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How The Grateful Dead propelled Lithuania to an Olympic medal

The Grateful Dead, the Olympics and Lithuania are three things that shared no correlation until 1992. The Soviet nation had only been an independent country for two years, and yet their path aligned with the legendary San Francisco rockers in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

As Lithuania was technically a brand new country, it didn’t have the infrastructure or funding to support its athletes at the Olympic games. Despite their riches of talent, for a long time, it looked like they’d be forced to watch the tournament from the comfort of their own home rather than compete in Barcelona.

What followed in Spain would be an underdog story of the highest margins and one that The Grateful Dead bizarrely played a pivotal role in making possible. After everything that Lithuania had been through, seeing their basketballers lift their Olympic medal high gave the whole country a morale boost that it so desperately needed, and they’ve got The Grateful Dead to thank.

Although, the team didn’t arrive at the Barcelona games as a completely unknown entity, thanks to their star player, Sarunas Marcioulionis. He was a star of the NBA and plied his trade for San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors. Marcioulionis playing for the local basketball team in San Francisco is the thread that aligned the disparate universes of Lithuanian basketball and The Grateful Dead together. If he played for a team in New York or Los Angeles, this heartwarming tale simply wouldn’t exist.

In a bid to spread awareness about the struggle of the Lithuanian basketball team, and their struggle for funding, Marcioulionis spoke to the San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually, the article found its way to Bob Weir and Phil Lesh from the band, and as soon as they read it, they knew they were going to offer a helping hand.

The Golden State Warriors player had previously said he’d pay for his teammates to travel to Barcelona out of his own pocket, but they still needed as much help as they could get. When he heard about The Dead’s interest, he immediately met them backstage at one of their shows, and they quickly ironed out the sponsorship details.

In the end, The Grateful Dead paid for the transportation costs, although they did have one request. While they couldn’t change their jersey for the competition when they collected their bronze medals, they wore Grateful Dead-inspired tie-dye clothing, and those images spread like wildfire. They instantly made the band’s act of generosity looked like a PR masterstroke.

The shirts continue to sell like hotcakes today, and designer, Greg Spiers, has never taken a penny for profit. So far, the clothing has raised over $450,000 for the basketball team and children’s hospitals in Lithuania.

If it wasn’t for that one article in the local newspaper, then this beautiful relationship would never have blossomed, and innumerable children in Lithuania wouldn’t receive critical care. What started with a simple sponsorship has morphed into something truly magical. 

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