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"Underdogs" USA win seventh straight Olympic gold amid protests, 1968 cultural revolution

MIES (Switzerland) - The United States shrugged off a supposed "underdog" tag to take the title at the 1968 Olympics for their seventh straight gold medal amid a wave of protest at and surrounding the Games and a cultural revolution at the time.

As the world gathered in Mexico City, 1968 saw the globe dealing with socio-political troubles, including student uprisings, strikes, the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution in China, demands for civil rights and the fight against Apartheid. Even the Mexican capital was the site of political dispute 10 days before the Games.

The Olympics were not exempt as American medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists to symbolize the Black Power movement - one of the biggest political statements in Olympic history.

Many thought the action on the basketball court would be dramatic as well with Soviet Union and Yugoslavia both expected to give a challenge to the United States, who won gold in the first six Olympics. In addition to great players featuring for both the Soviets and Yugoslavians, the Americans saw some of the best eligible players boycott the Games including Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and was protesting the treatment of African Americans in the United States.

The United States disproved their critics, easing past Spain (by 35 points), Senegal (by 57) and the Philippines (by 21) before not letting Yugoslavia challenge with a 73-58 win. The 16 Olympic teams were broken down into two eight-nation groups for round robin style, with the top two finishers advancing to the Semi-Finals - meaning there were still three group games before the Knockout Phase.

The Americans blasted  Panama by 35 points and Italy by 39 points before Puerto Rico tested the United States with a 61-56 decision for a 7-0 record. In the Semi-Finals versus Brazil, United States jumped ahead 20-8 and led 42-26 at halftime before finishing with a 75-63 victory.

The much-anticipated USA-Soviet Union Final did not materialize though as Yugoslavia shocked the Soviets 63-62 in the other Semi-Final - one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. The Soviet Union bounced back in the bronze medal game as they defeated Brazil 70-53 to at least not leave empty-handed.

In the Final, the Yugoslavs stayed with the Americans for a while and were down just 32-29 at halftime. But the United States started the second half with a 22-3 run to put the game away with a 65-50 victory. Spencer Haywood finished off an outstanding Olympics with 21 points while his main running mate JoJo White added 14 points. Haywood led the Americans with 16.1 points per game while White averaged 11.7 points.

Both the Yugoslavia and Soviet Union teams were packed with all-time greats in world basketball. Yugoslavs Kresimir Cosic, Radivoj Korac and Ivo Daneu all went on to have FIBA Hall of Fame careers while future FIBA Hall of Famers Sergei Belov and Modestas Paulauskas led the Soviet team.