Scandals at the Olympic Games
Sports and drama. Like it or not, these two things have gone hand in hand for as long we can remember. There is the good drama — the type when two teams or two competitors are locked in a tightly-contested matchup and are giving it everything they have in order to win.
Then there is the unfortunate type of drama — the scandals. The Olympic Games have been no stranger to public embarrassments and disgraceful actions by Olympians, some of them even unforgivable.
We thought it would be appropriate to spend some time reliving some of these humiliating occurrences and talk about how they affected the Olympic Games.
If you have been following the Olympics for a long time, these stories will just be flashbacks to some of the most awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes serious moments for the International Olympic Committee and the athletes involved.
If some you are hearing of some of these storylines for the first time, prepare to be amused, horrified, and also confused at times.
We can’t give you all the answers to why these things happened the way they did and what the people “in charge” were thinking at the time of these acts. All we can do is our job. In this case, it’s spreading light to some of the most controversial moments in Olympic Games history.
It’s time to grab a beverage and get comfortable.
The Munich Massacre
Unfortunately, the Summer Games in Munich in 1972 will largely be remembered as the “Munich Massacre.” On the eve of September 5th, a Palestinian terrorist group known as “Black September” killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team and a German police officer in an attack triggered by religious beliefs.
The image below shows the eleven innocent victims of the Munich Massacre:
What made the incident so scary and real was that it occurred in the Olympic Village building that was supposed to be the safe haven for the athletes and coaches to stay at when they weren’t competing.
This was a systematic and planned attack that was driven by pure greed and delusion. The scene was ugly and bloody. It was clear that the goal of the intruders was to destroy violently and leave no witnesses.
Unfortunately, this is the world we live in, where certain individuals choose to lead destructive lives.
Five of the eight members of “Black September” were killed on site during an attempt to save the kidnapped athletes. The other three were captured, yet somehow released only one month later.
This led to more corrupt activity as the Israeli organization known as Mossad went back and forth with Palestinian officials and more lives were lost.
The International Olympic Committee has gone to great lengths to beef up security to make sure no more catastrophic fatalities take place on Olympic soil again.
United States Men’s Basketball Robbed in ’72
Basketball was added to the Summer Olympics in 1936. In 1972, the United States Men’s team had yet to lose a single game in 63 tries. Heading into the Championship game in ’72 against the team from the Soviet Union was where things got a little bit interesting.
Doug Collins sunk a pair of free throws to put his United States team ahead 50-49, with just three seconds remaining. That is when all hell broke loose.
Reading through the chain of events of the last three seconds will not only take you several minutes, but you will wind up with a splitting headache. The ridiculousness and absurdity surrounding the final three seconds is something you couldn’t even make up if you tried.
Essentially what happened is that the Soviet Team was given a re-do, or a mulligan. Actually, they were given two of them. Once Collins made the second free throw, a player from the Soviet Union inbounded the ball one of his teammates started dribbling up the floor.
With one second remaining, referee Renato Righetto blew his whistle and paused the game to check on all the commotion at the scorer’s table.
For some regrettable reason, Righetto decided to reset the play clock to three seconds and allow the Soviet Union team to basically “try again.” No big deal; let’s just run it back.
The second inbounds play resulted in another missed opportunity for the Soviets to win the game. This time, the horn sounded, and the United States team began their celebrations — just as you would imagine.
Unforgettably, it was ruled that there was some sort of miscommunication with a timeout being called, and the clock was once again reset to three seconds. Perhaps the third time would be the charm?
It was as if the first two plays were just dress rehearsals for the real thing. On the third and final replay, center Aleksandr Belov was able to find an opening and score the “game-winning basket” for the Soviet Union.
Mysteriously, Righetto let this play stand, and the Soviet Union Men’s basketball team was awarded the gold medal.
In fact, these medals are sitting in a vault in Switzerland to this very day.
Ben Johnson Busted for Steroids in 1988
This is arguably the most notable scandal on this entire list, depending on how you look at it. Clearly, anything involving the safety and lives of Olympic athletes takes precedence over someone cheating to gain an edge in an Olympic event.
However, when Ben Johnson was caught doping at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, he didn’t just let himself and his track and field teammates down.
Ben Johnson was undoubtedly a fast runner in his own right. He won a bronze medal at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and looked to be on the verge of overtaking American sprinter Carl Lewis at the ’88 Games in Seoul.
He looked to be doing exactly that after he blazed past his competition in the 100-meter race, setting a new Olympic and world record in the meantime. His time of 9.79 seconds raised some eyebrows, but considering he was an accomplished runner, it seemed attainable and reasonable at the time.
The celebration would be short-lived for Johnson and the entire nation of Canada. It was concluded just a couple days after the race that Johnson had cheated. A tested sample of his urine revealed that he had been taking a performance-enhancing steroid called Stanozolol.
The announcement caused tremendous backlash and anger. People who had congratulated Ben and been amazed by his world record time also felt cheated. It was a sad, sad day for the Olympics and sports fans in general. This took place before the steroid issue in baseball blew up — when it was extremely uncommon for news like this to break.
Especially on a stage as grand as the Summer Olympics.
Roy Jones Jr. Fight at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul
This scandal might as well be placed under the category of “blatant robbery.” That is exactly what happened to American boxer Roy Jones Jr. during the gold medal championship fight at the 1998 Summer Games in Seoul.
The three-round bout wasn’t even a closely contested match, according to broadcasters Marv Albert and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. The stat sheet showed that Jones had landed 86 punches, compared to the 32 landed by his opponent.
The one thing that South Korean boxer Park Si-hun did have going for him was that the fight was taking place in his home country. Not every fight ends with a knockout, and that means the decision is left in the hands of the judges and their scorecards.
Some boxing matches end up close, and it is difficult to put a finger on who is deserving of the victory.
This one wasn’t one of those fights. It was more than obvious that Jones Jr. had gotten the better of Si-hun. The only way Park would be able to leave that ring with a gold medal draped around his neck was if “the fix was in” and the judges intentionally awarded Si-hun the fight — despite getting his butt kicked.
The absurdity of the decision even left Roy flabbergasted. He told the New York Times,
The fact that everyone in the entire boxing community knew that this was as bogus outcome left a black eye over boxing in the Olympics. It is one thing for a judge to use his or her personal judgment and score the fight as they see it.
When the fight is as lop-sided as the Championship match in Seoul in the 1988 Olympics was, there was no excuse for the appalling behavior exhibited by the judges who ruled in favor of Si-hun.
This should serve as an example for next time you watch a boxing match, or anything being judged by subjective human beings at the Olympic Games. Never count your chickens before they hatch; you never know what might happen.
Tonya Harding Attacks Nancy Kerrigan – 1994 Lillehammer
A typical case of jealousy turned into rage ended up on the cover of every magazine publication in America and took all the attention and focus away from the actual skating at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer.
The US Figure Skating Championships were being held in Detroit the month before the Olympics. It was there that Tonya Harding (or her ex-husband, depending on who you believe) masterminded a shameful and brutal attack on fellow US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.
The short version of the backstory is that Tonya Harding was becoming envious of Kerrigan. So much so that she actually had the audacity to architect a plan to break her leg so she wouldn’t be able to skate at the US Championships or the Olympic Games.
Supposedly Tonya’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt hired Shane Stant to carry out the horrific plan. Most people around the world assumed that it was Tonya who was the brains behind the operation.
Whether it was Tonya’s idea or not, it is almost impossible to believe she had “no idea” or nothing to do with the incident.
On January 6th, Stant followed Nancy to a practice session and waited for her as she skated off the ice. He struck her above the knee with a heavy-duty baton and ran off.
The raw footage can be seen here as you hear Nancy exclaiming,
Thankfully, Kerrigan’s leg was not broken, but it was bruised badly enough that she had to sit out from the Championships. The good news is that she was able to recover in time to make the trip to Norway and capture a silver medal. Harding repeatedly denied involvement and finished 8th in the same event.
Both Harding and Kerrigan are forever linked this horrendous act of cruelty. The movie “I, Tonya,” was released in 2017, portraying the life of Harding and depicting this tangled-up story and web of lies.
Unfortunately for both women, this scandalous act has been the only thing anyone talks about when bringing up the two former Olympians’ names.
Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial
Oscar Pistorius had a lot going for him in his life. Despite having both of his legs amputated as a baby, Oscar had excelled in athletics. The South African man known as the “Blade Runner” has six gold medals from the Paralympics to his credit and was respected and beloved in his community of disabled athletes.
Pistorius became the first athlete with both of his legs amputated to compete in the Olympic Games, when he ran in London in 2012.
Then came the ugly and dreadful acts of Valentine’s Day in 2013. Inside his home, he fired four bullets toward his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, telling authorities he had mistaken her for an intruder. From the very beginning, something smelled fishy, and things weren’t adding up.
It took a full year for the actual trial to get underway, but it didn’t take long for the prosecutors to paint the picture of an angry and jealous man. To the dismay of many, he was only found guilty of culpable homicide, which is essentially killing someone without the intent to actually kill them.
A slap in the face to Steenkamp’s grieving family, Pistorius was only sentenced to a maximum of five years behind bars. Rubbing salt into the wound, Oscar was let out on house arrest after serving less than 10 months.
After being reopened, the case was further examined, and it was ruled that he would serve a six-year sentence for the heinous acts. More than a year later at the end of 2017, the sentence was more than doubled to 13 years and 5 months. The South African Supreme Court of Appeal agreed that 6 years was not nearly enough for such a despicable act of violence.
Not only did Oscar fail to provide adequate and legitimate responses throughout the interrogation but seemed to feel little remorse for the tragic event.
This wasn’t the first time a celebrated athlete was involved in a homicide. The fact that Oscar Pistorius was such a distinguished Paralympic athlete made this case make national headlines.
Oscar is currently serving out his sentence at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre in his hometown of Pretoria, South Africa.
“Lochtegate” in Rio de Janeiro – 2016
It was August 14, 2016, right smack dab in the middle of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil was showing off their seaside city to millions of viewers. The Games were being celebrated for the unbelievable performances we were witnessing from several Olympians.
Then came that unforgettable night when all the headlines in Rio and across the globe turned from feel-good stories to a scandalous act of deceitfulness.
The first report actually left folks feeling sorry for American swimmer Ryan Lochte and a few of his teammates.
Seemed believable enough, but that’s when more details emerged. The truth came spilling out.
The real story was that Lochte and his buddies got a “wee bit” too intoxicated and wound up at a gas station. There, the swimmers had urinated in “inappropriate areas,” not to mention Ryan had either damaged or destroyed some property inside.
The “so-called robbers” were actually just the security guards at the gas station trying to figure out what the heck these guys were thinking.
The athletes were detained as witnesses until the sequence of events was further sorted out. Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz had to physically be removed from a flight just 3 days after fabricating the entire ordeal.
They were trying to run back to their “safe place” in America and avoid any more involvement.
USA Swimming and the United States Olympic Committee both suspended Lochte for 10 months, while the other three men only received 4-month bans. More than anything, it was a huge humiliation for Team USA and the swimming community.
In the aftermath of the event, Lochte has admitted that he made a huge mistake by lying about what happened but remained adamant that the whole thing was blown way out of proportion. Our advice to Mr. Lochte would be to tell the truth next time, and you won’t end up embarrassing yourself and your Olympic team.
The part that was so unfortunate for the Olympics and Rio de Janeiro was that this dramatic episode of lies was a “hanging dark cloud” over an otherwise fantastic turnout of events.
There you have it. Seven of the most famous scandals tied to the Olympic Games. For the wrong and unfortunate reasons, nobody can forget the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972. First, it was the Munich Massacre, where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered during a hostage takeover.
Just 4 days later, the US Men’s basketball team was robbed of the gold medal when the Soviet Union team was inexplicably given three chances to score the game-winning bucket.
While not a fatal act like the one carried out by “Black September,” the way the last three seconds of the Championship basketball game on the men’s side was handled has left us scratching our heads some 40+ years later.
Then we had the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Take your pick.
We saw the Championship Boxing match basically rigged for the hometown fighter, Park Si-hun. After American standout Roy Jones Jr. annihilated Park for all three rounds, Si-hun was somehow awarded the gold medal when three of the five judges had scored the fight in favor of the South Korean.
Then we had the infamous Ben Johnson doping incident over on the track and field side. The Canadian sprinter was so hellbent on beating Carl Lewis that he let his greed overtake his morals.
He went on to set a world record in the 100-meter dash, only to be stripped of the record and gold medal after he was found guilty of doping with a performance-enhancing drug known as Stanozolol.
Perhaps the most well-known scandal tied to the Summer or Winter Games was the debacle involving Tonya Harding and the attack on US figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Some sick combination of Tonya, her ex-husband, and her bodyguard hired an assailant to try to break Nancy’s leg ahead of the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships and the Olympic Games in Lillehammer.
The good news is that Nancy only suffered severe bruising and was able to not only compete the next month in Norway, but she skated off with a silver medal.
Oscar Pistorius was known as a legendary Paralympic athlete. Now he is spending his days and nights in a jail cell in South Africa after murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
It became a worldwide media frenzy when his alleged story of mistaking her for an intruder was quickly foiled and exposed. Oscar got off the hook easy at first, serving only 10 months. His case was re-tried and he is now serving a sentence of more than 13 years.
Finally, we discussed the embarrassing string of events that is now referred to as “Lochtegate.” At the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Ryan Lochte and three other US swimmers found themselves caught in a huge web of lies and deceit. What was initially reported as a robbery gone bad turned out to be a story of a few immature guys who got too drunk and acted inappropriately.
As fantastic as the athletics were at Rio in 2016, most remember those Olympic Games for the humiliating ordeal that the United States Men’s swim team brought upon themselves.
The fact of the matter is that the Olympic Games were created and are designed to deliver athletic performances and achievements at the highest level. No matter how skilled the Olympians are, some stories end up taking precedence over the athletic accomplishments.
When scandals happen at or around the Olympics, it’s not just local news. It becomes national headlines. The seven events we mentioned above are all worthy of being here, all for different reasons. Good, bad, or indifferent, it’s important to remember that these wrongdoings happened.
Hopefully nothing as catastrophic or deceitful as the scandals we talked about occur at the next Olympic festivities. Should anything happen, you won’t have to look far or search hard to hear the news, because scandals at the Olympic Games are not forgotten easily.