For the past 14 months, I've been working with the Converse Shoe Company to hold the first reunion of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team (women's basketball was not yet an Olympic sport in that landmark year of Title IX).
This was the team that was literally cheated out of the gold medal in Munich, Germany, and I believe President Barack Obama's support might finally bring justice to the 12 American heroes honored last night in Lexington.
The basketball travesty was by no means the worst thing that happened at those Olympics. Only a few days before the gold-medal game, masked terrorists sneaked into the Olympic Village. They killed two Israeli team members and took nine others hostage. While the world watched in horror, the hostages were executed during a botched rescue attempt at the airport.
Many thought the Games should have been canceled. Instead, the IOC decided that the Games should continue after a short suspension and a memorial service. That was the backdrop against which the basketball team put our country's all-time Olympic record of 63-0 on the line against a talented, more experienced Soviet Union team.
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The Cold War was at its peak. The Soviet Union and its allies understood perfectly the propaganda value inherent in sports. But despite their successes in swimming and other sports, they knew that beating the U.S. at basketball — our game, the one we invented — would be the ultimate victory.
With the U.S. trailing the Soviets by a point with three seconds remaining in the gold-medal game, Doug Collins was fouled hard on a breakaway layup.
Woozy, he nevertheless got up and made what many have called the most pressure-packed free throws in basketball history to give the Americans their first lead, 50-49. After Collins' second free throw, the Soviets immediately put the ball in play and missed a long desperation shot to give the U.S. an apparent victory.
What happened next was robbery, pure and simple.
With total disregard for the international rules in effect at the time, officials ordered time put back on the clock. Incredibly, the Soviets were allowed to in-bound the ball twice more before their Alexander Belov finally made a basket to give the Soviets a 51-50 victory.
I will not go through the tragi-comedy of errors — some inadvertent, some willful — that occurred after Collins made his second free throw. The most obvious culprit was William Jones, head of the international sanctioning body for basketball, who came out of the stands and dictated rulings even though he had no authority whatsoever to do so.
In the locker room, the dazed and angry U.S. players voted to appeal the outcome. A five-person jury voted 3-2 to deny the appeal (three of the members were from Communist-bloc nations).
When the U.S. appeal was rejected, the team voted to decline the silver medal and not participate in the awards ceremony. As team captain Kenny Davis said, "If we had earned the silver, we would have proudly accepted it. But we earned the gold."
So the team made a stand on principle and has not backed off for 40 years. The silver medals remain unclaimed, locked in a vault in Switzerland. It's a hoops Cold War that still is being waged today.
Obama should ask the IOC to order the Soviet players who are still with us (Alexander Belov was buried with his gold medal around his neck) to exchange their gold medals for the silver. For every one who does, the IOC should write a check to a Soviet charity. And for those who don't, it would be enough for the IOC to simply declare those medals invalid.
Heck I'll bet that even his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who worked with the IOC during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, would support the petition.
Presidents have the power to issue pardons and commute sentences. Obama should use the power of his office to help give these 12 American heroes the closure and peace of mind they deserve.