Bitter Silver Part 1: Pioneering Rifle(wo)man Margaret Murdock in Montreal


Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham
Margaret Murdock and Lanny Bassham


Men and women do not compete against each other in too many sporting events. There is mixed pair figure skating, and mixed pairs tennis, but pairs are competing against each other on equal ground, gender wise. However, until 1992, both men and women could compete against each other in Olympic shooting events.

Learning how to shoot from her father, and honing her skills as an instructor in the US Army, Margaret Murdock was always aiming to compete on the Olympic stage. Having just missed qualification for the Olympics in 1968, and then not being able to compete in 1972 with the birth of a child, Murdock won a spot on the US Olympic shooting team and was eager to finally face off against the best in the three-position small bore rifle event.

Murdock’s teammate, Lanny Bassham, was considered a favorite to win, but at the end of the first part of the competition, shooting at 50 meters while prone on the ground, Murdock was one point off the lead, while, Bassham and Germany, Werner Seibold, were another point behind them. In the second stage, called the offhand position, which in layman’s terms, is the standing position, Murdock again shot well, but was one point off the leader, Seibold. Bassham fell back, and was four points off the leader.

Margaret Thompson Murdock
Margaret Murdock

In the kneeling stage, the final part of the competition, the riflemen and riflewoman had to wait for the final scores to be posted. According to this account by William Parkerson, history had been made.

When the kneeling stage was completed, no one was sure where the frontrunners had finished, and a large crowd began to swell around the public scoreboard outside the range. The tension increased as score after score was posted, but none next to the names of any of the leaders. Finally Murdock’s mark appeared . . . an 1162.

After what seemed more like hours than minutes, Bassham’s score went up . . .1161. Margaret Murdock was mobbed immediately by well-wishers, including her parents, sister and her five-year-old son Brett, who wasn’t sure what to make of the cheering and the tears. Seibold’s score had yet to appear, and in fact it was the last mark to be posted. When the 1160 finally went up, a second round of congratulations appeared in order for the Kansas nursing student who had become the first woman to earn a shooting medal in Olympic history.

Unfortunately for Murdock, those results were not official. According to the director of the competition, all of the scores during the competition had been recorded accurately, but there was an error in transcribing the scores, a score of 10 for Bassham had been mistakenly recorded as 9. In other words, both Murdock and Bassham had scores of 1162. And to make matters worse, the tie breaker did not involve a shoot-out, but instead was dependent upon a seemingly arbitrary factor – who had a higher point socre in the last round of the kneeling event. Bassham a 98, while Murdock had a 96. Suddenly, Bassham was awarded the gold medal.

Pleas from Murdock and Bassham to re-consider the tie-break and have them compete in a shoot off, or to award two gold medals fell on deaf ears. But at the award ceremony, after Bassham received his gold medal, and Murdock received her silver medal, Bassham pulled his teammate Murdock up onto his gold-medal platform, and listened to their nation’s national anthem together.

Murdock did not win gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, but she was a pioneer, and took competitive shooting to the next level for women.