Review of Three Seconds in Munich

Sweet, David A. F. Three Seconds in Munich: The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Final. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019. Pp. 225. Bibliography, illustrations, index, and source notes. $29.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes

The President of the United States was livid.  Richard Nixon was meeting with his chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, and his press secretary, Ron Ziegler.  The day before the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team had lost to the Soviet Union in the gold medal game after a series of highly suspect officiating moves.  Nixon was no basketball fan—he had lost his two front teeth in a game when he was in school and had an understandable aversion to the game ever since—yet, even he was angry.  “We got screwed,” he stated.

University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

Haldeman agreed, but was worried that Ziegler was there so that the President might release some type of statement.  “I think you’re better off not to be on record as complaining about officiating or the judging,” he cautioned as the White House tapes captured the conversation.  Nixon was a real sports fan and Haldeman believed he had profited in a public relations sense from his visits to Washington Senators baseball games, and college football games, but there was no upside to releasing a statement.  Nixon could not alter the outcome and any support he offered the team would seem like pandering or sour grapes.  Haldeman was impressed with the players, though, and their refusal to accept the silver medal. 

“You’re damn right,” Nixon replied.  “That would mean they were accepting a bad call.”

This incident shows the wide spread anger in the United States about the outcome of the 1972 Olympic Basketball Tournament.  Some of this anger was a function of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union—détente or no détente—but much of it was the result of the blatant manipulation at the end of the game.  With the controversy five decades in the past and emotions cooled (maybe), David A. F. Sweet offers an in-depth examination of this one game in Three Seconds in Munich: The Controversial 1972 Olympic Basketball Final.

This book is an easy, enjoyable read.  Although the publisher is an academic press, Sweet’s account often feels like an extended magazine article with lengthy biographical sketches of the U.S. players and coaches, and a non-linear narrative structure.   Perhaps that should not be a surprise.  Sweet is an accomplished sports journalist, and Nebraska has been publishing a number of sports books that are not that scholarly in nature.  The research behind this account is solid.  The book is based mainly on news accounts, memoirs, and interviews.  Given that the main focus is on a game, there really was not much utility to work in archives. 

Sweet’s argument is pretty clear: “Something was rotten in the city of Munich” (p. xiv).  That the U.S. team was robbed of a win and the gold medal is an easy argument to make, and Sweet does so well.  (This book will likely never be translated into Russian.)  Sweet does go a bit overboard in his discussion of conspiracies and throwing every negative accusation he can into the mix.  It is hardly likely that the outcome was “rigged.”  There was no way of knowing before the basketball tournament how well each team would do, and the fact that one referee was from Bulgaria, a Warsaw Pact member, would not have been all that relevant had the U.S.A. been playing Italy for the gold, or had a 20 or 30-point lead (which was the case in most of the other games the USA played) over the Soviet Union.  The Cold War was clearly a factor in this confrontation and made the defeat even more painful, but those that have studied the Olympics know that there have been scandals and controversies at Olympic gatherings before and since that have had nothing to do with international politics. 

Sweet shows that R. William Jones, the Secretary General of the Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur (FIBA), intervened in the officiating of the game, ordering the time keeper to put three seconds on the clock.  Jones did so, even though he had no authority to do so, and then did it again.  The U.S. won the first and second games, losing only after the time was modified again for a third ending.  Sweet makes it clear that Jones had an inflated sense of self-importance and after 40 years in control of FIBA believed his authority was absolute—which apparently was the case.  In subsequent statements, he said the Americans were going to have to learn to be mature and take their lumps.  This ego and unchecked authority, rather than the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviets appears to have been the real cause of the manipulated ending.  With that said, since it was the USSR versus the USA, Cold War considerations bloomed rapidly.  In this sense, had Sweet offered less, it would have been a stronger account.

Although the focus of the story is on the United States, Sweet looks at several different perspectives.  The victory was an amazing professional achievement for the Soviet players and coaches—something akin to the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s victory—and spurred the growth of European basketball.  Most Soviets and many other Europeans dismissed the importance of the controversial end and paid no serious heed to American objections.  

The reaction of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the controversy was almost predictable.  Since the individual athletic federations are responsible for the judging and the referring the athletic events, there was little they could do to overturn the results.  The IOC has usually been rather inconsistent in its willingness to address cheating issues; while it is willing to drop the hammer on individual athletes using performance enhancing drugs, it is usually reluctant to address the actions of administrators, judges, and referees.  Instead the new President of the committee, Lord Killanin (an Irishman with a British title) simply called the refusal of the U.S. players to accept their silver medals an example of bad sportsmanship.  This attitude did damage to the international Olympic movement, and was a way avoiding the real issue at hand. 

It is clear that Sweet could have gone deeper in his analysis.  His narrative makes it clear that the USA had some serious organizational issues that diminished the strength of the team that it put on the court in Germany.  Head Coach Henry Iba was probably the wrong coach to lead the USA.  He had a legendary head coaching stint at Oklahoma State University but the college game had clearly passed him by.  He had an overall winning record, but four of his last five seasons were losing campaigns.  He had not won a national title in 26 years.  He was on his third Olympics as head coach but was insisting on a defensive style of play that ran counter to his players’ abilities.  The USSR thrashed the Americans for over half the game.  To his credit, Iba adapted in the gold medal game and let his players speed up the tempo on offense, which allowed them to overtake the Soviets.  It is also clear the Soviets had done a lot to close the gap in the quality of play.  The Soviet Olympic Basketball Team was actually a team that had played together for years.  The U.S. team, on the other hand, was an all-star team that was put together only a few weeks before the Olympics. 

Another organizational issues that Sweet only touches on briefly is the changing format of sport in the United States.  In theory the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) administered amateur athletic sport in the United States, but the failings of the organization and its long feud with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) led to the creation of many national federations to administer international play in specific sports.  (For example, the establishment of the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America—which later changed its name to USA Basketball—occurred only after the Munich Games).  In basketball the AAU tournament was a major event from the 1920s to the 1960s.  Many Olympic players came from club, corporate, or military teams that competed in this tournament.   With the creation of the American Basketball Association (ABA)—a rival league to the National Basketball Association (NBA)—players suddenly had more opportunities to play, and AAU teams began to decline in importance then disappear altogether. 

At the time, though, Iba only had a limited say in selecting the players.  Administrators had a larger voice.  The NCAA basically won its fight with the AAU, but that might not have been a good thing.  The year 1972 marked a major turning point in U.S. basketball in that most national teams until 1992 were college all-star teams, with less experienced players than those that had AAU players.  These agendas kept a lot of talented players off the team.  To give one example, despite the on-going University of California, Los Angeles dynasty in college basketball, no Bruin was a player or a coach in Germany.  The training resources the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) could devote to basketball were limited as well, which seems stunning to a contemporary reader.  Swen Nater, a UCLA player, actually quit during training camp because of the lack of food.  Others on the team were losing weight as well.   On the other hand, in training, equipment, and playing techniques the Soviets had gotten better over the years.

These organizational issues were not limited to basketball, and after a weak overall showing in Munich—the U.S. won only 33 gold medals to the Soviet Union’s 50—the U.S. government began a systematic review of amateur athletic sport.  The idea for a presidential commission began in the Nixon Administration, reached fruition in 1975 when President Gerald R. Ford appointed the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports, and this body recommended legislation that ultimately resulted in the Amateur Sports Act that Jimmy Carter signed into law in 1978.   

Sweet takes the story up to the present, and explains what happened to the players.  “I actually got more bitter about that game as the years went on,” Doug Collins observed (p. 164).  Tom McMillen, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, said, “That was the most bitter and painful experience of my life” (p. 163).  Many stayed in basketball, but none became a major superstar.  That fact might have been a consequence of the outcome of the gold medal game, but more likely reflects the fact that the USA did not send its best players to Germany.  The IOC has also been fairly consistent over the years in its unwillingness to examine the 1972 basketball outcome even when it has dealt with similar issues when officials have made effort to manipulate the final outcome.

In the end, this book is a fine read.  It could readily be used in undergraduate classes.  There might have been more analysis, but it is still a book of many, many strengths.

Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College.  He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California.  He is the author of six books.  The most recent is Fan-in-Chief: Richard Nixon and American Sports, 1969-1974.

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