The scoreboard could not separate USA shooting team-mates Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976 and, after a quirk of the rules prevented the pioneering Murdock from becoming the first female champion, Bassham made sure everyone appreciated the fact.
It is still simple for pre-event favourite and multiple shooting world champion Lanny Bassham. “I didn’t beat her,” the American said of team-mate Margaret Murdock in the 50m rifle 3 positions competition at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976.
Forty-four years after the event, it continues to rankle Bassham that the duo, who both finished with 1,162 points after firing 120 shots, did not both receive gold medals.
“She shot the same score as an Olympic gold medallist, and she got a silver medal. That is nuts,” said Bassham, who was awarded gold because he had a higher score in his final 10 shots than Murdock, as per the same tiebreak rule that had qualified her for the US team.
Bassham, now 73, is thankful, however, that he and Murdock, with the full support of USA Shooting, not only tried to right what they saw as a wrong, but also made a visceral statement at the medal ceremony.
“I told Margaret, ‘I can’t get you a gold medal, but I can get you the national anthem. [On] the first note of the national anthem, step up and we will stand together. As far as I am concerned, you deserve an Olympic gold medal’.”
As a result, Bassham and Murdock were side by side on the top step of the podium as the Stars and Stripes was raised – a potent symbol of sporting spirit and fair play. But this story had far more layers to it, and merits a trip back to the beginning.
With no separate shooting events for women, the sport-mad Murdock was used to bucking the trend.
“It was either shoot with the men or don’t shoot. So, I had been shooting with the men ever since I was little, and beating them,” the now 77-year-old Murdock recalled with a hearty laugh.
A US army instructor, Murdock loved breaking barriers. While at Kansas State University she had forced administrators to let her shoot on the team, and by 1975 she was not only the first individual female world champion but also a two-time Pan-American gold medallist. As Bassham, an up-and-coming talent who had finished second in the 50m rifle 3 positions at the Munich 1972 Games, said: she was a “legend” of the sport.
“The first US team I made was [for] the 1970 World Championships, and she was already a famous shooter before I was anybody,” Bassham confirmed. “There was never a time that Margaret Murdock wasn’t a threat to win. She was always at the top of every tournament she shot. She was always someone everybody was worried about.”
The men were as used to competing alongside Murdock as she was with them but, having missed out on the 1968 and 1972 USA Olympic teams, it was a new phenomenon for much of the world.
“As far as I was concerned, I never looked at her as being a girl on the team. I looked at her as being a great shooter,” Bassham said. “We would go to tournaments for years where Margaret was the only woman on the line. It was old news for us. But at the Olympics, the whole world is looking at everything you do, and she was big news.”
Once competition got underway, Murdock showed she belonged: the lone female athlete was ahead of triple 1974 world champion Bassham in the opening two stages, finishing second after the prone position and third after the standing.
“I was hoping for a gold medal; that’s what I went for,” Murdock said brightly.
Paper targets were in operation in 1976, and after each stage the targets were removed, examined and graded by three scorers. In cases where it was not immediately obvious whether a shot merited a score of eight or nine, or nine or ten, and so on, the three scorers would vote. In addition, a separate three-person group would re-grade all the scores of the top-10-ranked shooters to ensure consistency. Only then were the results final.
In Montreal, this two-stage process caused problems. The preliminary scores were posted on the scoreboard following the third and final stage. These stated that Murdock had beaten Bassham by a single point.
“You can imagine what happened,” Bassham said ruefully. “The only woman ever wins the gold medal – ‘Boy, that’s a good story, let’s send that out all over the wire’. The media just ran to Margaret and said, ‘You won, you’ve got the gold medal, isn’t this great?’.
“In most sports, whatever the scoreboard says is final – but it was not final. They had made a mistake.”
Several coaches and team-mates had been using a telescope to keep an eye on Bassham’s shooting (as they had for Murdock), and all were convinced he had been incorrectly marked down on the second stage. So it proved when the final results were released. Bassham and Murdock were tied on 1,162, with Bassham awarded the gold thanks to the tiebreak rule.
“All the media had left, everybody had gone, but the final scores come back with the fact I picked up that point,” Bassham explained. “I was excited I had won the gold medal, but I felt terrible for Margaret.”
Bassham and Murdock led the pleas for a shoot-off, or at the very least a gold medal for both. But the rules were immovable. A large crowd, consisting mainly of media who had heard rumours that the US shooters had something planned, gathered for the medal ceremony. The rest is heart-warming history.
“I wasn’t surprised [Bassham asked her up to the top step of the podium],” Murdock said. “Our scores were the same. We were team-mates. We both performed very well that day. It was nice that he acknowledged that I was shooting very well too.”
Murdock’s medal did change shooting for ever, even if it was not the colour she and many others felt she deserved. She was, however, the first woman to win an Olympic shooting medal, and women’s events were introduced soon after. Even the tiebreak rule was amended. In addition, Bassham’s gesture propelled shooting on to the front pages.
“I’m glad we had the presence of mind to do what we did. I think it was in the spirit of the Olympics,” Bassham said. “I still believe she deserves a gold medal. If there was anything I could do to get Margaret Murdock a different colour to her medal, I would do it.”