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'More Than Just A Game': As Doping Disgrace Mounts, Russian Film Revisits Olympic Hoops Glory


The final continues to stir debate more than 45 years after it was played on September 9, 1972.

With Russia sidelined from the Winter Olympics that are just around the corner, Russian moviegoers are set to revisit one of their country's greatest Olympic triumphs: the Soviet Union’s controversial gold-medal victory over the seemingly unbeatable U.S. men’s basketball team in 1972.

Going Vertical, a state-backed historical sports drama being promoted as a patriotic blockbuster, brings the story of that groundbreaking Soviet squad to a new generation of Russians when it premiers in cinemas on December 28.

WATCH: The official trailer for Going Vertical (in Russian)

The film's release coincides with a deep freeze in relations between Moscow and Washington echoing the Cold War tensions of the early '70s, and it comes amid calls by Russian officials in recent years for patriotic-minded fare on Russian screens.

The Russian Culture Ministry last year issued a directive prioritizing funding for films featuring topics such as Russian military history, the battle against terrorism and extremism, "traditional values," and notable "first" achievements that "changed the world."

The Soviet team's 1972 victory in Munich undoubtedly fits that bill: It marked the first Olympic basketball loss for the United States, the birthplace of the game, since the sport became an official discipline in 1936.

It was also one of the most contentious and politically charged events in Olympic history, with the Soviets winning in miracle fashion on a final possession that was replayed two times amid chaos and confusion at the scorer's table.

It was really much more important than just a basketball game. It was taking America's hegemony in basketball and trying to deflate that. And it was everything to the Soviets to beat us."
-- Tom McMillen

The U.S. side protested the outcome of the game -- unsuccessfully -- and the American players refused to accept their silver medals, which remain unclaimed to this day in a vault at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Beyond the Cold War context, the game became a milestone in the global development of basketball. Other countries narrowed the competitive gap with the Americans in the ensuing decades and eventually began beating even U.S. teams that were packed with NBA stars.

"A lot of the global improvement came from psychological breakthroughs, from one generation and then the next realizing that the U.S. wasn't unbeatable," Alexander Wolff, an author and longtime basketball writer for the magazine Sports Illustrated who has covered international basketball for decades, told RFE/RL. "And the first shot heard round the world was in Munich."

'Great Victory'

Going Vertical, which has received financing from the state's Cinema Foundation (Fond Kino) and the Russian Culture Ministry, is already being lauded in state media as a must-see for Russians of all ages.

Following a recent closed screening of the film in Moscow, Russian news anchor and media executive Dmitry Kiselyov, who was in attendance, gushed that many in the audience "left the theater in tears but also as if they were flying."

Kiselyov, known for his colorful anti-American diatribes on his weekly news analysis program, predicted it will become "the essential film of the entire New Year holidays."

Aleksandr Belov scores the winning basket in Munich.
Aleksandr Belov scores the winning basket in Munich.

The timing of the film's release has already drawn it into the discussion surrounding the decision last week by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to bar the Russian team from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

Kiselyov's segment on the film aired two days before the IOC's December 5 announcement of the punitive measures, which will nonetheless allow Russian athletes who meet rigorous anti-doping conditions to compete under a neutral flag.

"Of course, the doping scandal surrounding our national team is a difficult, unfair, and painful situation. But when has it ever been easy for our athletes?" Kiselyov said in his introduction to the report, which included a sarcastic swipe at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

A 2016 report commissioned by WADA concluded that Russia was guilty for years of state-sponsored doping across many Olympic sports and of a cover-up and said Russian security agents helped thwart urine testing at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

Russia denies any state involvement in doping.

The new film is a joint project by the production company of prominent director Nikita Mikhalkov, a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, together with state-run Rossia-24 television. The two organizations previously teamed up to produce the 2013 film Legend No. 17, a biopic of Soviet ice-hockey legend Valery Kharlamov that Putin praised as a film for "those who are proud of our country's achievements."

Going Vertical is based on the autobiography of the same name by Soviet basketball legend Sergei Belov, the standoffish, sweet-shooting leader of the 1972 team who died in 2013.

"After the success of Legend No. 17, it became clear to us that audiences are interested in national stories with a great victory," Leonid Vereshchagin, general director of Mikhalkov's TriTe production company, told the state-run TASS news agency late last month.

Infighting, KGB, And Temptation

The Americans, naturally, are the antagonists in Going Vertical, a juggernaut to be felled by the underdog Soviet squad under the guidance of coach Vladimir Kondrashin, who died in 1999 and is played by the famous Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov.

But they loom largely in the background for much of the film, up until the Olympic final, according to a draft of the screenplay obtained by RFE/RL. Much of the story focuses on the personalities and conflicts within the Soviet squad and sporting bureaucracy.

The U.S. team celebrates after what it thought was a victory over the Soviet Union.
The U.S. team celebrates after what it thought was a victory over the Soviet Union.

Soviet basketball was not immune to power struggles between influential figures, including accusations of dirty tricks targeting rivals within the system. And there was, of course, the omnipresent KGB, which had the power to keep players and coaches from traveling abroad and kept a close eye on them when they did.

Subplots in Going Vertical, according to the draft screenplay, include efforts by Kondrashin to scrape together money for medical treatment for his son, who in real life suffers from cerebral palsy.

Others story lines include the illness of the team's star center, Aleksandr Belov (no relation to Sergei), who would die of a rare form of cancer at age 26 just six years after the Munich games, and the temptation to defect to the West faced by the team's lone Lithuanian, Modestas Paulauskas.

Ivan Yedeshko, the Soviet player who threw the full-court pass to Aleksandr Belov for the basket that gave his team the 51-50 victory over the Americans, told RFE/RL that the events depicted in the film are broadly accurate but that certain dramatic elements were introduced and simplified to "spice things up" for a mass audience.

Paulauskas, an icon in basketball-mad Lithuania, could not be reached for comment. But Yedeshko said that, in reality, his Baltic teammate had not considered fleeing while in Munich.

James Tratas, the Lithuanian actor who plays Paulauskas in the movie, told RFE/RL that he had spoken with the player while preparing for his role and that Paulauskas told him there was no truth to that particular story line.

Soviet players celebrate their controversial win, the first Olympic basketball loss for the United States since the sport became an official discipline in 1936.
Soviet players celebrate their controversial win, the first Olympic basketball loss for the United States since the sport became an official discipline in 1936.

Lithuanians, whose country is now an EU and NATO member, largely resented Soviet occupation and remain wary of Moscow following Russia's 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Tratas said Paulauskas told him he had read the screenplay and said "he was OK with it."

'It Was Everything To The Soviets'

The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the Olympic final, a game that continues to stir debate more than 45 years after it was played on September 9, 1972.

Led by 20 points from Sergei Belov, played in the film by Russian actor Kirill Zaitsev, the Soviets remained in front until the final seconds, when future NBA player and coach Doug Collins sank two foul shots to put the Americans up 50-49.

The Soviets inbounded the ball with three seconds left but failed to score before the buzzer, prompting wild celebrations by the Americans. But the Soviet team was given a do-over after it was ruled that Kondrashin had called a time-out before Collins' second free throw. Again they failed to score, and again the Americans rejoiced on the court.

But the head of international basketball's governing body, Britain's R. William Jones, came down from the stands and ordered that three seconds be put back on the clock, arguing that the clock had not been properly reset.

On the third attempt, Yedeshko heaved a full-court pass that was hauled down near the basket by Aleksandr Belov, who laid the ball in at the buzzer for a 51-50 victory. The stunned Americans had seen their 63-0 Olympic winning streak snapped, and after their protest was rejected, the team refused to accept its silver medals.

Henry Iba (left), the coach of the U.S. team, looks over the shoulder of a referee as he explains to officials the circumstances that put an extra three seconds back on the clock.
Henry Iba (left), the coach of the U.S. team, looks over the shoulder of a referee as he explains to officials the circumstances that put an extra three seconds back on the clock.

"It was really much more important than just a basketball game," Tom McMillen, who was tasked with guarding Yedeshko on the final play and who later became an NBA player and U.S. congressman, told RFE/RL. "It was taking America's hegemony in basketball and trying to deflate that. And it was everything to the Soviets to beat us. We hadn't lost, ever."

McMillen in 2012 proposed what he called a "grand compromise" in which the IOC would award dual gold medals for the game, and in exchange the silver medals sitting in a Lausanne vault would be monetized and donated to a Russian charity for orphans.

He told RFE/RL, however, that his former teammates had "absolutely zero interest in it."

"I thought that maybe time would temper that, but it hasn't. Sadly, those medals will be sitting there for years to come," said McMillen, who argues that Jones had no authority to intervene at the scorer's table.

We beat the country that has the strongest basketball, the best basketball. It will be the strongest in 100 years as well."
-- Ivan Yedeshko

He added that it was "inevitable" that the U.S. team would lose in the Olympics at some point, noting that the American teams consisted of college players, while the Soviets and other national teams had older rosters featuring professional players.

Sergei Belov conceded in his autobiography that the Soviet players were essentially professionals, despite their nominal amateur status.

"We couldn't play college kids against pro players and win forever," McMillen said. "The world was getting too good at basketball."

‘How Long These Three Seconds Are Lasting'

U.S. actors with basketball backgrounds were brought in to fill the roles of American players in Going Vertical. Oliver Morton, a former U.S. college player who plays the role of Collins, described the film as a "big production" and estimated that the scenes from the game were selected from probably 30 to 40 hours of footage.

"They were getting shots in every single direction," Morton told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Basketball consultants on the film included Sergei Belov's son, Aleksandr, and Yedeshko, one of only four living members of the Soviet gold-medal team.

Yedeshko, who was born in Soviet Belarus, told RFE/RL that he is happy that the relatives of his former teammates will get to see "what their husbands and grandfathers did."

"We beat the country that has the strongest basketball, the best basketball," he said. "It will be the strongest in 100 years as well."

Three seconds, as any basketball player knows, is a lot of time on the court.

When filming began for the movie, Yedeshko said, "I thought to myself ‘how long these three seconds are lasting.'"

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