Decades After 1972 Gold Medal Travesty, Olympic Injustice Still Prevails
The International Olympic Committee banned Russian athletes from this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, but doping scandals are hardly new. Athletes who had to give up Olympic medals for illicit drugs include 100 meter world-record holder Ben Johnson of Canada (1988), five-time track and field medalist Marion Jones of the United States (2000), and biathlon competitor Olga Medvedtseva of Russia (2006).
If the IOC is willing to ban entire national teams and strip athletes of medals for doping, it would do better to correct a longstanding injustice of its own making. That would be the 1972 men’s basketball final at the Munich Olympics.
The United States, with its youngest team ever, all collegians, defeated an older, more experienced Soviet team, for all practical purposes a professional squad. The Soviets led most of the way, but in the closing seconds, with the USA behind 49-48, Illinois State’s Doug Collins picked off a Soviet pass and drove for a layup.
Soviet player Zurab Sakandelidze knocked Collins hard into the basket stanchion. Collins was slow to get up but duly sank both free throws, putting the USA up 50-49. The Soviets failed to score during the final three seconds. The buzzer sounded, and the USA had won the game and maintained their flawless Olympic record.
As the young American players celebrated their hard-earned victory, Renato William Jones, Secretary General of FIBA, the international basketball organization, came out of the stands and ordered the officials to put three seconds back on the clock. Jones had no authority to make such a demand, but the Olympic officials duly complied.
They put time back on the clock not once, not twice, but three times. After the third time the Soviets scored a basket, and the Olympic officials gave them the gold medal. The Americans decided not to show up for the silver, believing they had won the gold fair and square, on the court. They were right, and there is no other side to this argument.
FIBA boss Renato William Jones wanted the Soviet team to win, which he confirmed with his post-game statement: “The Americans have to learn how to lose, even when they think they are right.” Jones had been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964. It’s not too late for the Hall to boot him out, and it’s never too late for the IOC to recognize the true winners of 1972. In fact, the case is now even stronger.
The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the IOC is willing to ban an entire Russian team and strip gold medals from athletes who break the doping rules, whatever their nationality. So it should be no problem for the IOC to strip the Soviet team of its undeserved gold medals and give them to the American players: Mike Bantam, Jim Brewer, Tom Burleson, Doug Collins, Kenny Davis, James Forbes, Tom Henderson, Bobby Jones, Dwight Jones, Kevin Joyce, Tom McMillen and Ed Ratleff.
The need to render justice for the deserving American players comes up every Olympic season, and the IOC did nothing on the fortieth anniversary in 2012. Curiously, President Obama, reportedly once a hoopster of some prowess, never bothered to press the case, or even express his views on the matter. Maybe it’s part of his strategy of leading from behind, but there is another possibility.
At Occidental College the president — known then as Barry Soetoro — was a dogmatic pro-Soviet Marxist, so maybe he’s happy with the Soviet Union having “won” the gold medal. The USSR, it should be recalled, contended that sports victories confirmed the superiority of the Soviet system, and the president remains uncritical of socialist regimes and movements.
Like Renato William Jones, President Obama has been busy putting time back on the clock for statist ideas with a long losing record in Europe. That’s why he won’t step up to the line and take a shot for the 1972 U.S. team.
Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow and Communications Counsel at the Independent Institute. He is author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry, and Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield.