Ten Moments of Olympic Agony, From Bad Calls to Bad Breaks
by Thomas Neumann
Tom McMillen was a member of the 1972 U.S. men’s basketball team that suffered one of the most agonizing defeats in Olympic history.
The U.S. basketball program was 63-0 in Olympic competition entering the gold medal game against the Soviet Union in Munich on Sept. 9, 1972. But the rest of the basketball world had been gaining ground on the Americans during the era before NBA players were allowed to compete in the Games
So when the U.S.S.R. built a 10-point lead in the second half of a low-scoring game, it began to look as if history would be made. Still, the Americans relentlessly chipped away and took a 50-49 lead with three seconds left on two free throws by Doug Collins. The Soviets inbounded but then held the ball with one second left as head coach Vladimir Kondrashin demanded a timeout. Officials reset the clock to three seconds and gave the ball back to the U.S.S.R. on the Soviet baseline.
The U.S. successfully defended the ensuing inbounds pass, and time expired. But then FIBA executive Renato William Jones came down from the stands and ordered the clock once again be reset to three seconds. This time, McMillen was set to defend the inbounds pass, but he said Bulgarian referee Artenik Arabadjian told him to back away from the baseline even though no rule required him to do so.
“I was on the ball, and if you notice in the video, the referee is motioning for me to get off the line,” McMillen said. “He didn’t speak English, and he’s motioning to me. Under international rules, as long as the guy had room to go back, then I didn’t need to get off the line. And I knew that was the rule, but this guy who doesn’t speak English is pushing me back. So, what do you do? You don’t want to get a technical. … The last thing you want to do is get a technical foul and have the game end like that.”
With no defender in his face, Soviet guard Ivan Edeshko was able to freely lob a full-court pass to big man Aleksandr Belov, who deftly caught the ball and put in the winning layup.
To this day, conspiracy theories abound. It was, after all, the height of Cold War tension between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Jones, an Englishman, was thought by some to be sympathetic to the Soviets. It has also been alleged that referees were bribed or threatened by Soviet interests. The U.S. players refused to accept the silver medals, which still sit in a vault at the IOC.
“You got the feeling if that game was close, we were gonna lose it,” McMillen said. “The powers that be were destined to make us lose it. That’s the part that’s hard to swallow.”
McMillen went on to play 11 NBA seasons and serve three terms as a U.S. congressman from Maryland. He is currently the president and CEO of the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association.
Ultimately, in McMillen’s view, there is no shortcut to recovery from the agony of defeat. The sting can only fade with time.
“You’ve got to get up, kick the dust off and get going again,” McMillen said. “I don’t live this thing. It’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day.’ It comes back every four years. People bring it up every Olympics. I don’t think about it otherwise.”
With that in mind, here are nine other agonizing Olympic disappointments, including the recent scary cycling spill in Rio:
1984: Mary Decker, track and field
Mary Decker is consoled by a track official after falling — or getting tripped — during the 3,000 meters at the 1984 Olympics. JEAN-CLAUDE DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images
An American competing in front of a partisan crowd in Los Angeles, Mary Decker was the strong favorite to win gold in the 3,000 meters. She had won gold at that distance at the 1983 world championships, and there was no reason to believe she wouldn’t do the same in the Olympics. Instead, she was involved in a memorable collision with barefoot runner Zola Budd, a South Africa native competing for Great Britain. Some observers suspect Budd deliberately tripped Decker, while others believe it was an accident. After the race, Decker put the blame squarely on Budd. Watch the video and decide for yourself.
Maricica Puica of Romania went on to win the race. Decker suffered a hip injury and was unable to continue, while a shaken Budd finished seventh. Decker and Budd have since reconciled and participated in the filming of “The Fall,” a 2016 documentary about the incident.
1988: United States men’s basketball
The U.S. men’s basketball team at the Seoul Olympics included collegiate stars David Robinson, Danny Manning, Mitch Richmond and Dan Majerle in what turned out to be the final Games without NBA players. Entering their semifinal match against the Soviet Union, the Americans held an 85-1 all-time record in Olympic competition — the only loss coming in the disputed 1972 gold medal game. These Americans, however, were unquestionably outplayed by a Soviet team led by future NBA players Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis and lost 82-76 in the semifinals. The U.S.S.R. went on to beat Yugoslavia in the gold medal game, and the U.S. beat Australia to win bronze. Rules were changed to allow NBA players into the Olympics beginning in 1992, when the original Dream Team rolled to the gold medal.
1988: Roy Jones Jr., boxing
Roy Jones Jr. almost quit boxing after losing a decision to South Korea’s Park Si-hun in the 1988 Seoul Games. AP Photo/Ron Kutz
In one of the most controversial judging outcomes in Olympic history, American light-middleweight Roy Jones Jr. lost a 3-2 decision to South Korean fighter Park Si-hun, who was competing on home soil in Seoul. Jones had dominated each of the three rounds by most accounts, and was in fact named outstanding boxer of the Games by an overall group of referees and judges. The three judges who determined the outcome of the Jones-Park bout were later accused of accepting bribes. Jones and U.S. coach Ken Adams were incredulous afterward. “I’ve been in boxing about 30 years, and that’s the worst decision I’ve seen in my life,” Adams said. The 19-year-old Jones was so disillusioned that he said he was retiring from the sport. Jones reconsidered and went on to become one of the best boxers in history, winning world championships in multiple weight classes. Now 47, he still competes professionally and is scheduled to fight Saturday in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida, against journeyman Rodney Moore.
1992: Derek Redmond, track and field
The pain was apparent on Derek Redmond’s face as his father helped him get around the track at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. AP Photo/Denis Paquin
Derek Redmond entered the Barcelona Olympics as the British record holder in the 400 meters. He also was a member of Great Britain’s gold medal-winning 4×400 relay team at the 1991 world championships. Backed by those credentials, he won his heats in the first round and quarterfinals in Barcelona, but he pulled up after tearing his right hamstring in the semifinals. Redmond’s father then rushed down from the grandstands and memorably helped his hobbled son around the track to complete the race. Although Redmond isn’t officially credited with having finished the race, footage of the event became a staple of inspirational Olympic moments.
1992: Ibragim Samadov, weightlifting
Russian weightlifter Ibragim Samadov was the defending world champion in the light-heavyweight class, and he represented the Unified Team in the wake of the fracturing of the Soviet Union. He finished in a three-way tie for first with combined lifts of 370 kilograms (815.7 pounds) but was awarded bronze on a technicality for weighing in a fraction of a kilogram heavier. Samadov threw his medal to the floor at the awards ceremony and was suspended indefinitely by the International Weightlifting Federation. He didn’t compete in another Olympics.
2004: Yang Tae-young, gymnastics
South Korean gymnast Yang Tae-young won the bronze medal in the all-around at the Athens Games, finishing behind Paul Hamm of the U.S. and fellow South Korean Kim Dae-eun. It was only afterward that it became apparent Yang had been incorrectly docked one-tenth of a point — more than enough to lift him into first place. However, the International Gymnastics Federation asserted that South Korea didn’t protest after the meet, and so the result wouldn’t be overturned. Instead, federation president Bruno Grandi asked Hamm to relinquish the gold as an act of sportsmanship. The U.S. Olympic Committee turned down the request, saying the mistake was the federation’s responsibility.
2004: Vanderlei de Lima, marathon
In one of the most bizarre moments in Olympic history, a defrocked Irish priest attacked race leader Vanderlei de Lima at the 22-mile mark of the 2004 marathon in Athens. AP Photos/Koji Sasahara
Vanderlei de Lima held the lead at the 22-mile mark of the men’s marathon in Athens and stood to become the first Brazilian to win gold in the event. Enter a defrocked Irish priest named Neil Horan, who tackled de Lima into the crowd of spectators. By the time de Lima was freed, his 25-second lead was gone. He held on to win bronze behind winner Stefano Baldini of Italy and Meb Keflezighi of the U.S. De Lima was selected to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
2008: Ara Abrahamian, wrestling
After winning a bronze in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Beijing Olympics, Swedish athlete Ara Abrahamian rejected the medal by dropping it on the mat in protest. Abrahamian had been incorrectly assessed a penalty that changed the complexion of a match he lost to Andrea Minguzzi of Italy. Abrahamian was denied a video review afterward, and wrestling’s governing body also refused to hear his protest. Abrahamian was ultimately disqualified for his act, and his bronze in the light-heavyweight class has been expunged from the record books.
2016: Annemiek van Vleuten, cycling
Netherlands cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten had her Olympic dream end painfully Sunday when she crashed violently on a steep descent while leading the women’s road race. She suffered three fractured vertebrae and remains hospitalized in Rio de Janeiro. Predictably, she disappointed by what transpired and shared her thoughts on Twitter.
I am now in the hospital with some injuries and fractures, but will be fine. Most of all super disappointed after best race of my career.
— Annemiek van Vleuten (@AvVleuten) August 8, 2016
Dutch teammate Anna van der Breggen ultimately won the gold medal. Similarly, the two leaders of the men’s cycling road race, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy and Sergio Henao of Colombia, crashed on the same descent the previous day. After Nibali and Henao were knocked out of action, Greg Van Avermaet of Belgium went on to capture the gold.