Still Going for Their Gold

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Several months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I spent an evening at a congenial Washington tavern with some visiting Russian scholars and a few local friends. The Cold War was finally over, and our small group of middle-aged academics could appreciate each other's company in a new context. Our countries were no longer enemies, or even competitors, it seemed, but something else, something approaching friends. We were still different, of course, but the world of "We will bury you!" and "Nuke 'em til they glow!" was clearly well behind us, a fact we could toast with real pleasure.

In a relaxed ambiance of magnanimity and good beer, I asked the Russian historian sitting next to me whether now, at long last, we might settle a question that had long stuck in the American national craw: Who really won the basketball gold medal at the 1972 Olympics?

The pub's piano player stopped. A hush fell over the room as the Russian raised his eyes, freezing me in a glare that made my pulse pound. Slowly he pushed his chair back from the table, his right hand coming to rest with an audible click on an object concealed waist-high beneath his jacket. Finally he spoke, slowly and evenly: "We won. You want to step outside and say different?"

All right, maybe my memory has dramatized things a bit. But if the atmosphere didn't suddenly suggest the Long Branch Saloon or the OK Corral, it did indeed change after my question, and for the worse. Conflicting memories of a single sports event transformed our budding collegiality back into Cold War antipathy in an instant. Each of us knew who won that medal, and our answers were still different -- and probably always would be, I thought, as my hand traced the outline of the .44 Smith & Wesson under my coat.

For the record, the 1972 gold medal basketball game ended with a score of: U.S.S.R. 51, U.S.A. 50. Also for the record, that was the third ending of the game. An amazing comeback by a scrappy bunch of American college kids against a seasoned team of Soviet veterans was annulled by a perfect storm of officiating ineptitude that struck the Munich basketball arena that evening: Incompetent referees, a faulty game clock and the inexplicable intervention of a non-Olympic official -- who had no authority to intervene -- combined to prolong a game that had already ended in a 50-49 U.S. victory. Twice. In effect, the Americans were forced to keep playing until the Soviets won.

Or rather "won." The U.S. players refused to accept silver medals, and refuse to this day. What to Soviet fans became a "glorious" and "legendary" victory remains for Americans, to cite one historian of athletics, "the biggest injustice in the history of sports."

But let's sober up. What is most significant to most people in this controversy is its utter insignificance. How can something so trivial -- "Sports is the toy department of life," as the saying has it -- keep the flame of national indignation burning brightly for decades? Only in their better moments will American fans acknowledge the obvious: This was not a war. Nobody died. Indeed, when the whole world remembers the Munich Olympiad principally for its shocking and unprecedented acts of terrorism -- in which people did die -- who can remain outraged over a basketball game?

We can, say the offended, with no disrespect to the victims of Munich. And perhaps this isn't so hard to understand, in the end, despite the trivial context. Nationalism in sports is as deeply felt as nationalism itself, and this may not be such a bad thing. Athletic competition remains a kind of surrogate warfare, which certainly beats the warfare of surrogates, as last week's tragic distractions from the Beijing Games showed.

While long-simmering ethnic disputes don't yield easily to externally imposed solutions, long-simmering Olympic disputes can. A second medal ceremony could be staged for the 1972 U.S. basketball team, at which members are awarded gold medals equal to those given the Soviets, just as dual golds were awarded at the 2002 Winter Olympics to offset officiating less egregious than Munich's.

If the Soviet hero of the game, Sergei Belov, truly values the Olympic ideal, he'll be happy to invite the Americans to join him and his comrades on the highest podium. And if he refuses, he can step outside and take it up with my friends: Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.