When looking at just about any kind of conflict, it’s necessary to view things in terms of shades of gray. People try to characterize things as either one way or the other, either good or evil, but of course it’s really not like that.
But every once in a while, things turn out much more black and white than you might expect. This may be no more apparent than in the gold medal game of the 1972 Olympic men’s basketball tournament.
I think it’s hard sometimes to talk about justice in sports. With the outcome almost always in question, you can’t completely blame others for interfering with what “should” have happened (as you might with a jury) because it’s difficult to tell what the outcome “should” have been. I mean, it’s easy to blame the failure of the Chicago Cubs to reach the 2003 World Series on one overzealous fan, but that would be ignoring some very shoddy play on the part of the Cubs over the final two innings. In other words, blaming the people we think are responsible for a questionable outcome may be taking something away from the victor, naturally. The 2003 emergence of the Curse of the Goat, the 1985 World Series, the 1997 Nebraska-Missouri football game, the Orioles-Yankees playoff series of 1996, and even the 1919 Black Sox scandal may be tough to call, but this one’s easy: the lie that took place in the 1972 men’s basketball final is the biggest injustice in the history of sports, and it’s important because it tells us a lot about the way the world was.
Going into the final game in Munich, the nation that invented basketball had never lost in international competition. The United States took a 63-0 Olympic record into the gold medal game against the Soviet Union, the only other team that had not yet lost in Munich. Helped by a lackluster American performance and the ejection of the U.S.’s leading scorer and rebounder, the Soviets led for nearly the entire game and had the ball and a 49-48 lead as the clock wound down. But with ten seconds remaining, Doug Collins intercepted a pass and raced toward the basket, where he was undercut with three seconds remaining. He hit what might have been the two most important free throws in basketball history (my apologies to Rumeal Robinson), including sinking the second as the horn sounded, giving the United States a 50-49 lead. The Soviets tried unsuccessfully to score, but an official had blown a whistle with one second remaining, and the Soviet Union was granted a time out as well as the original three seconds on the clock. The referees gave the ball to the Soviet Union, which subsequently threw the ball away, as the clock was being reset. The United States, which had already twice celebrated victory, then had to reset as the Soviets were given one more chance, granted by the Secretary General of FIBA (the International Basketball Federation), who had no authority during a game. This time, the USSR’s Aleksander Belov caught the long pass and made the ensuing layup, giving the Soviet Union a 51-50 victory. The United States’ appeal of the outcome was rejected by three Soviet bloc nations, and the Americans did not accept their silver medals.