Cold War on the Court

The U.S. team came to the final having won every game in Olympic play for the past 36 years — this despite having a tradition back then of selecting a new team of amateur players every four years and leaving little time for the team to really gel and get to know each other on the court. In 1972, however, the Soviet Union’s team surprised the Americans with an aggressive offense in the finals.

With six seconds left, the USSR was clinging to a one-point lead when American Doug Collins was deliberately fouled. Collins scored  both of his free throws, giving the US. its first lead, 50-49. The Soviets failed to score in the remaining three seconds and the Americans erupted in celebration.

But Soviet coach Vladimir Kondrashkin claimed he had called a time-out that was ignored, and Britain’s R. Williams Jones, the Secretary-General of the International Amateur Basketball Federation, ordered the clock set back by three seconds. When the play resumed, Soviet star Sasha Belov pushed past two U.S. defenders to sink the winning basket.

The above photo was taken after the match, with the exhausted and angry American team framed by crosses. The sympathies of photographer, Rich Clakson, who covered the Olympics in Munich, Montreal and Moscow for Sports Illustrated, Time and Life, are clearly visible. The team refused to accept the silver medals, and stormed off, leaving behind a blank podium (seen in another iconic image from the game).