On September 9, 1972, the Soviet Union defeated the United States 51-50 to win the men’s basketball gold medal at the Munich Olympics as the final three seconds were replayed three times.
Going into the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, the United States were heavy favorites in the men’s basketball tournament. Having won all eight Olympic competitions since the sport was introduced into the program in 1932, the US was an incredible 55-0 against Olympic opponents.
Little changed that feeling as the tournament progressed; the Americans stormed through their pool games 7-0 and then beat Italy 68-38 in the semifinals. However, in a stunning twist, the United States lost 51-50 against the Soviet Union in the gold medal game after a late-night tip-off at Munich’s Rudi-Sedlmayer-Halle. While the result certainly was shocking—and during the heart of the Cold War—what makes the game most notable was its controversial ending.
With three seconds to go, the US led 50-49 after Illinois State star Doug Collins capped a 10-point, second-half rally by nailing a pair of free throws. Following Collins’ second make, the Soviets inbounded the ball from their end line, but as the ball reached midcout, Brazilian referee Renato Righetto halted play with one second remaining.
It turned out that the USSR had requested a timeout between Collins’ free throws. In the kerfuffle, the scorer’s table had not notified the referees before the second free throw. Initially, Righetto ordered for the timeout to not be granted and for play to resume with one second remaining. However, the British secretary general of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), Renato William Jones, came from the stands and demanded that the entire three seconds be replayed.
So the Soviets inbounded the ball once more. Only this time, inbounder Ivan Yedeshko tossed the ball nearly court-length to center Aleksandr Belov. The ball ultimately slipped through Belov’s fingers and ricocheting off the backboard as time expired and the Americans celebrated their gold medal-winning effort.
Only Jones—who had a rocky history with US basketball officials—and the referees ordered that the court be cleared and the inbound be retaken again, possibly because of issues with the score clock. Technically, Jones was overstepping his bounds against Olympic regulations by intervening with the game. However, no one dared challenge him due to his heavy-fisted rule of FIBA.
And so the USSR inbounded for a third time. This go-round, Belov caught the long pass between two Americans and made the game winning layup to secure a 51-50 Soviet victory.
The episode that night had one more twist up its sleeve, though. In a bizarre move, Righetto refused to certify the USSR’s win and didn’t sign the score sheet. The game’s other ref, Artenik Arabadjian of Bulgaria, did sign his initials on the box score. Ultimately, however, Righetto’s antics mattered little in the game’s final result.
There is no way possible Russia could have won. I have never seen anything like this in all my years of basketball.
The head coach of the 1972 US basketball team
After the game’s finish, the United States filed a protest, but the five-man jury voted 3-2 in favor of the USSR. The jury didn’t come without controversy of its own: Three of the jurors were from Soviet-allied nations (Hungary, Poland, and Cuba) and only two were from US allies (Puerto Rico and Italy).
In further protest, the members of the US team refused to accept their silver medals. In the years since, talks have taken place for the team to potentially receive the medals. However, in 2012, all 12 players met up and unanimously agreed for a final time to reject the medals.
After the 1972 Games, the United States basketball team got back to its golden ways and claimed the top spot in Montreal in 1976 and Los Angeles in 1984. Since the 1972 tournament, the US has earned eight golds and two bronzes in the 10 Olympics a team has been sent to.
The Soviet Union, meanwhile, snagged back-to-back bronzes (including one at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the US boycotted). After boycotting the Los Angeles Games, the Soviets claimed gold once more at the 1988 Seoul Games, again upsetting the American contingent, although in the semifinal round.
I’m not signing this paper. I’m protesting.
the game’s head referee
Highlights of the game’s ABC broadcast are available to watch on YouTube:
Several images do a good job capturing the drama. Here’s an image of the Americans celebrating after stopping the Soviets’ second in-bound pass:
And then the moment right after Belov put in the winning basket:
Finally, a photo of the US’s Mike Bantom questioning the scorer’s table about the final result:
In basketball, there’s one winner. By the rules of that game, we won.
The captain of the 1972 US basketball team
- At the 1972 Olympics, the Soviet Union upset the favored United States 51-50 in the gold medal game of the basketball tournament.
- The finish dripped in controversy as the final three seconds were replayed three times after executive orders from the head of the International Amateur Basketball Federation (FIBA), Renato William Jones.
- The United States filed a protest but ultimately lost the appeal. Members of the 1972 team have since refused to receive their silver medals.
- The Complete Book of the Olympics: 2012 Edition by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky (buy on Amazon)
- The Los Angeles Times, September 10, 1972 via Newspapers.com
- San Francisco Examiner, September 10, 1972 via Newspapers.com