying to sort everything out gave them a minute to put together a play.
The referees then decided that the Soviets would get the ball back out of bounds near the half-court line, with one second left.
This is where things really took an odd turn.
Renato William Jones, the president of the FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, came down to the court and overruled the referees. He said that the last play should be replayed and that three seconds should be put back on the clock.
There was no rules or regulation which gave him the authority to do this. All decisions about the game are supposed to be in the hands of the officials on the court.
Renato William Jones had been the head of the FIBA since 1932 and was the only person ever to hold that position up until that point. He ran international basketball with an iron fist. Moreover, he had a very contentious relationship with the Americans, who dominated the sport. Jones was British.
He was extremely powerful, so the referees and the official scorer just did what he said.
After much confusion, the officials reset the clock back to 3 seconds and gave the Soviets the ball again on the other end of the court where they originally had it after the free throw.
The Soviets this time do the only thing they really could. They toss a hail mary across the entire length of the court hoping for a miracle.
Unfortunately, there was no miracle. The horn sounded and time expired. The Americans won 50 to 49 in a dramatic fashion.
Everyone goes nuts and the American players start hugging on the court.
Despite the clear end to the game, Jones then unilaterally decided to put another three seconds on the clock to give the Soviets a third chance.
There was no reason or rationale given for why the Soviets got a third chance to take the ball out of bounds.
The American coaches debated taking their team off the floor and unilaterally declaring the game over. However, the head coach Hank Iba didn’t want to give the Soviets any ammunition in an appeal by declaring that the Americans had forfeited.
It turns out the third time is the charm. This time the Soviets tossed a full-court alley-oop which made it into the hands of one of the Soviet players who this time managed to put it in for two points. Subsequent analysis of the video shows the Soviet player throwing the ball had his foot on the line, but it was never called.
This time it was the Soviets who were going nuts on the floor as the final score was registered as 51-50.
The Americans, not surprisingly, were furious. The American basketball officials immediately filed an appeal to the FIBA. The 5-man FIBA committee ruled against them 3 to 2, with all three votes coming from Communist Block countries: Hungary, Poland, and Cuba.
The players on the American team made a decision in the locker room. They took a vote and unanimously agreed not to accept their silver medals. They never attended the medal ceremony.
A subsequent investigation into the game which was presented to the International Olympic Committee showed extreme irregularities.
The head referee for the game was Renato Righetto from Brazil. Supposedly, he refused to sign the official score sheet in protest. He also went on record as saying that the Soviet win was “completely irregular, and outsides the rules of the game of basketball”.
He was never allowed to referee a FIBA game again.
The official scorekeeper for the game was Andre Chopard of Germany. He went on record to say that the decision of Renato William Jones to put time back on the clock, twice, was unprecedented in basketball.
Even Jones himself later admitted that he had no authority to put time back on the clock.
The controversy over this game has never ended.
The silver medals are still sitting in a vault in Switzerland. They have never been claimed by any members of the team.
Not only has the team never accepted their silver medals, but several members of the team have put clauses into their wills that none of their descendants may ever accept the medals on their behalf after they die.
In 2012, the members of the team reunited for the first time since they were in Munich in 1972 for an ESPN documentary. While all in the same room, 40 years after the fact, they again voted on if they would accept their silver medals.
40 years later, they once again were unanimous in declining to accept them.
In 2002, at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Canadian pairs figure skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale were awarded joint gold medals after a judging scandal was exposed which gave a Russian team the gold.
In the same spirit, the American team has agreed to accept joint gold medals for the 1972 Olympics. They would allow the silver medals, which are in Switzerland, to be sold in a sports memorabilia auction with the funds going towards a charity for Russian orphans.
In the almost 50 years since that gold medal game in Munich, the International Olympic Committee has refused to budge or acknowledge any of the appears of American basketball.
After 50 years, the American teams still believe they are only three seconds away from the gold medal.