Sportsnight #10: 1972, Munich Olympics, Basketball Final

by Ray_North on May 29, 2013


Good evening and welcome to Sportsnight, for tonight’s action we travel to the Rudi-Sedlmayer, Munich for the final of the 1972 Olympic Basketball Competition between The United States of America and the Soviet Union. Expect a cracking game as East meets West.

And what a game it was. A monumental final, perhaps not for the standard in which the sport was played, though all men on the court put in a colossal effort, but for the controversy that accompanied it.

The United States were overwhelming favourites to win, after all they had won the previous 7 Olympic Gold Medals in Basketball, the US, more than any country cherished Basketball, embraced it, obsessed about it.

Predictably, they breezed through the preliminary group, playing seven, winning seven and amassing a points surplus of 230. In one particularly one sided match they hammered the luckless Japanese 99-33. In the other group the Soviets were also playing well, winning all seven of their games before meeting Cuba in the semi, who they beat, just, 67-61. Worryingly for the Soviets, USA had no trouble winning their semi-final against the talented Italians.

So, we were braced for the ultimate Cold War Final – because, this was the height of Cold War. In 1972, the notion of Glasnost was a pipe dream, a fantasy harboured by only the most optimistic of Nixonites, as far as the world was concerned you were either communist or capitalist, Soviet or States, East or West.

The teams met on the 9th September. It had been a difficult Olympics following the massacre of members of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists only five days earlier. But, as the Soviets and the Americans walked onto the Court, they had no thoughts of devastation of that event, they all cared only about the gold medal.

The American team was absolutely top notch, although the players were mainly College players, they would all go on to forge Professional careers in the game. The Soviet team was older and more experienced, with most of them having been in the team that had won bronze in Mexico City four years earlier – but, despite their experience, surely, they would be no match for the Americans.

The first half saw the Americans narrowly build up a five point lead 26-21. But, the Soviet’s didn’t wane and came back to lead 49-48 with, literally, a matter of seconds left on the clock. What happened next is one of the most controversial moments of sport, ever.

Trailing by a point, the American Guard Doug Collins steamed down the middle of the Court, was fouled by the Russian, Sakandelidze and awarded two free throws. Collins took them himself and sanke the first one to level the score. Then as he started to take his second throw, indeed, as his knees were bent and his eye on the hoop, the Russians sounded their horn for a time out. There was now only three seconds left on the clock and all hell broke loose.

The big issue was whether the Soviet management had actually called a proper and legitimate time-out. And for a number of minutes, controversy reigned as the managers from both teams argued as to whether the time out had been called and how the game should be restarted. The result was that in the minutes of controversy, the Soviet Union contrived to place their massive and superb player Alexander Belov in a position under the American Basket, and devise a plan to get the ball to him in the remaining three seconds.

The Americans on the other hand, were rattled, they believed, indeed they still believe, that the Soviets had cheated and momentarily lost their nerve. The Soviet player Edeshko, feinted and the US player McMillan, bought the dummy and backed off, giving Edeshko the chance to make the pass to the unmarked Belov who jumped, beat the two men marking him and scored the two points that gave the Soviet Union the gold medal.

As they celebrated the Americans protested. But it was to no avail – the ultimate arbiter was the five member FIBA panel, which comprised of Hungary, Cuba, Poland, Costa Rica and Italy. Remember it was 1972. As the Yanks say, you do the math. The Soviets victory was upheld.

Forty One years on, it still rankles. The American team en bloc refused to accept their Silver Medals and to this day have continued to refuse to accept them. The Soviet team, well, they were Heroes, Stakanovites, accepting acclaim and worship wherever they went as their nation enjoyed its triumph over their biggest enemy.

Controversy can be part of glory.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nick Evans May 30, 2013 at 4:51 pm

I do like this one. Comparable in a lot of ways to the USA’s win over the Soviet Union in the ice hockey in 1980. Yet, for some strange reason, Americans rarely seem to see it like that.

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