Philip Barker ©ITG

On a grassy bank outside the Olympic Stadium in Munich, a series of plaques record the name of every gold medallist at the 1972 Games.

Alongside a pictogram for basketball are inscribed the names of the Soviet Union's basketball squad which won gold after defeating the United States by a single point, 51-50, in a dramatic and disputed finale.

The simplicity of the official roll of honour disguises the fact that the result is still bitterly resented by members of the American team.

This weekend, as the 50th anniversary of the match passed, there were again calls in the US for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to re-examine the result of the match.

The 1972 basketball match was played at the time of Cold War tension.

Former congressman Tom McMillen, who played as center for the 1972 team, insisted there are parallels to be drawn with the present day. 

"The Ukrainian conflict brought this into new perspective for me," McMillen told the New York Times this week.

"We were in the middle of the Cold War when we played the Soviets in 72, and here we are, back in the same kind of world conflict."

The US team refused to attend the victory ceremony and their silver medals are said to be locked in a vault in Lausanne.

McMillen suggested this week that the US team should be awarded duplicate gold medals.

It was a call he first made 20 years ago after the IOC awarded gold medals to the Canadian figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, when a judging scandal at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games was revealed. 

McMillen had drawn encouragement from the decision of the IOC earlier this year to reinstate Jim Thorpe as the sole champion for the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon.

Thorpe had been initially stripped of his medals after it was discovered that he had played baseball in contravention of regulations on amateurism in force at the time.

"If Jim Thorpe can get his medals posthumously, I’m still hoping that some shoes will drop and we can get our medals, hopefully not posthumously, but sometime down the road," McMillen told the newspaper.

The 1972 basketball defeat hit particularly hard in the US because it was the first time they had lost even a single match in the Olympic Games.

In addition, they regarded basketball as an "All American" sport for it had been devised on American soil at Springfield, Massachusetts by a Canadian born educator called James Naismith.

The sport proved popular and was eventually introduced to the Olympic programme at the Berlin 1936 Games, the only previous occasion they had been staged on German soil. 

In each of the seven tournaments played before 1972, the gold medal had been won by the Americans and they had come to regard it as a certainty.

The squad prepared for Munich in Honolulu, under the direction of coach Hank Iba, in charge of the team for the third consecutive Games.

Many fretted about the relative inexperience of the squad.

"No one will beat this team, but they are so young they may beat themselves," was Iba's forecast.

They were words which were ultimately prove to be prophetic.

The 1972 Olympic basketball final proved the most controversial match in the sport's history  ©Getty Images
The 1972 Olympic basketball final proved the most controversial match in the sport's history ©Getty Images

Yet throughout the preliminary matches in Munich, the Americans seemed full of confidence.

They started with a convincing victory over Czechoslovakia, piled on 96 points against Egypt and then also beat Cuba, Brazil, Spain, Japan and Australia to reach the semi-final.

They had scored 542 points and only conceded 312, the best defensive record of any team in the competition.

In the semi-final, they beat Italy 68-38, to set up a final showdown with the Soviet Union.

They had grown into an experienced team and also boasted a perfect record and had swept aside Senegal, West Germany, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia and against both Puerto Rico and the Philippines, they had scored a hundred or more points.

In their seven pool matches, they had amassed 639 points,

In their semi final, Soviets had beaten Cuba 67-61.

The gold medal match began very late in the evening but it was the Soviet team which started better.

By half time they led 26-21.

"They outrebounded, outshot and out-defensed the Americans," American military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported.

Gradually, the Americans closed the gap but in the final moments of the match, the Soviets led by 49-48.

Then American Doug Collins broke away and was fouled on his way to the basket.

In the words of the US Olympic Committee's official report, he was "crudely knocked against the supports, after a moment's rest, Collins calmly stepped to the free throw line and converted both free throws."

It was the first time that the Americans had led in the entire match.

"I thought we had probably lost but hope remained," Soviet center Aleksandr Boloshev said.

It was at this point that the drama began to unfold as the Soviet bench called for a time out with one second to go.

Match referee Rinato Righetto then stopped the match.

When play resumed there was no further score in the last second and it seemed as though the Americans had won.

The moment the Americans thought they had won the gold medal in 1972  ©Getty Images
The moment the Americans thought they had won the gold medal in 1972 ©Getty Images

The pandemonium which followed caused further confusion and what exactly happened remains the subject of different interpretations to this day.

Suddenly, International Basketball Federation (FIBA) secretary general Dr William Jones intervened and insisted there should be further time added.

Meanwhile the FIBA technical delegate Edmond Bigot had apparently signalled for only one second to be played extra.

An announcement was then made in German and then in English which stated "there are another three seconds left." 

Play was allowed to continue, but no one appeared to realise that the timing clock had not been correctly set.

As a result the klaxon sounded again after one second and the Americans felt they could start celebrating.

It was ordered that the three seconds should be replayed again.

"I told them that three seconds is a lot of time and not everything was lost," Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashin told his team.

"The coach said that I must give pass for Belov on the one moment it is possible to win a long pass," Belarusian born point guard Ivan Yedeshko recalled on NBC years later.

Yedeshko launched the pass of his life, the length of the court to Aleksandr Belov who scored the basket to make the score 51-50 in favour of the Soviet Union.

The klaxon sounded once again and this time it was the Soviet players who were celebrating.

"We have an expression to go crazy from happiness," Sergei Belov said of the moment.

"When Aleksandr Belov scored the basket, he was running without understanding anything." 

Meanwhile, the Americans stood in disbelief.

American coach Hank Iba, left, protests against the final result ©Getty Images
American coach Hank Iba, left, protests against the final result ©Getty Images

"I cannot fathom anything so incomprehensible," fumed US head coach Iba.

He also claimed that two American defence players had been fouled as the basket was scored.

"They certainly didn’t trip themselves," Iba said angrily.

The Americans immediately lodged an appeal.

"The US is protesting the extra three seconds granted because the game, according to FIBA rules, was over," their written deposition said.

"At this point according to FIBA rules neither team can call a timeout.

"The official time sheet does not show a time out in the last three seconds."

The FIBA jury of appeal continued their deliberations into the following day. 

The panel consisted of delegates from Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Then finally, jury chairman Ferenc Hepp appeared at a media conference to confirm that the result would stand.

"Whoever said it, it is up to the referee to decide," Hepps insisted. 

"He could have ruled that there was only one second to play, he ruled three," he continued.

There followed a remarkable exchange with American assistant coach Herb Mols, who had attended the conference.

"We were asking you who caused the referee to stop the play and it was the Russian bench, you looked at the movies and this was established, why not credit this and how can you penalise an American team for the Russian bench coming illegally on the floor, no technical foul called which is in the book, and nothing else that you have said is in the book," Mols complained.

It was to no avail.

The American players held a meeting where they decided unanimously that they would not accept the medals or even participate in the victory ceremony.

The decision was announced by Basketball team manager Bill Summers.

"Our team will not be present for the silver medal, we do not feel like accepting the silver medal, we feel we are entitled to the gold medal," he announced.

At the victory ceremony, the Cubans received their bronze medals and then came the announcement over the public address system.

"Silver medal USA."

Another long  American winning streak ended in Munich as Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany took gold in men's pole vault ©Getty Images
Another long American winning streak ended in Munich as Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany took gold in men's pole vault ©Getty Images

This was made in front of an empty step on the podium and jeering could be heard.

"I wasn’t surprised but it was a bit insulting, it wasn’t sporting of them, you have to accept things as they are in life, today you lose but life goes on," Boloshev said.

Team captain Kenny Davis who had described the result as "a stunning blow" decided to insert a clause into his will forbidding any of his descendants from accepting a medal in the future.

"I tell you what, I am the same way I was 50 years ago," shooting guard Ed Ratleff told the Associated Press news agency this week. 

"My mother always taught me you won’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you, and I didn’t think the silver medal belonged to us."

An even longer winning streak also ended in Munich.

Ever since the first Olympics of the Modern Era in 1896, gold in the men's pole vault had been won by an American athlete.

The 1968 champion Bob Seagren was in Munich with a new fibreglass pole known as the "Catapole".

This was ruled illegal by senior athletics official Adriaan Paulen.

Seagren angrily thrust the pole into Paulen’s hands and eventually took silver behind Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany.

By a strange coincidence, there was also another controversial medal presentation after the men's hockey final.

West Germany beat Pakistan by a single goal.

The Pakistanis were angry about the umpiring in the match and in the victory ceremony which followed, the Pakistani players, unhappy about the umpiring during the match, refused to face the German flag and put their medals in their shoes. 

The Pakistan Hockey Federation was originally suspended as part of what were described as "grave sanctions".

The players involved were handed life bans which were later rescinded.