U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy

One of the most controversial Olympic championship basketball games ended with a one-point victory by the Soviet Union over the previously undefeated American team. The episode, and a subsequent rule change by the sport’s governing body, prompted the assemblage of the 1990’s “dream teams” that included professional players rather than the collegians who had formed earlier teams.

Summary of Event

Since the introduction of basketball into the Olympic program in 1936, U. S. men’s teams had compiled an undefeated record, winning seven consecutive gold medals, while relying exclusively on amateurs and collegians. The 1972 U.S. team, composed of former collegiate stars, ten of whom would become first-round National Basketball Association (NBA) draftees, trained together for several weeks and breezed through their first eight games. During that span, the U.S. team averaged 76.3 points per game and gave up an average of only 43.8. Only Brazil had managed to keep the final score margin under a dozen points. Olympic Games;1972
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[kw]U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy (Sept. 10, 1972)
[kw]Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy, U.S. (Sept. 10, 1972)
[kw]Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy, U.S. Loss to the (Sept. 10, 1972)
[kw]Basketball Controversy, U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks (Sept. 10, 1972)
[kw]Controversy, U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball (Sept. 10, 1972)
Olympic Games;1972
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[g]Europe;Sept. 10, 1972: U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy[00840]
[g]Germany;Sept. 10, 1972: U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy[00840]
[c]Sports;Sept. 10, 1972: U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy[00840]
[c]Cold War;Sept. 10, 1972: U.S. Loss to the Soviet Union Sparks Basketball Controversy[00840]
Belov, Alexander
Collins, Doug
Davis, Kenny
Iba, Henry
Jones, R. William
Kondrashin, Vladimir

The Soviet team entered the gold medal game with a veteran team accustomed to international rules and competition, having played together for nearly four hundred games. Their previous Olympic wins were as impressive as the U.S. tournament run. The Soviets had defeated a U.S. team in non-Olympic basketball in 1959, and many felt the talent gap had narrowed considerably between the world’s two superpowers. The unique stage of this Olympics, however, set in Cold War-era West Germany, foreshadowed an anything-but-routine basketball game. In the early morning hours of September 5, 1972, the terrorist group Black September Black September (organization) entered the Olympic Village, kidnapped Israeli coaches and athletes, and presented demands for release of prisoners held by Israel. Terrorist acts The Olympics were not halted until several hours after the onset of the hostilities, and only after two deaths were confirmed. Eventually, eleven members of the Israeli delegation were killed, and an unprecedented disruption to the Games had occurred. This singular event dramatically overshadowed the seven gold medals won by American swimmer Mark Spitz and the stellar performance of Russian gymnast Olga Korbut.

The gold medal game began late in evening on September 9. Although the game was delayed, and many had expressed a desire that it be canceled, it was played on the last day of the Games, which had been delayed for a day to cope with the turmoil caused by the terrorists’ actions. The U.S. team started the game slowly, falling behind 7-0, and eventually trailed 26-21 at halftime. U.S. coach Henry Iba, who had led the United States to gold medals in 1964 and 1968, preferred a slow, deliberate style of play that appeared to benefit the Soviets. It was generally agreed that the U.S. team was made up of better athletes who generally had played an up-tempo style in college. The Soviets were more methodical and patterned in their play.

The early part of the second half heightened the anticipation about whether the United States could preserve its winning streak in Olympic basketball. With twelve minutes and eighteen seconds left in the game, a key U.S. player, Dwight Jones, and a Russian player were ejected for their involvement in a scuffle following a loose ball. Immediately afterward, Jim Brewer, another key American player, suffered a concussion during a jump ball. Despite these events, down by eight points with five minutes to play, Iba changed tactics and freed up the players to contest more shots and to apply full-court pressure. This maneuver resulted in turnovers and renewed U.S. morale. Jim Forbes’s shot with forty seconds to play pulled the U.S. team to within one point, at 49-48. As the Soviets controlled the ball in the waning seconds, Tom McMillen blocked a shot taken by Alexander Belov. The ball wound up in the hands of a streaking Doug Collins, who was fouled hard on a lay-up attempt with three seconds left.

The U.S. basketball team players celebrate when they mistakenly thought that they had defeated the Soviets in the 1972 Munich Olympics. However, the referee reset the clock by three seconds, and the Soviet Union scored the game-winning basket to win 51-50.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Collins was shaken, but he immediately took a position at the free throw line. He sank the first free throw and then the second, despite the horn’s sounding during the second attempt. The United States led for the first time, 50-49. The Soviets quickly put the ball in play and failed to score; however, one official ruled that because of commotion around the scorer’s table and the horn sound, one second should be put back on the clock. The U.S. celebration ended quickly as Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin contended that the Soviet team signaled for, but was not granted, a timeout before Collins’s shots. After some time, it was decided that three seconds should be placed on the clock.

The ball was put into play a second time. An errant pass by the Soviets again resulted in no score, and the final horn sounded a second time, unleashing an outburst of emotion from the U.S. team. At this point, R. William Jones, secretary-general of the sport’s governing body, the International Amateur Basketball Federation (in French, Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur, or FIBA), approached the scorer’s table and indicated the original three seconds should be restored and the game commenced from that point yet again. This time, Belov received a three-quarter-court-length pass from Ivan Edeshko. Amid two U.S. defenders, Belov turned and scored the game-winning basket for a 51-50 Soviet victory.

The game went into the early morning hours of September 10. The United States filed a protest with FIBA officials within a few hours. Despite a convincing case, the U.S. appeal was denied in a three-to-two vote. Coincidentally, the three representatives affirming the Soviet victory were from Eastern Bloc countries; the two favoring the appeal were from U.S. allies. The U.S. team members, led by captain Kenny Davis, quickly, and with consensus, refused to accept their silver medals and did not appear at the awards ceremony. Subsequent efforts to award the medals to the U.S. team were unsuccessful. Davis left specific instructions in his will that no immediate family member could claim them. The medals reside in an International Olympic Committee vault.


The first Olympic basketball loss in U.S. history was cause for great celebration for the Soviet team and people. At a time when every triumph, even in the realm of sports, could be celebrated as a vindication of political ideology, this event had worldwide ramifications. In the United States, generally less significance had been attached to Olympic gold medals because annual sports competitions such as the World Series, the Super Bowl, and even the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in men’s basketball attracted a loyal following. Subsequent Olympics in 1976, 1980, and 1984 were tarnished by political issues and boycotts, thus the return of U.S. Olympic basketball domination became an increasingly discussed topic.

The U.S.-Soviet rematch finally occurred sixteen years later in the semifinal game of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The Soviet team emerged victorious again. The loss prompted a compositional change in the makeup of the U.S. team from amateur to professional players. In 1989, FIBA permitted professional athletes to compete in the Olympics. The U.S. team, made up of NBA players and referred to as the “Dream Team” because it was arguably the most talented and prolific team ever assembled, captured the 1992 gold medal in Barcelona, Spain. Olympic Games;1972
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Further Reading

  • Mandell, Richard D. The Olympics of 1972: A Munich Diary. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Presents the author’s personal recollections of the triumphs and tragedy of the 1972 Olympic Games.
  • Marcovitz, Hal. The Munich Olympics. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002. This juvenile literary work emphasizes the background surrounding the terrorist attacks by Black September that disrupted the 1972 games, and outlines individuals involved.
  • Wharton, David. “Second-Hand Smoke.” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2002, p. D3. Interviews with Ivan Edeshko, Tom McMillen, Ed Ratleff, and Assistant Coach Don Haskins about the events surrounding the conclusion of the gold medal game.

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