Former Maryland Star, U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen Remembers 1972 Munich Olympics
from The Baltimore Sun
by Peter Schmuk
There have been 11 Summer Olympics since the 1972 Munich Games and each one brings it all back.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” said former U.S. congressman and Maryland basketball star Tom McMillen, whose gold-medal moment all those years ago was snatched away during the chaotic and highly controversial last three seconds of the Olympic basketball final against the Soviet Union.
The U.S. team, which had never lost a game in Olympic competition, appeared to have defeated the Russians when time initially expired, but game officials replayed the final seconds twice before the Soviet Union pulled off a stunning length-of-the-court pass and layup at the horn to win — or steal, depending on your perspective — the gold-medal game.
The memories flood in from all directions. The Munich Games, of course, were the site of the terrorist attack that left 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team dead. The basketball controversy four days later might pale in comparison, but the two incidents intersected at a point in history that changed both the world and the nature of amateur athletics.
“It all comes back every four years,” McMillen said Friday, hours before the opening ceremonies took place in Rio de Janeiro. “Now, it’s more pronounced because you have the terrorism that started in Munich — which is a bigger, bigger issue with the Olympics — and then the basketball game, which is in congruence with the Russian doping scandal. The cheating still gets back to the same old issues. There is a lot of commonality cycle to cycle.”
There is one other reason why the beginning of the Rio Olympics weighs so heavily on McMillen’s mind. Former University of Houston star Dwight Jones died on July 25 from an aortic aneurysm — the first member of the ’72 team to pass away … and the first to leave this life without the golden proof of what all the players believe they accomplished.
The U.S. team will forever feel that it was wrongly denied its gold-medal ceremony, but we might never know for certain whether the strange outcome of that game was the result of gross incompetence on the part of several game officials or a concerted Cold War conspiracy to end American basketball hegemony.
McMillen, who would go on to play 11 years in the NBA before embarking on a political career, doesn’t think there is much doubt about that.
“That game was truly a part of the Cold War,” he said. “As I’ve always said, the United States was going to lose [in Olympic] basketball. It was just inevitable at some point. When you have 18-year-old kids playing against pros and the world getting better, it was only a matter of time. U.S. dominance would have died a natural death, but that game was preordained by some officials that if it was close we were going to lose, and that’s basically what happened.”
It certainly hearkens back to a time when the Eastern Bloc countries seemed willing to do anything to show the world the superiority of the Soviet communist system. The U.S. Olympic Basketball Committee filed a protest with the FIBA (International Basketball Federation), but it was denied by the five-member jury of appeal with all three majority votes coming from representatives of Eastern Bloc countries.
The U.S. team members refused to participate in the medal ceremony and have resisted offers from USA Basketball and the International Olympic Committee to accept their silver medals. That sentiment has not been unanimous, but it would take a unanimous decision of the group for any medals to be awarded.
“We had a reunion for the 40th anniversary [in 2012],” McMillen said. “I suggested to my teammates, ‘Why don’t we come up with some kind of compromise, make an appeal for a dual gold medal?’ But they weren’t even interested in a dual gold medal. The only thing they want is an unadulterated gold medal.”
McMillen’s prediction about the future of Olympic basketball came true in 1988, when the United States lost to the Soviet team fair and square at the Seoul Games in the last Olympiad in which the American team did not employ professional players.
Until then, the 1972 squad was the only U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team that had ever lost a game … a distinction that team did not deserve.
“It wasn’t until 1988 that the natural loss occurred and that was when we changed the rules and allowed the pros to go in there,” McMillen said, “but ’72 was preordained. As I’ve always said. [Richard] Nixon and [Leonid] Brezhnev could have had an arm-wrestling match, because what occurred on the court didn’t matter.”
The memories keep coming back like a streaming video.
“The game was at midnight because we finished it at 2:30 in the morning,” McMillen recalls. “I went out after the game with Tom Burleson and we were so disgusted by what had happened — the sort of incredulous disbelief that, you know, I’ve never had a sporting event in my whole life that was as screwed up as that one. To think that happened in the world championship game is sort of so crazy in a way. And that was [four] days after the terrorist attack. You came home sort of shell-shocked.”
It was that horrible assault that had the most impact on the world, of course, and yet the Games went on in the shadow of the tragedy and under a new level of security that has been required ever since.
“When I was there, I thought they should have canceled the Olympics,” McMillen said. “It was so surreal to have the Olympic village turned into an armed camp. That was my view then, but I actually think that would have been a mistake, in retrospect.”
Now, in a new age of terrorism and technology, he wonders whether the Olympic Games as we know them are worth the risk.
“It’s so different today,” he said. “Let me give you an example. The drones. You could have explosives on drones. You can have chemical weapons on drones. The ability to do things that can disrupt that are almost impossible to police and can be done very cheaply, makes these mega-events very difficult. Coupled with the cost of trying to recycle the Olympics every four years, the whole idea of the modern Olympics could be headed for a big makeover because (a) you can’t afford it, and (b) security is always going to be tenuous.”
Maybe McMillen didn’t fully realize it at the time. He hadn’t spent six years in Congress or lived most of a full life that also included a Rhodes Scholarship, a brief European basketball career and more than a decade with several NBA teams. He couldn’t have known the troubles this planet would see over the next 44 years. But the 1972 Munich Games changed everything.
“The significance of those Olympics was twofold,” McMillen said. “It changed security in the Olympics forever and it was the beginning of the end of amateurism in the Olympic sports.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here,” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.