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9 of the biggest Olympic scandals

By / 02.07.14
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Sochi Olympics image by Shutterstock

The 2014 Winter Olympics are upon us, and already the games are embroiled in controversy and scandal, thanks in large part to Russia being all, well, Russia. But even though any Olympiad dubbed the “Satanic Olympics” before it even begins promises mayhem, the Sochi games will have to try pretty hard to live up to the standards set by these, nine of the biggest Olympic scandals ever.

1968 wasn’t exactly a peaceful time in America’s history and so perhaps it’s appropriate that our enduring memory of the ’68 games is 200 meter gold medal winner Tommy Smith, and bronze medal winner John Carlos – both black – with black gloves on giving the famous black power salute. Smith later stated that the salute wasn’t a black power salute, but a “human rights salute.” Naturally, people handled it well, as both Smith and Carlos received death threats after returning home, and even Peter Norman, the Australian silver medal winner who wore a patch in support of his American friends, was ostracized by his country. This will probably forever remain the most famous incident at the Olympics involving thrusting fists, unless of course the Sochi nightclub scene really gets out of hand.

Paavo Nurmi is one of the greatest Olympians in history. A track star, Nurmi, AKA “The Flying Finn,” set 22 world records and won 9 gold medals and 3 silvers, but found himself on the outside looking in at what would have been his last Olympic appearance after officials determined he was actually a professional. That wasn’t the real scandal, though. No, the real scandal was that the “officials” were made up mostly of Swedes (in case you don’t know, Sweden and Finland have, uh, never really gotten along) whose “evidence” consisted of claims that Nurmi was paid too much for travel expenses. Yeah, real scandalous stuff. Nurmi’s Olympic career was over, and Finland was so pissed off that in response they refused to compete in the traditional Finland-Sweden games until 1939. Thankfully, all of Northern Europe calmed down in 1939 and everyone lived happily ever after.

The Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of athleticism independent of political differences. That’s a major part of its appeal – enemies can put down their guns and, uh, see who can swim fastest or jump the highest over bars while wearing short shorts. But politics always has a way of creeping in, and from even the early days, the Olympics have been used as a foreign policy weapon. Germany and its various allies were banned from the Olympics following both World War I and World War II, and several nations have refused to compete for various reasons ranging from petty grudges to principled moral stands, such as the 22 African nations who boycotted the 1976 games in protest of apartheid. But none have been more famous than the dual U.S./USSR boycotts. The U.S. got things going by refusing to compete in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the Russians retaliated by refusing to attend the ’84 games in Los Angeles. Of course, I’m sure all the athletes who spent their entire lives training were more than happy to throw it all away just for the sake of a meaningless gesture. After all, hissy fits are what international diplomacy is built on.

In 2000, China was busted for sending out a 14 year-old girl to compete for glory and honor and presumably toys and video games. The girl, Dong Fangxiao (no dong jokes, please, we’re above that… unless you can think of a good one), won the bronze medal, but since the rule is you have to be 16, she was quickly stripped (of her medals… come on, man.) Naturally, China came back in the games that they hosted in 2008 with a group of gymnasts who looked like they had been pulled out of a 4th grade classroom. The world reacted with appropriate dignity and discretion, and… just kidding, the news ran features analyzing their facial structures, and did just about everything short of asking the poor girls if they had gotten their period yet. It was profoundly uncomfortable and completely ridiculous, but let’s just hope it dissuades Russia from trying something similar in their national sport: prostitution. (I’m so sorry.)


Ildar Sagdejev, Wikimedia Commons

Look, it’s one thing for people to get all worked up over girls lying about their age and people taking drugs – which, incidentally, are also the two biggest concerns backstage at any rock concert – but at least most Olympic games don’t have to worry about some asshole blowing shit up. Unfortunately, Atlanta wasn’t so lucky, as its games were marred by serial bomber Eric Rudolph, aka the dude responsible for a series of abortion clinic bombings in the ‘90s, who decided to plant a bomb underneath a bench in a crowded park. Naturally, the bomb was filled with nails because he was a dick. Thankfully, security guard Richard Jewell discovered the bomb and got most of the people out. Still, it went off and injured 111 people and killed 2. Things really got ugly, though, when the heroic Jewell was falsely accused by the FBI of planting the bombs himself. His name was viciously dragged through the mud on TV and to this day most people probably think he did it. It wasn’t until Rudolph was arrested in 2003 that the truth finally came out. Convicted, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and if there is any fairness in the world, Jewell will be allowed to punch him in the nuts at least once before the end. With nails.

Prior to 1972, the U.S. had never lost a basketball game at the Olympics. It was just straight golds. But then Russia got involved and everything went to hell, which, let’s face it, is kind of its trademark. It all started when the U.S. led by one point with only seconds left to play in the gold medal match. The Russians attempted to inbound the ball and failed, but the Russian coaches started whining that the team was owed a timeout and the refs inexplicably gave it to them. On the second try, the Russians failed again, and the U.S. rushed the court in celebration. Not so fast, my friends. The refs decided that this time the clock hadn’t been properly reset and so they told everyone to do it a third time. This time, the Russians successfully inbounded the ball, laid it up and stole the gold. It was so outrageous and obviously bullshit that the U.S. refused to accept its silver medals, and to this day, the members of that team still don’t want anything to do with them.


Josef Jindrich Sechtl, Wikimedia Commons

Things don’t tend to go so well when the Olympics hit Germany, which I know comes as a shock given that country’s famously peaceful vibe. Somehow, the 1936 games wound up in Berlin, right at the height of Nazimania. The U.S. considered boycotting, but decided to go anyway, which turned out to be both hilarious and shameful – hilarious because Jesse Owens – a black dude - famously dominated the games while Hitler sat fuming in his box, and shameful because sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, the only two Jewish members of the American squad, were inexplicably pulled from competition just before their race, presumably to appease that asshole Adolf. In all, there were protests galore, Nazi salutes, and a general foreboding that the world was about to get very, very fucked up.

“Why? Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyy???” Everyone in the world remembers Nancy Kerrigan wailing like a banshee after Tonya Harding’s white trash entourage whacked her with a lead pipe. This was sensational at the time, and completely dominated not only the Olympics themselves, but all of pop culture. Looking back, it was pretty goddamn hilarious, which perhaps sounds mean, but come on, some rednecks jumped out and smacked some poor lady in the knee with a pipe. That is the sort of black comedy you’d see in a Coen Brothers movie or something. Still, to this day, people will drop whatever they’re doing just to catch a glimpse of Tony Harding looking like she was just thrown from a trailer after a meth lab explosion, or Kerrigan dragging around the cross and demanding sympathy because she suffered a bruise. It’s the perfect idiotic scandal for these completely idiotic times.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think Germany is going to get the call to host the Olympics again anytime soon. That tends to happen when your games – already taking place in the shadow of Hitler lovin’ from years before – is the site of the only athlete massacre in Olympic history. And of course, it had to happen to the team of Jewish dudes. This time, though, it wasn’t the Germans acting like monsters, but Palestinian terrorists, who broke into the Olympic village and kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes, athletes who they then murdered once they didn’t get their way. Of course, the terrorists were reportedly given logistical assistance by German Neo-Nazis because, well… sigh. The incident remains the most gruesome in Olympic history, and is undoubtedly the biggest Olympic scandal of all time.

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Neil Bulson
About Neil Bulson... Neil Bulson writes words for money. Some of them are even funny. Hey, that rhymed! As you can see, it is probably best not to encourage him.
TAGSArbitrary Rankingsbiggest Olympic scandals all timebiggest Olympic scandals everBlack Power SaluteCentennial Olympic Park BombingfeaturedListsolumpic games scandalsOlympic BoycottsOlympic scandals in historyOlympic scandals listOlympic scandals top tenOlympicsPaavo NurmiUnderage Chinese Gymnasts

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