Triumph of the spirit of sport

The modern Olympics, which began in 1896, have always been plagued by one form of trouble or the other. There have been controversies galore, but eventually the power of sport has prevailed.

Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right), the gold and silver medal winners in the 200 metres race at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, with the 'Black Power Salute'.   -  The Hindu photo library

The modern Olympics, which began in 1896, have always been plagued by one form of trouble or the other. There have been controversies galore, but eventually the power of sport has prevailed. By Kamesh Srinivasan.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has the worst possible build-up in recent memory. The collapse of the government in Brazil, the threat of zika virus that forced some of the athletes to skip the Games, the unhealthy state of water, unemployment, the dwindling economic resources leading to budgetary constraints have all added to the gloomy scenario.

Yet hope springs eternal. The modern Olympics, which began in 1896, have always been plagued by one form of trouble or the other. There have been controversies galore, but eventually the spirit of sport has triumphed, providing the balm to the hurt souls. The power of sport tiding over trouble and turmoil has been the underlying theme.

That Brazil had hosted another major sporting event, the football World Cup, successfully two years ago is a reassuring fact for more than 200 countries that will assemble in Rio for the Games. Problems will be sorted out in the last minute, paving the way for sport and global harmony to take the centre stage.

At a time when professional boxers are all set to enter the ring in Rio, it may be completely unimaginable that American Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals (decathlon and pentathlon) won at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics for having played professional minor league baseball three years earlier. Thirty years after his death, in 1983, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe’s medals, which were received by his children.

Another legend Paavo Nurmi, nine-time Olympic champion, was banned from running in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, as the Finn was deemed to be a professional. Nurmi was later honoured with a statue at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki. At the Opening Ceremony of the 1952 Helsinki Games, the Flying Finn carried the Olympic torch into the Olympic Stadium and lit the Cauldron before passing the torch to Hannes Kolehmainen, who lit another flame at the tower of the stadium.

Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and embraced ‘Aryan’ German competitor Luz Long in breaking the social barriers of Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany. “Friendships are born on the field of athletic strife and the real gold of competition,” were Owen’s famous words.

Long, incidentally, had offered Owens a useful tip after the American almost failed to qualify in long jump. Long was killed during World War II, but Owens kept in touch with the family, long after the war.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the champion and bronze medal winner respectively in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, executed the ‘Black Power salute’ when the American national anthem was played at the medals ceremony.

The biggest horror was when Israeli athletes were taken hostage and then killed by the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, during the Munich Olympics in 1972. The five terrorists and a policeman were also killed. The Games, however, resumed after it was suspended for 34 hours.

In 1996, in Atlanta, a pipe bomb explosion at the Centennial Olympic Park resulted in the death of a woman and injuries to several others.

In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Russian weightlifter Ibragim Samadov was disqualified for refusing to accept the bronze medal and was eventually banned for life.

The Soviet Union had an embarrassing moment when Boris Onischenko, in modern pentathlon, used an epee with a push button to register electronic scores even without reaching the target in 1976. The whole Soviet team was disqualified.

In 1984, South African Zola Budd, representing Britain, was involved in a collision with Mary Decker of the US and was unable to complete the 3000m race. Budd, who was leading at the time of collision and regained the lead later, was booed by the crowd, as she eventually finished seventh. The IAAF jury later found that Budd was not responsible for the accident.

Doping controversies gained tremendous attention when world record holder, sprinter Ben Johnson of Canada, was stripped of his 100m gold medal in Seoul in 1988.

American Marion Jones, who dominated the Sydney Games in 2000, fell from grace in the BALCO drug scandal.

In a bizarre decision in boxing in the Seoul Olympics, Park Si-Hun of Korea was declared winner by 3-2 margin over American Roy Jones Jr. despite the latter punishing the Korean with 86 punches to 32. The three judges voting against the American were eventually suspended, but the result stayed.

Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaili ate to his heart’s content the night before his final and was disqualified for being overweight. He had used the ploy to avoid fighting Israeli Ehud Vaks. The Iranians treated him like a champion of the Athens Games in 2004.

In the Beijing Olympics, Swedish wrestler Ara Abrahamian put his bronze medal on the floor, after it was presented to him, as a mark of protest for his defeat to Italian Andra Minguzzi in the semifinals of the 84 kg Greco-Roman fight. Angel Matos was banned for life along with his coach Leodis Gonzalez after the Cuban kicked referee Chakir Chelbat of Sweden on the face for disqualifying him for time violation in a heavyweight taekwondo bronze medal match in 2008.

The 2012 Olympics in London witnessed many tricky situations, leading to firm decisions. Greek triple jumper Paraskevi Papachristou was withdrawn from the team for posting a racially insensitive comment on twitter about African immigrants.

In an unprecedented move, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) disqualified four women’s doubles teams — two from Korea and one each from Indonesia and China — for “not using one’s best efforts to win a match”. In their place, Russian, Australian, Canadian and South African teams were upgraded.

India also filed an appeal, suggesting that Japan had thrown its match to Chinese Taipei, but it was dismissed. In a three-way tie, Japan and Taipei progressed to the knockout phase, ahead of India.

The Indian contingent toyed with the idea of fighting the case of Asian Games gold medal-winning boxer Vikas Krishan after the result of his second round bout against Errol Spence of the US in the 69 kg category was reversed after a review. India’s appeal was rejected by the competition jury, and there was no provision to appeal against the decision, especially with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which did not interfere with “field of play issues”.

In another boxing bout, the Indian team protested the 15-14 defeat of 19-year-old Sumit Sangwan by Yamaguchi Falcao of Brazil in the light heavyweight section, but the jury dismissed it. In fact, the then Union Sports Minister, Ajay Maken, had asked the acting chef-de-mission and the secretary general of the Indian boxing federation, P. K. Muralidharan Raja, to lodge a protest. “Let us hope for justice,” Maken had tweeted, after giving the $500 protest fee.

Controversy continued to dog boxing. Zou Shiming of China won an unprecedented third Olympic medal, a gold, following the gold in Beijing and bronze in Athens. His opponent from Thailand Kaeo Pongprayoon was given a shocking two-point penalty with nine seconds left on the clock in the light flyweight final.

In the bantamweight, Satoshi Shimizu of Japan outclassed Magomed Abdulhamidov of Azerbaijan. Shimizu sent Abdulhamidov crashing to the canvas six times in the third round. That, however, did not fetch any count from the referee, and the Azerbaijan boxer was declared 22-17 winner. The AIBA authorities reviewed the bout following an appeal by Japan, and reversed the decision.

Even though China hosted a memorable Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and topped the medals table ahead of the US, the run-up to the Games was disastrous with the Chinese paramilitary forces accompanying the Olympic torch, assaulting French, British and US citizens, including torchbearers, in their own countries. The world was protesting the repressive regime of the Chinese. It was mentioned that Sebastian Coe, the future Organising Committee Chairman of the London Games, also received a punch on his face then.

While China unleashed its economic power with billions of dollars, London was quite shrewd and saved every pound, for a healthy tomorrow.