Olympic controversies: An endless list of shame

With the Tokyo Olympics set to begin in less than a month from now, we take a look at the many controversies that have marred the Games.

An injured Ervin Zador’s (Hungary) after a violent water polo final against the Soviet Union in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Throughout the match, which Hungary won 4-0, elbows, knees and knuckles were used freely.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

The Olympic Games, as a platform of the youth to pursue sporting excellence, has no parallel. Modelled after the Ancient Olympics, as celebrated by the Greeks from 776 BC, the Modern Games founded by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896 is a flourishing example of human endeavour to surmount the odds and conquer the spirit engrained in the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius and Fortius.

Over the years from its modest beginning in Athens, the Games undoubtedly has grown far beyond whatever expectations that Coubertin should have had in his mind as he strove hard against scepticism and other challenges before the world, even if grudgingly, accepted the concept of the quadrennial event and helped him in achieving his life ambition. The Frenchman, a stickler for perfection did love to see the Games based on his vision of a world reigning in peace, prosperity, goodwill and fair play: “May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through the ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure.”

In this context, it is also to be seen as what Coubertin professed about his idea of the competitions forming part of the Games as he famously said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part, the essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well.” Indeed,. words of wisdom which, in later years, were adopted as we now know as the Olympic Spirit.

But sadly, the Games right from its inception, has seen its spirit both violated and vandalised much to the chagrin of its diehard followers, as the prestige of winning a medal has seen the Olympic principles often compromised by sheer selfishness. And, as we head to Tokyo to a Games, which for the first time in history had to be postponed by a year than originally scheduled in the wake of the alarm bells set by the onset of COVID-19, it certainly looks pertinent to cast a glance at the many controversies that have marred the Games.

Joke or fraud?

The initial attempt that sparked off a major controversy occurred as early as in 1904 St. Louis, when American marathon runner, Fred Lorz deliberately fell behind in the gruelling race, climbed on to a passing car and got down of it with 10 kilometres left to the stadium and happily entered it and causally went through a lap of honour as the winner. He was being photographed with Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of then US President, when Thomas Hicks entered the stadium completely exhausted. It was also at this point that the judges who had followed the race, too, came to the finish, confirming that Lorz had not run all the way. The American, who did thereafter attempt to portray his foul methods as a joke, was immediately disqualified and disgraced. Incidentally, Hicks, too, would have been disqualified, going by current rules, as he had competed with the help of injections and doses of brandy. But in 1904, there were no anti-doping regulations.

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Amateurism and professionalism

Now the Games are open to both amateurs and professionals. However, back in the day, the eligibility to compete in the Games were strictly limited to amateurs and this was to create much heat both in 1912 Stockholm and 1932 Los Angeles. Sadly affecting two of the greatest athletes of all time.

The concept of amateurism was based on what was practised in 19th century England , though it was never adhered to at the time of the Ancient Olympics. True, the winners then received only an olive wreath for their winning efforts, but were often rewarded with cash and other endearments after getting back home.

Jim Thorpe was an easy winner of the gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm and was acknowledged as the star of the Games prior to his disqualification as it came to light that the American, so as to find means to keep training and competing, had participated in a minor baseball league as a professsional. Thorpe died heart stricken, but almost 30 years after his death, his two gold medals were restored to his family by the International Olympic Committee.

Boris Onishenko of the Soviet Union leaves the site after he was disqualified from the modern pentathlon’s fencing event for using a faulty epee in Montreal on July 19, 1976.   -  The Hindu Photo Library


The Los Angeles episode featured Paavo Nurmi, the great Flying Finn, who won nine gold medals in the preceding three Games — 1920 Antwerp, 1924 Paris and 1928 Amsterdam — creating six new world records in the process. The Finn was to take part in the marathon in what was to be his last Olympics. But a stormy duel between Swedish and Finnish officials surfaced over the question of Nurmi’s eligibility, with the former claiming that the athlete should be treated a professional, having been the beneficiary of huge amounts of cash from his federation, mostly to cover travelling costs. Nurmi left Los Angeles a forlorn figure but poetic justice came in search of him when he was given the honour of lighting the Olympic Flame when Finland hosted the Games in 1952 in Helsinki.

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Blood bath in Melbourne

Politics did rear its head for the first time in the Games when Adolf Hitler failed to recognise the four gold medal-winning streak of Jesse Owens in 1936 Berlin. But, 18 years later , the ongoing tussle for political supremacy between the Soviet Union and Hungary following the Hungarian uprising, saw the ugly spectre of blood flowing freely in the Melbourne swimming pool.

This happened during the course of a super league match between the Hungarians and the Russians which was played in a tense atmosphere. The Hungarians, going for the gold, were 4-0 up against their rivals when one of their players, Ervin Zador, was punched in the eye by a rival Russian player. What followed was a free for all and soon the wildfire in the pool also spread to the spectators gallery, forcing police to be called in. The Hungarians, given the lead that they enjoyed, were awarded the match and the gold medal, while Russia picked up the bronze behind Yugoslavia.

Innocent lives lost in Munich

Two major controversies erupted in 1972 Munich, one on the field and the second off it. The Games, in general, has seen some superlative performances across various disciplines, but as the United States crossed swords with the Soviet Union in the men’s basketball final, all hell broke loose. The Americans were left trailing for most of the time before they rebounded by the end of the match. But then, doubtful sportsmanship, a faulty clock and equally worse officiating crept in to land a 51-50 result in favour of the Russians. The Americans contested the result in vain, as their tremendous record of six consecutive titles and unbeaten run of 63 wins lay shattered. They simply refused to accept the silver medals, which even today lie in the custody of the IOC.

However, even this big upset was almost forgotten when a total of 15 lives were lost consequent to the September 8 storming of the residential wing of the Israeli team by extremists belonging to the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Two of the Israelis were killed immediately while nine who were hostages perished as the German police ambushed the terrorists outside the Games Village. A German policeman was among the causalities while all five extremists were also killed. The Games consequently was brought to a standstill and concluded a day later than earlier scheduled.

Boycotts and unsportsmanlike behaviour

The Games were seen to be floundering when boycotts marred the next three editions. 1976 Montreal was given a go by almost all African nations in protest against a visit to South Africa, kept outside the Olympic fold for following Apartheid, by a rugby union team from New Zealand while the next two suffered due to the continuing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. While it was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan which prompted the American-led boycott of 1980 Moscow, the USSR and its allies kept away from 1984 Los Angeles mostly in retaliation of the US action four years back.

Two individuals also got to the Olympics Rouges gallery during this period as Russian pentathlete Boris Onishchenko was caught red handed for using an electronically rigged Epee which helped him gain points without hitting his opponents.

Likewise, the Games was also put to shame in 1980 by Polish athlete Wladylaw Kozakiewicz who shocked the world sporting the ‘Bras D’ Honneur’ or ‘arm of honour’ in protest against the boorish behaviour of the partisan Russian crowd. Equally irrepressible tactics were adopted by the local officials who opened the stadium doors during each of the attempts made by the Polish polevaulter so that the wind would affect his performance.

Drug cheating

As the Games moved to Asia for a second time since 1964 Tokyo, the appeal of Seoul 1988 was based on the build up of the race of the century. Canadian Ben Johnson and American Carl Lewis were the top two sprinters of the world then and a possible men’s 100m final featuring the two gladiators was a mouth watering clash that all Olympic enthusiasts waited anxiously to watch.

The Canadian given his credentials as the existing world record holder expectedly won the much-anticipated race, again with a new world record to boot.

This win of Johnson prompted wild celebrations back home with the Canadians claiming the success of their Jamaican-born sprinter as ‘one up for the North’. The runner himself was quoted, “A gold medal. That’s something no one can take away from you,” soon after the epic duel.

Ben Johnson (159) raises his arm after winning the men’s 100m race in Seoul in 1988. Three days later, the biggest scandal in Olympics Games history was to surface as Johnson failed the mandatory dope test, his urine sample showing traces of an anabolic steroid, Stanozol. He was promptly stripped of the gold medal, disqualified and sent back home in the next available flight.   -  The Hindu Photo Library


However, three days later, the biggest scandal in Olympics Games history was to surface as Johnson failed the mandatory dope test, his urine sample showing traces of an anabolic steroid, Stanozol. He was promptly stripped of the gold medal, disqualified and sent back home in the next available flight. The impact of this scandal, even today, remains huge.

The list is also endless as, through the years, we have come across accusations of the Chinese gymnastics team winning the women’s team gold by fielding gymnasts who, age-wise, were ineligible to compete in 2008 Beijing, the unsavoury methods adopted by the badminton pairs featured in the women’s doubles, two from South Korea and one each from China and Indonesia so as to gain a favourable draw in the knockout stage during 2012 London and the controversial judging system in boxing which put a blot to 2016 Rio, not to leave out the Marion Jones doping scandal that took centrestage, almost seven years after the 2000 Sydney Games.

Oh, what a shame!