Although we view the Olympics as a coming together of nations for spirited competition, there’s a lot of evidence that others have looked at the Olympics as validation for an ideology. For example, Hitler wished to use the results of the 1936 Olympics as evidence that the Aryan race was superior to others, which explains his disappointment with the dominant performance of Jesse Owens. Similarly, Communist bloc countries looked for the reassurance of a favorable result, but they occasionally cheated to ensure that they would not be displeased. Evidence suggests that East Germany treated some of its female athletes with illegal hormones, and many of the Soviet “amateur” athletes were not amateurs in the traditional sense.
So why does any of this matter? Well, it says a lot about the world of not too long ago, more specifically the attitudes that made the Cold War as tense as it was. Competing in an environment intended to put all participants on an even playing field is a scary prospect for a regime that fears the truth and uses fear to keep others from exposing it.
By the 1970’s, the Soviet Union was discovering that its system for generating wealth was less successful than those of the free world. The Soviet Union, by taking the initiative to produce away from individuals, misallocated resources and created shortages. Although the restrictive nature of communist regimes has myriad drawbacks, it does have one advantage important to something like the Olympics: a command system can hand pick those whom it feels are predisposed to certain activities and develop them in that area, exclusively. In other words, while a freer system might have to wait for a Michael Jordan to prefer basketball to baseball (and for him to focus on more important developmental tasks–like education–during his formative years), the Soviet Union could pluck out the “best and the brightest” very early and develop them only in the areas to which they are “suited.”
The Soviet approach to the Olympics can’t necessarily thrive on its own; it requires others to be complicit. This was certainly the case for much of the Cold War. The fear of nations behind the Iron Curtain created a situation in which many looked the other way from questionable practices. Which brings us to 1972. The result of the gold medal game is primarily a function of the bending of the rules for a country that already had the playing field tipped decidedly in its direction.
The facts of the game indicate a pretty obvious “bending” of the rules. The leading American scorer and rebounder was ejected for raising a fist toward a player who had flagrantly fouled him. The clock was stopped for no logical reason. The referee did not call a violation when the inbound passer stepped on the baseline. The Soviet Union was granted a time out that international rules forbade (made possible by someone who has no authority during a game). In ordering an American to stop defending the inbounds pass, the referee enforced a rule that did not exist. The decision was upheld by three of five countries on FIBA’s Jury of Appeal–each was under the Soviet sphere of influence.
The twelve men whose medals still sit in a vault in Switzerland are heroes. In an Olympics when people were massacred for political reasons, it was important for the American basketball players to do what they did, and it’s important to recognize what they did as heroic. In leaving the silver medal podium empty, the American basketball team didn’t just make a political statement. It refused to validate an outcome that was achieved by a combination of cheating and fear. In doing so, it denied validation to a system that had no place in an arena of amateur competition.
Recently, with the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the gold medal game, it has been suggested that the United States is overstressing the result, keeping bitter feelings alive for no reason. What is missing from this viewpoint is the fact that the unclaimed silver medals stand as a monument to the defiance that enabled the West to defeat Communism. We will forever keep pieces of the Berlin Wall in museums to remind our children of the Cold War, and we should. But a piece of concrete kept in a glass vault cannot convey what it did when it was keeping friends and family apart. The medals, still unclaimed, are just as powerful as they were thirty years ago. When those twelve men agreed not to accept their medals, they were sacrificing, not just delaying, something very valuable and important to them. Holding onto the notion that the team deserves better than silver is now called bitter or shallow. There should be no more bitterness; after all, the Cold War is over. There should, however, be a resolve that no one forget what the men’s basketball team accomplished in Munich.