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Basketball: the Fifth Basket of the Helsinki Final Act

The Helsinki Final Act, an agreement signed by 35 nations at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) on August 1, 1975, addressed a spectrum of global problems and had a lasting impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. The Helsinki Final Act dealt with a variety of issues divided into four “baskets.” The first basket dealt with political and military issues, the second economic issues, trade and scientific cooperation. The third basket emphasized human rights, and the fourth formalized procedures for implementing the agreements.

The multilateral negotiations were stressful and demanding. In this case, one means of reaching decisions on the four baskets came in the form of basketball. But just as in the case of diplomacy, in basketball you can run across “ringers”  – people whose abilities may not be readily apparent. Not everyone knew that Soumi – Finland – had its share of athletic diplomats who could make a lay up. Jonathan Greenwald, who served as the Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin from 1973-1977, highlighted the role that basketball played in bringing together different delegations during the negotiating process of the Helsinki Final Act, in an interview with Raymond Ewing in March 1998.

To read Theodore Wilkinson’s view of the Helsinki negotiations, or more about the Cold War or negotiations in general, please follow the links.


“….There were what seemed like hundreds of people sitting in the stands, all of them shouting in unison, ‘Soumi, Soumi’”

Jonathan Greenwald, Legal Advisor to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin, (1973-1977)

I should mention one other aspect of CSCE that was not unimportant. It was such a long conference that those who participated in it developed a certain esprit de corps which cut across delegation lines and cut across ideological lines. Since there was a certain expertise involved in mastering the nuances of that rather lengthy document, those people tended to continue at CSCE for a long time, for a number of years certainly after the original Helsinki negotiation. (Greenwald is seen at left.)

I think it’s not too much to say that the commitment, the esprit de corps that was built during those two years in Geneva contributed to a certain feeling within many, many foreign ministries that was very personal, that this was a special document, this was a special process that all of us who were part of it would work very hard to see that it worked over the years. In some rather intangible ways, this was important, not least because one of the events that was accentuated by the Helsinki process was the effort of Eastern European countries to create a little bit more maneuvering room vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Personal relationships that were created in Helsinki were part of this.

I had a major role to play in one element of that esprit de corps. I mentioned Basket Three. There were four primary baskets in CSCE: Basket One, which was the Declaration of Principles dealing with the charter of the fundamental rules and procedures for international life, the inviolability of frontiers and so on and so forth; Basket Two, which was economics; Basket Three which was human contacts that I have spoken of [the element of the agreement that dealt with human rights]; and Basket Four was follow-up, this mechanism for seeing to it that the document in fact was taken seriously.

The fifth basket was the basketball.

Now the working procedure at CSCE negotiations was to normally start off with a plenary, and after a short while in which each side would present its positions, you’d see where there was dispute, and the chairman would call for a coffee break, and those people most concerned about the point at issue would go off in a corner and try to work something out while the rest of us would go and have coffee.

During one of those coffee breaks, I was in fact having coffee, sitting at the bar in the delegates’ lounge, when the number two in the Finnish delegation came up to me, a great, burly fellow named Eshkol Riakofsky. He said, “You Americans are wonderful basketball players. You invented the game. You’re the best in the world. We Finns, we’ve just begun to play, but a few of us in the delegation have started to shoot around, and we rent out a gymnasium at a local high school Monday evenings. Why don’t we get a couple of people from your delegation together and come out next Monday and we’ll play a game.”

That sounded like a fun thing to do, so I went around our delegation trying to find volunteers. I was able to get four others, so we had five and that was enough for a team. We drove out there on Monday evening, and as we walked in the gymnasium we immediately realized we had been snookered, because there were what seemed like hundreds of people sitting in the stands, all of them shouting in unison, “Soumi, Soumi” which is Finnish for “Finland, Finland.” There were nine or ten Finns out on the court wearing uniforms, blue shirt with “Soumi CSCE Geneve 1975” on it, and they were going through lay-up drill.

We realized we were in trouble. There was a referee there too, a Russian from the Soviet delegation. He came up to me before the game and said, “A few of us from the Soviet delegation play a little basketball too. Maybe when this game’s over, you’ll agree that we can challenge you.”

“He didn’t know too much about basketball, and that was sort of our team”

So the game started and the Finns got the ball, and they went down and scored a basket, and one of the members of our team, a fellow named Peter Herenee, took the ball as it came out of the basket and started walking toward the center of the court. Then I realized we were really in trouble, because Peter was Hungarian-American, grew up in Europe, and of course in football and soccer after a goal you take the ball to the center to kick off again, and that’s what Peter was doing. He didn’t know too much about basketball, and that was sort of our team.

We did alright for a little while. We had a very tall center, a fellow named Ted Wilkinson, and as long as he held out and we could pass the ball to him, we could stay competitive. Of course, he wore down particularly, and the final score was 46 to 29, if I remember correctly, for the Finns. (Wilkinson is seen at left with Mexican President Carlos Salinas.)

When the game ended, the Soviet referee came up and said, “The Finns, they’re not really very good, but do you mind if we challenge them next week instead of you guys?” But after the game was over, the Finns took us to a sauna and then we went off somewhere and drank a lot of beer. Word got about the conference center that this had been a fun thing and there was another one coming up the next Monday. The next Monday I was the referee for the game between the Finns and the Soviets, which the Soviets won easily.

August 30, 2014. AFP Photo/Ander Gillenea
August 30, 2014. AFP Photo/Ander Gillenea

Then the Soviets took the teams and referees and interested spectators off to a restaurant in town where Lenin used to hang out when he was in his Geneva exile. They showed us where Lenin had carved his initials into a table and how he sat with his back to the wall near the only door that he could escape out of if the police came in. We drank a lot of beer and had a good time.

The next week there was a game between the English-speaking delegations and the Nordic delegations, which is featured in my memory by the Norwegian ambassador shooting his set shot underhand from mid-court every time he touched the ball. We won that game, and then there was another. Every week after that for about two months there was another game, and each game was followed by a party that made a major contribution, I think, to the spirit of the whole negotiation.

There’s a coda to that as we were getting ready for the Belgrade negotiation. As I mentioned, I was working in the corps delegation. The Finns came over for a consultation shortly before the Belgrade preparatory meeting, and the head of their consultative team was Ambassador Yeonini, who had been their ambassador in Geneva. He had not played in those games. He was an older man. He would sit on the bench with his rolled-up umbrella next to him and coach them.

We went up to the Secretary of State’s office and had the consultations. I took notes for it, and as we were coming out of the Secretary of State’s office, Yeonini leaned over to me and said, “Have you picked your delegation for Belgrade yet?” I said, “No, we’re just in the early stages of it.” He smiled and said, “We have — three fellows and two meters.” Two meters tall.