By Brian Tuohy
The game was over. Having trailed 26-21 at halftime, the United States men's basketball team had come from behind and defeated the USSR 50-49 in the gold medal game at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics.
Except, that's not how it really ended.
Instead, the Soviets were essentially given three chances to score a game-winning basket. On the third and final attempt, Alexander Belov caught a court-length pass from teammate Ivan Edeshko and made an uncontested layup. USSR 51, USA 50.
When the Soviets took to the podium to receive their gold medals, the U.S. team was nowhere to be found. They refused to accept their silver medals after protesting the last-second fiasco, and to a man continue to reject them 41 years later.
Why did the Soviets get those extra chances? The answer appeared straightforward, albeit not lacking in controversy. After America's Doug Collins made the first of two free throws to tie the game at 49-49 with three seconds remaining in the game, Soviet head coach Vladimir Kondrashin called for a timeout, which, according to international rules at the time, was permissible after Collins' second attempt. Right as Collins attempted this shot -- which he made to give the U.S. its first lead in the game -- a horn sounded, as it's believed that the scorers' table awarded the timeout. But the on-court officials did not grant it. Instead, after Collins sunk his second shot, the Soviet team scrambled to inbound the ball and score. Prior to any shot being attempted, Soviet assistant coach Sergei Bashkin stormed onto the court, demanding his team's time-out.
After some discussion, officials awarded the Soviets their timeout. They set up for an inbounds pass with America's 6'11" center Tom McMillen guarding the play. McMillen's lanky presence forced Edeshko's inbound pass to be a short, baseline pass to Modestas Paulauskas, who wildly chucked the ball the length of the court, attempting to connect with Belov. The horn sounded. Game over. However, due to the antiquated scorer's clock, the time had not been properly reset when the referees whistled play to begin. The clock actually showed 50 seconds when play was resumed. So this failed second attempt was also waved off, even as Team USA celebrated its win.
The officials again held a mid-court conference, and the Soviets were given yet another opportunity which, as history has determined, became the winning play.
When I received an innocuous email a few years ago asking if I knew anything about this Olympic contest, I didn't think much of it, even though a curious mind could've learned all there was to know through a basic Internet search. So when I replied with my brief take on the subject, much like what's written above, I asked why the questioner wanted to know.
The response made my jaw drop.
My source claimed to have recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a statement that didn't exactly lend itself to definitive verification. But the subsequent yarn spun altered my take on this historic game, adding to its significance as a proxy to the Cold War, and led me down a disturbing and ultimately frustrating path. The more one looks at the events preceding and following this game, the more it appears that Team USA didn't just lose; it was outright conspired against.
The main culprit was Renato William Jones, the secretary-general and co-founder of the International Federation of Amateur Basketball (FIBA). Oddly enough, Jones helped make basketball an Olympic sport when it debuted in the 1936 Games (also held, coincidentally, in Germany). However, from that time forward, Team USA had not lost a game. Basketball was an American sport, invented in a Springfield, Ma., YMCA gym by James Naismith, and as if to drive that historical fact home, America's Olympic record stood at 63-0 with seven consecutive gold medals prior to their meeting the Soviet team in that historic game. Jones wanted to see America's dominance ended.
As the head of the FIBA, Jones wielded extraordinary power in the international game. Some claimed that he ran European basketball by his very whim, and he often feuded with American basketball representatives. He complained that America's success at the Olympics was holding back European basketball's growth. In many ways, he was correct. The NBA in 1972 did not contain a single foreign-born player. Today NBA rosters are stocked with nearly 80 players from more than 30 different countries.
But many accused Jones of being a Soviet sympathizer. He reportedly held close ties with the USSR, and leading into the Games, allegedly received illicit gifts from Soviet representatives (though this was not uncommon, as many wanted to remain in Jones' good graces). With the 1972 Soviet squad, Jones may have sensed a chance to finally end America's command over the sport he loved. The Soviet team assembled for the Olympics was a solid, if not outright professional, squad. The USSR had played perhaps as many as 400 games together leading into the Games. By contrast, the American team played just 12 exhibitions prior to the Olympic trials. So when opportunity presented itself, Jones pounced.
When Soviet assistant coach Bashkin interrupted the game by demanding the uncalled timeout, Jones bounded down the stadium's steps and thrust himself into the debate. He held up three fingers, repeatedly shouting "three seconds" in German to the scorers. Jones' overwhelming presence was enough. The time was put back on the clock, even though all involved later acknowledged that Jones had no right or power to make such in-game rulings.
So as the Soviets celebrated the victory, the conspiracy against America's boys deepened. Jones denied being part of any decision to restart the clock. After witnesses came forward contradicting him, Jones admitted to being involved. However, this was no win for Team USA. To protest the game and file an appeal, the Americans had to approach the Jones-controlled FIBA.
Here, aiding in the plot was Ferenc Hepp of Hungary, which at the time was a Communist Bloc country. Hepp headed the five-judge panel for appeals that included representatives from two Western countries -- Italy and Puerto Rico -- and two Communist nations, Cuba and Poland. America's case was presented by U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee chairman W.K. Summers, with the support of one of the game's referees, Renato Righetto of Brazil. It mattered little. Hepp was notoriously close with Jones, and though he reportedly despised the USSR, the kangaroo court was slanted in the Soviets' favor. When the final vote was tallied, ballots seemed to be cast along ideological lines, with the Soviets retaining their gold medals by a count of 3-2. Neither the International Olympic Committee nor future incarnations of FIBA would agree to hear further appeals on Team USA's behalf.
For many, including the members of the American team, this is where the story ends. Yet it is here where a conspiracy theory takes this controversial result to another level.
According to my source, the CIA had viable information that the second official on the court that fateful night, Bulgarian referee Artenik Arabadjan, was in on the fix. Not because he was an avowed Communist, or that he felt Soviet pride, or even a desire to end America's dominance in the sport. Arabadjan allegedly participated in rigging the game because the KGB had threatened to kidnap and murder his family if the Soviets lost.
Arabadjan is an officiating legend in Europe. As a player, he was a member of four Bulgarian championship teams in the 1950s. Upon becoming an official, Arabadjan was a FIBA referee for 16 years, overseeing games in three Olympics, two World Championships and six European Championships. In 2009, he was elected into the FIBA Hall of Fame. He would appear incorruptible. But such a threat, especially coming from the likes of the KGB, whose reach easily extended into the Soviet controlled country of Bulgaria, would likely change anyone's mind.
Was Arabadjan complicit in stealing the victory from Team USA? Attempts to contact Arabadjan were unsuccessful (and likely pointless, given the circumstances). There have been few complaints about the officiating during the game itself. The focus has always been on the last three seconds. Had America lost by 10 points, it's likely no one would've claimed a courtside robbery had occurred. It is interesting to note, however, that in the final 3:30 of the game, seven fouls were called -- five on the U.S., two on the Soviets. Of those calls, Arabadjan was responsible for four, all of which were against Team USA and led to free throws for the USSR.
In the waning moments, Arabadjan also helped drive the final nail in Team USA's coffin. In accordance with Jones' "three seconds" plea, Arabadjan had to agree in some fashion to resetting the clock. He also appeared to look the other way when Soviet head coach Kondrashin illegally substituted Edeshko into the game to inbound the ball. But more importantly, when the Soviets attempted to inbound the ball a third time, Arabadjan signaled U.S. center McMillen to back away from Edeshko. McMillen complied, despite having the right to guard the play (American head coach Henry Iba warned his players to follow any official order, afraid that the referees were looking for an excuse to hand the game to the Soviets). Originally, McMillen's presence had forced Edeshko to take a short inbounds pass on the first failed attempt. Without McMillen's 6'11" frame in Edeshko's face, he was clear to heave the court-length pass to Belov that resulted in the game-winning shot.
Brazilian referee Righetto, who believed that the game ended improperly, had allegedly refused to sign the game's official scorebook and would later testify on America's behalf in the appeals process. Yet Arabadjan would take no such action. In fact, it doesn't appear that he participated in the appeal at all, and scant few words are heard from him in regard to this hotly contested game.
In an attempt to prove my source's claims, I went straight to the CIA by filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking any files relating to this game. The initial response I received stated, in part, "The CIA can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to your request." The letter really said that. It continued, "The fact of the existence or nonexistence of requested records is currently and properly classified and is intelligence sources and methods information that is protected from disclosure by section 6 of the CIA Act of 1949, as amended, and section 102A(i)(l) of the National Security Act of 1947, as amended. Therefore, your request is denied pursuant to FOIA exemptions..."
As is allowable by law, I immediately appealed their decision. As I wrote to the Information and Privacy Coordinator, this was a 40-year old basketball game, not a national security issue. The files, if they did exist, should be made public. The CIA accepted my appeal... then promptly denied it on similar grounds as before. The denial included a taunt (of sorts): If you want us to produce something, then you'll have to sue us.
Seeking further assistance, I contacted a Washington, D.C., attorney who had gone toe-to-toe with the Agency on similar matters in the past. His response to my query stated, "You'll never get the records, at least not now. Perhaps if I win the cases I've already briefed on this matter, then you could get some records (or at least an acknowledgement that they have some), but as it stands right now, this is a pipe dream that could easily become a pipe bomb. Probably the only judge in the country who would rule in my favor is currently considering an argument that would help you, and if you tried to sue on this you'd almost certainly get another judge who would quickly affirm the CIA's argument and undermine any victory I might win."
Final score: CIA 100, me 0.
It is here that my addition to this historic game ends. Not for lack of trying, but due to a lack of access to information. However, I didn't earn the moniker of "America's Leading Sports Conspiracy Theorist" by avoiding controversy. Unlike many (any?) in the mainstream sports media world, I'm willing to trod the wild path, shine a light in the dark corners, and risk disbelief and derision in search of the truth. Because that's where it's going to be found, buried like Jimmy Hoffa under the old Meadowlands endzone (or in the business end of a wood chipper, or wherever the hell Hoffa wound up).
So this is your chance, Sports on Earth fans. Do you have a sports conspiracy you want me to investigate? Do you have inside information you're afraid to discuss because you cannot confirm it? Think something is rotten in the sports world and needs to be straightened out for the good of fans everywhere? If so, I'm here, I'm listening, and I'm at your disposal. It's not much of a job, but it's my job, dammit, and I'll do it -- happily.
Email me at email@example.com and I will do my best to answer any and all inquiries here. Have at it.
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.