The greatest controversies of the Olympic Games

Far from being a beacon of international solidarity, the history of the Olympic Games is tarred and feathered with spectacle, scandal and controversy. At times the Olympic federation of sports, host cities, bureaucrats and the athletes themselves seem as if they might buckle under the pressures of such an intense façade, and often they do. From the day Nero fell off his chariot and was still proclaimed victor until today – as Lisa Simpson purses her lips on the London 2012 emblem – there have been those that have tried to cheat, plunder or resolutely kill the Olympic spirit.

Berlin 1936

The Berlin Olympics in 1936 would be the last Summer Games held until the 1948 event in London. World War II saw the 1940 and the 1944 Games cancelled. In Berlin, Adolf Hitler had wanted to use the Olympics as a stage where he was sure his theories of Aryan racial superiority would play out before the world, perhaps further adding to Nazi legitimacy leading up to the war. Olympia, a Nazi propaganda film made for the event, went on to become one of the Reich’s masterpieces, even though Hitler’s attempts at instituting a theory of Aryan supremacy failed.

Most famously, a young black American, Jesse Owens, took four gold medals in Berlin, breaking records in the 100-metre dash, 200-metre dash and the long jump. In fact, Owens’ spectacle earned him adoration from the German crowds themselves, who chanted his name each time he entered the stadium. His achievements even earned a nod and wave from Hitler himself. The notion that Hitler snubbed Owens after the African-American embarrassed Hitler’s prediction that blonde, blue-eyed Caucasians would take most of the medals is untrue. In fact, Owens later stated that he felt snubbed by both US Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. Expecting a hero’s welcome, or at least some recognition from his country’s head of state, Owens got neither upon his return to America.

Melbourne 1956

The Melbourne Olympic Games featured one of the most politically-charged spectacles ever to take place in a swimming pool. The water polo match between the Soviet Union and Hungary was a violent, bitter conflict. Shortly prior to the opening ceremony, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to crush a revolution. And the Hungarians decided to take a stand, both in and out of the pool.

Political tension rose as the two nations squared off in the water. What ensued was madness. Players on both teams punched, kicked, wrestled and scratched until, some say, the water turned bloody. The entire match would forever be remembered for the photograph of a Hungarian player, coming out of the pool in the last few minutes of the match with blood streaming down his face after a punch from his Russian opponent opened up a gash under his eye. The Hungarian team won the match 4-0 and would go on to beat Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final. Yet the “Blood in the Water” match would stand as a symbol that good sportsmanship can easily come second to politics.

Mexico 1968

Political upheavals continued to taint the atmosphere at the 1968 Olympic Games when they were held in Mexico. Leading up to the event, student riots erupted in Mexico City, resulting in the deaths of 49 people. At the same time, there was ongoing debate over the inclusion of South Africa. Due to outrage against the Apartheid regime South Africa had already been banned from participating, but it was readmitted before the Mexico City Games, then re-banned again. Meanwhile, in America the Civil Rights Movement engaged in an Olympic boycott. Many athletes joined the boycott, yet it was those who did participate in the Games that year who would make history, and generate the greatest controversy.

Two American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, inspired a gasp heard round the world when they raised black-gloved fists in the air during the Star Spangled Banner anthem. Standing atop the holy Olympic podium, the 200-metre dash medal winners, both African-American, were showing their support for the Black Power movement, drawing attention to the racial equality struggle sweeping 1960s America. Their gesture probably had more of an effect than any boycott could. The Olympics, however, seemed to have no place for such behaviour, no matter how legitimate. Instead of celebrating the duo’s athletic achievements, Smith and Carlos were promptly suspended from their team and ejected from the Olympic Village.

Munich 1972

Munich, 5 September 1972, eight men dressed as athletes in tracksuits strolled into the Olympic Village, ignored by security guards who thought them little more than eager curfew breakers out for a warm-up. The eight men were Palestinian – they headed straight into the Israeli quarters. They murdered an Israeli coach, and then a weight lifter. And after taking another nine Israelis hostage, it was revealed they were members of the Black September movement, a terrorist group with connections to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It had become the darkest day in Olympic history.

By the end of the day all nine Israeli hostages were dead. A botched rescue operation also saw the death of 11 terrorists after negotiations regarding the release of 200 Arab prisoners had broken down. German police attempted to breach the jetliner the terrorists had demanded as part of the ransom, and had hoped would be their way out of Munich. One German police officer was also killed, yet the Games went on.

Moscow 1980

Being that the 1980 Summer Olympics would be the first ones to take place in a country under a communist regime one could have expected that the United States would have something to say. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year provided the perfect excuse for the largest boycott of any Olympic event in the 20th Century. Athletes who had trained for years and years for a chance to take home an Olympic medal found themselves without a country to represent after Jimmy Carter’s call to all “free” nations to bo ycott the Games. Suffice to say that only 80 countries participated in the Moscow Summer Olympics. Many of the athletes would never have a chance at the Olympics every again. Most importantly, the boycott had no influence over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Essentially, the Olympic athletes were used as political puppets. The boycott of the Moscow Games became another example of intolerance, and the failure to uphold the idea of Olympic solidarity.

Los Angeles 1984

South Africa is not without its own Olympic drama, most notably the inclusion of Zola Budd in the 1984 woman’s 3 km race. Even though South Africa was banned from Olympic competition during the time of the Los Angeles Summer Games due to its policy of Apartheid, Budd was allowed to participate as a British citizen as she was able to obtain a British passport.

Her inclusion did not go unnoticed by activists (armchair and other) who were in attendance in Los Angeles as Budd’s race was about to start. The remarkably large number of anti-Apartheid activists who happened to be in Los Angeles, in 1984, in the stadium at the Olympic Games when Budd’s race was due, clearly affected the South African born runner. Placards labelling Budd “White Trash” and telling her to “Go Home” even appeared. Tensions hit boiling point when Budd collided with the American favourite Mary Decker. The impact caused Decker to fall and injure herself, ending the rest of her campaign. The incensed crowed then proceeded to boo the shaken Budd to a seventh place finish.

Seoul 1988

Leading up to the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988, Carl Lewis was the darling of the US track team and was heavily favoured to take the men’s coveted 100-metre dash gold medal. However, in order to do so he would have to beat a steroid-fuelled Canadian nobody.

He failed. The Canadian, Ben Johnson, not only beat Lewis and took the gold medal, but also broke the record to become the fastest man in history. More history was quickly made when it turned out that Johnson tested positive for illegal drugs. The result was the biggest drug-related scandal in Olympic history. Johnson was not only stripped of his record and gold medal but he lost all of his endorsement deals he had signed shortly after his win. The disgraced sprinter was also banned from representing Canada again (a ban which was later reduced to two years), effectively ending any future athletic aspiration.

Lillehammer 1994

The use of illegal drugs is not always the sole technique used by athletes to ensure they get a place on the Olympic podium. Six weeks before the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, figure skater and US gold medal favourite, Nancy Kerrigan, became the victim in one of the most disgraceful incidents in Olympic history. While she was training at a rink for the US Figure Skating Championships prior to the Lillehammer Games, a hooded man attacked Kerrigan, struck her above the knee with a baton and escaped out of a back door and into a waiting getaway car.

It was later revealed that the assailant was in cahoots with Tonya Harding, also an American, a competitor and fellow Olympic hopeful. Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, along with her bodyguard and two others, had hatched the plot in order to sabotage Kerrigan’s efforts at Lillehammer. Kerrigan would, however, go on to win the silver medal with a bruised thigh. Harding finished eighth. And to add insult to her attempt at injury, Harding had to pay over $100,000 in fines and fees throughout the ordeal, was placed on 500 hours of community service and three year’s probation, and was ordered to withdraw from further official skating competition and resign from the US Figure Skating Association.

Atlanta 1996

In 2003, Eric Robert Rudolph, who had worked as a bomb expert for the US Army, was arrested for planting and detonating a pipe bomb during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He had evaded capture for seven years before being sentenced to four consecutive life terms for the death of Alice Hawthorne and for injuring almost 100 others who were attending a concert in the Centennial Olympic Park when the bomb exploded.

Bizarrely enough, the band that was playing when the bomb detonated was called Jock Mack and the Heart Attack. Shortly after the detonation, a Turkish cameraman died from a heart attack after rushing to the scene. Then, the initial suspect of the bombing, a security guard named Richard Jewel, also died of a heart attack shortly after being exonerated from the crime in 2005. Rudolph’s reasoning behind the bombings? He insisted that he was protesting socialism and abortion-on-demand, the latter being sanctioned by the US government at the time. Bizarre indeed.

Beijing 2008

There was always going to be discord and concern prior to the 2008 Olympic Games in China, a modern day Communist superpower with controversial policies – such as its involvement in the Darfur conflict, its position regarding Myanmar and its relationship with the separatist states of Tibet and Xinjiang. Concern for the people of Tibet and fear of China’s oppressive and often violent stance towards its separatist factions was so great that many boycotts and protests against China took place around the globe. Further objections to the single-party state’s web and media censorship, as well as Beijing’s substantial contribution to air pollution lead to the 2008 Summer Games becoming highly politicised.

The Chinese authorities were clearly on standby for anything at the event. Athletes themselves did not escape scrutiny. The men and women’s Spanish basketball teams, probably through obliviousness rather than malice, took campaign photographs prior to the Games, which featured the teams dressed in uniform pulling at the sides of their eyes with their fingers – perhaps thinking that taking pictures with “slit-eyes” would be seen as a tribute to the upcoming Chinese Olympics. After accusations of racism quickly spread, the team apologised and the matter was closed.

London 2012

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London has already generated some hullabaloo without so much as a javelin being thrown or a hurdle manoeuvred. The London Games emblem is said to resemble Lisa Simpson performing fellatio. Squint as you might, the resemblance is desperate, yet the media maelstrom has been unforgiving in the coverage Ms Simpson received. The indication is that there will always be something wrong with the Olympics, some one thing that someone will object to. And if the past is anything to go by, at the 2012 Olympics you can be sure that someone is going to cheat some nations will hold grudges and history will be made.

By Luka Vracar
Published in Playboy South Africa June 2012