Chicago Tribune sportswriter Robert Markus called it “the greatest three-second violation in the history of the sport.”
The controversial ending to the gold medal basketball game at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich remains a stinging defeat to American pride. The U.S. squad, with a 63-0 record in Olympic competition since the sport was introduced to the Games in 1936, appeared to pull out a 50-49 victory when Doug Collins converted two free throws with three seconds to play.
Then the weirdness began. When it was over, the Russians had inbounded the ball three different times, winning 51-50 on their third try when Alexander Belov made a layup under the basket.
”There was just a lot of organized confusion out there,” U.S. coach Hank Iba said.
The Americans refused to accept their silver medals, and they remain in a Swiss vault.
But now, an American — or a sports fan from any country — can own one of the gold medals awarded to the Soviets from that controversial game played Sept. 9, 1972.
The gold medal presented to Soviet center Sergei Kovalenko will be a featured item during Heritage Auctions’ Fall Sports Memorabilia Collectibles Catalog Auction, which will be held on the weekend of Oct. 17-18. Bidding begins Sept. 25.
Kovalenko, a 7-foot-1, 245-pound center for the Soviets, died Nov. 18, 2004, at the age of 57. His gold medal is accompanied by two sworn statements by Nikolay Kunitsyn, the former president of Orienteering of Moscow. Also included in the auction lot is a pair of Olympic pins, also acquired from Kovalenko.
The medal was designed by Gerhard Marcks, a noted German artist and sculptor, and was produced at the Bavarian Mint. It measures 66 millimeters in diameter.
The obverse of the medal shows the form of Victory, seated and holding a laurel wreath and palm branch with the Colosseum in the background. The reverse of the medal depicts Roman twins Castor and Pollux, twin half-brothers in Greek and Roman mythology. They are known collectively as the Dioscuri, and their Latin translation is the Gemini.
Normally, the medal from this Olympics would have been engraved with the recipient’s name, but it was left blank, owing to the confusing ending of the gold medal basketball game.
More than 7,000 athletes from 121 countries descended upon Munich, West Germany, for the 20th Summer Olympiad. Munich was hoping to erase the image of the 1936 Games in Berlin, held as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi machine was beginning to gear up for World War II.
But instead of being the Games of peace and joy, West German chancellor Willy Brandt said, terrorists who broke into Munich’s Olympic Village “destroyed the whole thing.”
On Sept. 5, 1972, Palestinian terrorists took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, eventually killing all of them.
While it was a horrible moment for sports and mankind, International Olympic Committee chief Avery Brundage said, “the Games must go on.”
Author David F. Sweet, in his new book, Three Seconds in Munich, called Brundage’s statement “five of the most momentous words ever uttered at the Olympics.”
The games did go on, and the U.S.-Soviet basketball final generated interest during the Cold War era.
“If you had an American against a Russian, it didn’t matter what they were doing,” ABC Sports president Roone Arledge said. “It could have been kayaking and people would watch it.”
It was the fourth time the two countries had met in basketball’s gold medal game, and the U.S. had won the previous three by double-digit margins. The Soviets had won silver in 1964 and bronze in 1968. They led in the 1972 final by five at halftime and by as much as 10 points before the Americans stormed back to take the lead with seconds left in the game.
Then, shockingly, the game’s final seconds turned into confusion, controversy and bitterness.
The Americans protested the game, but the Soviets’ victory was upheld 3-2 by the Olympic Jury of Appeal. Poland, Hungary and Cuba voted to let the decision stand, while Puerto Rico and Italy voted to overturn it.
The medal offered by Heritage Auctions is certain to generate interest and will probably open some old wounds. But it is a unique collectible that has a compelling story behind it.