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Going for Gold

A History of Olympic Controversies

From the beginning, controversy has followed the Olympic Games. Indeed, at times it seems as if the Olympic movement would fall apart under its own weight, with several commentators even suggesting that the world would be a better place without the Games. Since ancient times, the Games have been accused of compromising sportsmanship, inflaming political passions, and establishing an atmosphere where cheating is rewarded. While the Olympics serve to contribute to mutual understanding and finding commonality in difference, from its inception as a religious festival in ancient Greece to the huge celebrations in the twenty-first century seen on television by billions of people, it has been quite rare for the Games to pass without controversy.

Controversy in the Ancient Olympic Games

Established in 776 B.C, the ancient Olympic Games often deviated from the idealized accounts in the history books. During the 1,200 years the Games were held, arguments over professional status, doping, bribery, politics, biased judging, and boycotts were common—and punishments were severe (Swaddling 1999). Any athlete or trainer who failed to obey the rules of the Games could be publicly whipped by the mastigophorai (whip-bearers), a form of punishment usually reserved for slaves. Additionally, heavy fines were levied against any offenders (ibid).

The first recorded publicly disgraced cheat was Eupholus of Thessaly who, in 388 B.C., bribed three boxers to lose intentionally. He was fined and the money was used to erect a statue of Zeus outside the stadium to both appease the gods and to warn others who might also be tempted to cheat. Soon, there was a line of these statues, called “zanes.” Each statue bore a detailed description of the offense (Szymanski 2009).

Roman Emperor Nero bribed his way through the A.D. 67 Olympic Games

Arguably, the most famous Olympic controversy involved Roman Emperor Nero in the Games of A.D. 67. Not only did Nero bribe Olympic officials to postpone the Games by two years, he bribed his way to several Olympic laurels. Most notably, Nero competed in the chariot races with a 10-horse team, only to be thrown from his chariot. While he did not finish the race, he was still proclaimed the winner on the grounds that he would have won had he been able to complete the race. After his death the next year, his name was expunged from the victor list (Swaddling 1999).

The Olympic Games declined until A.D. 393 when Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I banned the Games entirely as being pagan after a total of 291 Olympiads had been held for 1,170 years (Toohey 2007).

1904 St. Louis Summer Olympics: False Finish and Strychnine

When the Olympic Games resumed in 1896 under the guidance of Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937), controversy remained the bedfellow of the Games despite de Coubertin’s noble intentions. The men’s marathon during the rather unorganized 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri, remains one of the most memorable and bizarre Olympic controversies (Currie 1999). Marathon runners not only had to contend with persistent dust clouds created from newly invented automobiles but also from sweltering 90-degree heat.

American marathon runner Frederick Lorz (1880-1914) triggered a scandal when, after crossing the finish line first, officials discovered that he actually covered most of the course by car. He had dropped out of the race after nine miles and rode several miles in a car until the car broke down. He ran the rest of the way to retrieve his clothes and didn’t protest when officials declared him the winner.

The second-place winner, British-born Thomas Hicks, would also have been disqualified under current Olympic rules because his trainers had given a potentially fatal mix of strychnine and brandy to keep him going. Not surprisingly, he collapsed after crossing the finish line and possibly would have died if not attended to by four doctors right away (The Olympic Games 2000).

Additionally, IOC president de Coubertin criticized as discriminatory the so-called “Anthropological Days” in which contests such as stone throwing, mud throwing, and spear throwing were organized for racial minorities (Guttman 2002).

1908 London Summer Olympics: Myriad of Controversies

The London Games of 1908 were notable not only because they were the first Olympics to actually award gold medals, standardize the marathon distance, and introduce figure skating and women’s gymnastics, but also because of the performance of the most famous loser in Olympic history, Dorando Pietri (1885-1942). An Italian athlete, Pietri was the first marathon runner to enter the stadium and was poised to take first place. Suffering from dehydration and fatigue, however, Pietri took the wrong turn, and when judges redirected him, he fell down (The Olympic Games 2000). The judges helped him up and, after several more falls, the judges assisted him across the finish line. Second place American Johnny Hayes and his team lodged a complaint, which was accepted. Though Pietri was ultimately disqualified, he received international fame for his dramatic finish as well as a gilded silver cup by Queen Alexandra, an award proposed by Sherlock Holmes writer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Currie 1999).

The 1908 London Games were also memorable for the controversial men’s 400m race. During the opening run, two Americans, John Carpenter of Cornell and William Robbins of Harvard, were set to finish first and second when two British judges suddenly rushed onto the track shouting “foul” and cut the tape before Carpenter, Robbins, and British runner Wyndham Halswelle finished, in that order (Anderson 2000). A rerun was declared, but Robbins and Taylor did not participate as a form protest. Reluctantly, Halswelle ran the race alone to win the gold in the only walk over the finish line in Olympic history (The Olympic Games 2000).

The 1908 Olympics are indeed well known for the many protests Americans made against British Olympic officials. One of the most controversial and memorable snubs at the British Games occurred during the opening ceremonies. Traditionally, when the flag bearers from each nation walk past the dignitary’s box during the Opening Ceremonies, they traditionally dip their nation’s flag in honor of the head of state. But when American Ralph Rose, a shot-putter, refused to dip the United States flag before King Edward VIII, his teammate Martin Sheridan reportedly said, “This flag dips for no earthly king.” Since then, American flag bearers do not dip Old Glory during the Opening Ceremonies (Currie 1999).

1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics: Jim Thorpe and Professionalism

Jim Thorpe’s great Olympic success was followed by scandal

Jim Thorpe, a Native American who grew up in Oklahoma, was an extraordinary athlete. In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, he not only won the decathlon but also smashed the world record by almost 1,000 points He was also the pentathlon champion and won medals in the high jump and long jump competitions. Almost overnight, he was an international hero.

However, a year after the 1912 Games, the U.S. International Olympic Committee ruled that Thorpe was ineligible to compete in the 1912 Games because he had been paid $25 a week to play minor league baseball during the summers of 1909 and 1910. Because he earned even that small amount, he was considered a professional athlete and, consequently, his medals were taken away and his name removed from the Olympic record books (Anderson 2000). In 1982, nearly 30 years after his death, the IOC voted to restore Thorpe’s name to the record books and his medals were presented to his children. He remains, arguably, to this day, the best athlete in American history (The Olympic Games 2000).

1936 Berlin Summer Olympics: Jesse Owens’ Snub

The 1936 Olympics were controversial not only because Hitler used the Games to advance the Nazi cause both inside and outside Germany, but also because of the presence of African-American star Jesse Owens. Scholars speculate that tension was high in Berlin as Owens undoubtedly upset Hitler’s theory that blond, blue-eyed, pale-skinned athletes would win most of the medals. Hitler was no doubt surprised when Owens set several Olympic records, including the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the long jump—and he was also a vital role in breaking the 400-meter relay race (The Olympic Games 2000).

While Owens became a superstar with the German fans, who chanted his name whenever he entered the Olympic Stadium, Hitler reportedly snubbed him. Owens later said he didn’t feel snubbed by Hitler and that Hitler even waved at him. Owens did say, however, that he felt snubbed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Truman because they never invited him to the White House or offered him any honors (Currie 1999).

1956 Melbourne Summer Games: Blood in the Water

In the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia, a water polo match between Russia and Hungry became one of the most famous matches in water polo history. Not long before the ceremony, Soviet tanks invaded Hungry to crush the Hungarian revolution.

In the polo semifinals, tension between the countries could be seen as players punched and kicked each other, effectively bloodying the water (Currie 1999). A Russian player even head butted or punched a Hungarian player near the right eye, leading to the iconic picture of the Hungarian player bleeding profusely from his head. In 2006, a documentary titled “Freedom’s Fury” documented the now famous match (Anderson 2000).

1968 Mexico Summer Olympics: Black Power Salute

The months preceding the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico were wrought with political turmoil. South Africa, which was banned in 1964 for its apartheid policies, was readmitted and then rebanned. Forty-nine people died during student riots in Mexico City, and in the United States, black activists in the civil rights movement proposed an Olympic boycott. While stars such as Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) joined the boycott and stayed home, other American athletes, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who came in first and third in the 1968 men’s 200-meter race, created a greater controversy on the podium (Toohey 2007).

During the medal ceremony, they showed their support for the Black Power movement’s racial equality campaign in American by raising a black-gloved clinched fist during the American national anthem. Most of the 80,000 people in the stadium didn’t understand the significance and others booed (Currie 1999). The USOC argued that the gestures were “discourteous,” “untypical exhibitionisms,” and “immature.” Both were immediately suspended from the U.S. team and evicted from the Olympic Village. Though they are not on speaking terms today due to personal rivalries, Smith and Carlos will still be remembered as emblems of a historical struggle (Anderson 2000).

1972 Munich Summer Olympics: Terrorist Massacre

The 1972 Games were overshadowed by the murder of eleven Israeli Olympians

The darkest day in Olympic history occurred on September 5, 1972, during the Munich Games. Security guards ignored what they though were curfew breakers, but the eight men in warm-up suits were members of Black September, a terrorist group linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (Currie 1999). They entered the suite of the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village and killed a coach and weight lifter and then took nine other Israelis hostage.

The terrorists demanded the release of 200 Arab guerrillas from Israeli prisons and a jetliner that would take them and the hostages to an undisclosed location. By the end of the nightmare, in what some say was a botched rescue attempt, 11 terrorists, nine athletes, and one West German police officer were dead (The Olympic Games 2000).

1980 Moscow Boycott: Athletes as Political Pawns

The 1980 Games were controversial not only because they were the first Games to be staged in a country with a communist regime and but also because they were the site of the largest boycott in Olympic history (The Olympic Games 2000). To the disapproval of most of the world, in late in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Outraged at the Soviets’ invasion, President Jimmy Carter ordered a U.S. boycott of that summer’s Moscow’s Olympics and urged every other free nation to follow. In total, only 80 countries were represented at the Moscow Games, a third less than had participated in the Munich Games eight years earlier.

While several American athletes supported the boycott, others—as well as athletes from other boycotting nations—were upset about being used as political pawns and not having the chance to compete. Many athletes had trained for years for the Games and for many, the 1980 Olympics were their only chance to compete. Whether the boycott was an appropriate decision is still debated, but it failed to affect the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as was its intended purpose (Currie 1999).

1984 Los Angeles Summer Games: Zola Budd

The 1984 Olympics were remarkable for not only being the first privately funded tournament in Olympic history, but also because of the woman’s 3,000-meter race in Los Angeles. A white South African runner named Zola Budd attempted to compete in the race; however, South Africa was not allowed to compete at the Games because of its apartheid policies. While the IOC did not remove the ban on South Africa, Budd was allowed to compete by qualifying as a British citizen because she had a British-born grandfather.

Anti-apartheid campaigners were furious she was allowed to compete and interpreted Budd as a symbol of apartheid. Protesters even held up signs that said “White trash, go home.” Others argued that she was a runner, not a political symbol, and that she ought to be permitted to run (The Olympic Games 2000). Tensions increased when American pre-race favorite Mary Decker and Budd collided during the 3,000-meter race, causing Decker to fall and to be carried from the track—effectively ruining her Olympics. The American crowd booed Budd and she, clearly affected by the incident, could finish only seventh (Anderson 2000).

1988 Seoul Summer Olympics: Ben Johnson’s Steroid Scandal

While the 1988 Seoul Olympics were the first time in 16 years that virtually no country boycotted the summer Olympics, the Games were not entirely free from controversy. The Games were overshadowed by the most spectacular drug case in Olympic history.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson broke the world record during the men’s 100-meter dash, beating out the heavily favored American, Carl Lewis. A Toronto newspaper referred to Johnson as a national treasure and commercial deals lined to sign him up. But just three days after he won the gold, Johnson’s drug test came back positive for illegal drugs. Johnson was stripped of his world record and gold medal and was banned from ever representing Canada again. The ban was later reduced to two years (Currie 1999).

1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics: Kerrigan and Harding Saga

Tonya Harding was involved in a bizarre attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan

More than five weeks before Lillehammer’s Opening Ceremony, one of the most controversial events in Olympic history occurred: a deliberate injury to a rival competitor. After a practice session at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit on January 6, Nancy Kerrigan, a gold medal favorite, was whacked above the right knee with a black baton and collapsed to the floor as the attacker ran out a back door to a waiting car. Kerrigan wailed: “Why? Why? Why?” Investigators later found that her competitor, Tonya Harding, and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, were involved in the attack against Kerrigan. Kerrigan eventually won silver at the Olympics (Oksana Baiul won gold) and Harding finished eighth (Currie 1999).

Harding ultimately was placed on three year’s probation, assessed $160,000 in fines and fees, and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service. She was also ordered to resign from the U.S. Figure Skating Association and to withdraw from the World Championships in Japan. Harding’s subsequent activities included appearing in a sex tape titled “Wedding Video” with Gillooly (“Tonya and Jeff’s Wedding Night”), staging a brief musical career with a band titled “Golden Blades” (“Tonya Harding Debuts as a Singer” 2005), acquiring several DUIs, and making a stint as a celebrity boxer.

1996 Atlanta Summer Games: Centennial Bombing

Midway through the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, on July 27, a pipe bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park during a concert by the band Jack Mack and the Heart Attack, killing 44-year-old mother Alice Hawthorne. A 40-year-old Turkish cameraman who rushed to the scene died of a heart attack, and more than 100 people were injured (Currie 1999). Initially, security guard Richard Jewel was considered a suspect, which created a media storm following. He was eventually exonerated in 2005 and died soon after in 2007 from a heart attack due to severe heart disease. He was also battling serious health problems due to diabetes.

It was later found that Eric Robert Rudolph, a former explosive expert for the U.S. Army, planted the bombs. After more than five years on the run, Rudolph was arrested on May 31, 2003, and is serving four life terms without the possibility of parole (Anderson 2000). He said he planted the bombs to protest global socialism and to embarrass Washington for its sanction of abortion on demand (Currie 1999).

2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics: Bribery Scandal

In 1998, a Salt Lake television station broke a story alleging that the city’s Bid Committee had paid for an IOC’s member’s daughter to attend the American University in Washington, D.C. Following this revelation, IOC member Marc Hodler announced publicly that he believed there was “massive corruption” in the IOC and that every Games for the past 10 years had been tainted by such bribery.

Following an internal inquiry, six members identified with some of the most blatant pay-offs were expelled, though presumably they kept all of the bribes they had received. Typical of the accusations involving IOC members and the Salt Lake Bid Committee (SLBC) in particular were payments to support members’ children while at university or working in the USA; payments of tens of thousands of dollars for travel and hotel costs for members and their families to holidays in Utah, side trips to the 1995 Super Bowl in Florida, and stop-offs in Paris; payment of medical costs for members on trips to SLC; direct cash payments; provisions of gifts valued well above the IOC limit of $150; requests for favors of relatives/colleagues in places such as universities; and plastic surgery (“Senior U.S. Olympic” 1999).


Olympic controversy continues to remain an integral part of the Games, both shaping the Games and reminding spectators and commentators that it is naïve to assume the Games could ever be apolitical (Guttman 2002). The Olympic Games are, in fact, an exciting spectacle where idealism clashes with practical manifestations of politics, nationalism, and economics.

-- Posted November 11, 2009


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Senior U.S. Olympic Committee Member Resigns over Salt Lake Scandal.” CNN.com. January 15, 1999. Accessed: September 21, 2009.

Swaddling, Judith. 1999. The Ancient Olympic Games. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

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Tonya and Jeff’s Wedding Night.” IMDB.com. Accessed: September 23,2009.

Tonya Harding Debuts as a Singer in Portland Concert for MDA.” SeattleTimes.com.August 20,2005. Accessed: September 24, 2009.

Toohey, Kristine and Anthony James Veal. 2007. The Olympic Games: A Social Science Perspective. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.

Yardley, Jim. “In Grand Olympic Show, Some Sleight of Voice.” NewYorkTimes.com. August 12, 2008. Accessed: September 22, 2009.