How the Grateful Dead Helped Lithuania Reach the Olympics

February 21, 2020

We love writing about entertainment facts every Friday. There’s nothing quite like discovering an interesting, fascinating or uplifting story to tell the world. This week’s tale sits firmly in the ‘uplifting’ category as we take you on a journey to 1992.

If you were a sports fan back in 1992 it’s fair to assume that you watched some of the Olympic Games from Barcelona. If you happened to be watching the basketball, you may very well have been able to enjoy the Lithuanian Men’s Basketball Team winning the bronze medal for their country and we suspect that your eyes would have been drawn in by their outrageous tie-dye outfit courtesy of the Grateful Dead. Never before or since has a team looked quite so colourful at the Olympic Games. But how did it happen?

Lithuania had historically has an excellent basketball pedigree with the Baltic state winning the European Basketball Championship twice in 1937 and 1939 before the USSR occupied the country. From the late 1940s until the late 1980s, Lithuanians would compete under the Soviet flag with numerous countrymen winning medals in every summer Olympics from 1952 until 1988 (except 1984). At Seoul, four of the five starting team members were Lithuanian and they brought back the gold to a rapturous reception back home. It would be fair to say that Lithuania was putting itself on the basketball map with Sarunas Marciulionis, a shooting guard, signing with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA one year later.

The fall of communism and the Soviet Empire gave Lithuania a chance to compete at the Olympics as an independent nation but there was one problem – the nation had no money to support their basketball team. With the 1992 Olympics looming, Marciulionis and his assistant coach Donnie Nelson took their tale to the San Francisco Chronicle, who wrote it up into an article which was seen by Dennis McNally, PR manager to the Grateful Dead, one of the most famous rock bands of all time.

Jerry Garcia and his fellow band members read the story and felt sympathy for the team, agreeing to not only fund the travel required to the Barcelona Olympics but also to provide the kit which the players could wear. The result? One very happy Lithuanian basketball team and the most incredible sports kit of all time.

Taking to the court in Barcelona wearing their incredible new look, Lithuania quickly became the talk of the Olympics. Their shirt proved to be hugely popular in both the US and Lithuania that summer and has gone down as a classic pop culture item. Although it would have been a fairytale ending if Lithuania had won gold that year it wasn’t to be; the team lost to the US in the semi-finals but did get one over on Russia in the third place play-off. As they collected their bronze medals, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (though whether that was because of the team’s win or their garish shirts, we cannot say.)

Photo Credit: Greg Speirs via WikimediaCC BY-SA 4.0 


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By Henry Fosdike