Top Ten Olympic Scandals and Tragedies

In the long history of the Olympic games, there have been many dramatic moments, and not all of them were sports-related. Sometimes, they came as a result of political change and protest. As well, athletes have taken risks that cost them their medals. Even Olympic administrators are not immune from their moments of scandal. Here is our look at the Top Ten Olympic Scandals and Tragedies, from the present day, back through history:

10.) 1999 – International Olympic Committee Bribery Scandal – The reputation of the Olympics’ governing body, the IOC, took severe blows as it was revealed that IOC members were taking bribes to secure Utah’s bid for the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Some voting members received large sums of cash in return for their decision to vote in favor of the Utah city. Twelve members of the IOC were dismissed due to evidence that they were taking cash bribes, and many people protested the choice of Utah for the Games’ location. In the end, it was too late to change venues, and the Olympics were held in Salt Lake. Since this incident, many have cast a jaundiced eye on the activities of the International Olympic Committee, whose corruption was reportedly widespread. Since then, there have been other such scandals, but nothing on this scale. The IOC have tried to restore their integrity and reputation since the Utah scandal.

9.) 1996 – Atlanta Summer Games Bombing – The tragic bombing of Centennial Olympic Park, a popular hub for athletes and spectators, took place during an open-air concert, and claimed the lives of two people. On July 27, 1996, three pipe bombs were discovered in a black sports bag. Richard Jewell, a security guard who was later considered a prime suspect for the attack, found and reported the bag, and helped security personnel clear the immediate area, so that explosives experts could attempt to defuse it. It exploded at around 1:30 that morning, and one woman died as a nail was drilled into her head by the force of the explosion: another person died of cardiac arrest at the site.

Richard Jewell was found to be innocent of any wrongdoing, but was the subject of much scrutiny and negative attention from media and the general public. He was also forced to undergo intense interrogations by the FBI.

In the end, the culprit of the 1996 Olympic bombing was found to be Eric Robert Rudolph, a twisted individual who also bombed an abortion clinic, and a lesbian bar, in the Georgia area. Rudolph is currently serving life without the possibility of parole at one of America’s harshest Supermax prisons, ADX Florence.

8.) 1994 – Tonya Harding Plans Attack on Nancy Kerrigan – In 1994, there were two American rivals for women’s figure skating’s biggest prize. Nancy Kerrigan had grace and femininity, and Tonya Harding had strength, and the ability to do triple axels in abundance. When Tonya Harding decided to orchestrate an attack on Nancy Kerrigan, before the Olympic Games in Lillehammer, she was showing her lack of confidence in her own sports prowess to the entire world. With the help of her husband, Jeff Gillooly, and two other men, the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, at the Detroit US Figure Skating Championships, was successful. By attempting to knock Kerrigan out of contention with a blow to the knee, delivered by Shane Stant, Tonya sought to increase her chances of winning a medal at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer. In the end, all she did was ruin her reputation forever, as she placed 8th in the competition. Tonya was banned for life from all participation in USFA events, and she will never get another chance to win Olympic Gold. The media frenzy that surrounded Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan during the days leading up to their skating programs at the Olympic Games was unprecedented, and it tarnished the sport.

7.) 1980 – Boycott of the Soviet Union at the Moscow Summer Games – The escalating Cold War conflicts between the United States and the Soviet Union became more prominent after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Many other countries also felt that the invasion was wrong, and all this tension resulted in a huge boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Athlete, who are so briefly at their peak, were forced to sacrifice their dreams as the heads of state of 80 nations decided to pull their athletes out of the competition, to protest the Soviet Unions military tactics. Only 67 countries competed in the Moscow Games, and the Soviet Union swept the competitions, gathering 80 gold medals and 115 silver and bronze medals. Many people feel that the boycott of the Olympics in Moscow rang the death knell for the Soviet Union, and signaled the beginning of a new era.

6.) 1980 – Crowds Hiss at Polish Pole Vaulter – Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, a Polish pole vaulter, won the Gold medal for his efforts in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. The crowd had tried to distract and hinder his performance by booing and hissing him during his performance. In retaliation, Kozakiewicz gave the crowd a coarse gesture, using his hands and arms to demonstrate his disdain for the crowd and their attitude. This was the first example of an Olympic athlete turning on the crowd, and it represented a new low in sportsmanship, and in the respectfulness of Olympic spectators. The Russians attempted to take his medal away for his “elbow gesture”, but they were unsuccessful. Many thought the gesture was also a statement about Russian control over Polish affairs, and the Polish people were ecstatic that the athlete should openly oppose the Russian people this way.

5.) 1976 – African Nations Boycott Olympics Due To New Zealand’s Rugby Tour of South Africa – Political tensions reared their head again in 1976, when New Zealand was the center of controversy. 25 African countries decided to boycott the Montreal Summer Games because New Zealand permitted their Rugby team to tour South Africa. From 1964 onward, South Africa had been banned from participating in the Olympics due to their racist program of Apartheid, and African nations felt that New Zealand were showing their approval of South Africa by sending the Rugby team to that country.

4.) 1972 – Black September – Munich – Recently, Steven Spielberg detailed the events that took place in West Germany, in his film, Munich. This film retold one of the most dramatic moments in all of Olympic history. In his film, he told the story of the politically motivated hostage taking of Israeli team members, by Palestinian guerrilla forces. The terrorist group, named Black September, attempted to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners who were being held in Israeli prisons. They also had other demands for the release of prisoners being held in German penitentiaries. It is reported that the terrorists were offered huge sums of money to release the Jewish hostages, but they were not accepted. Several Olympic athletes were shot and killed as an unsuccessful rescue attempt by West German forces failed, and the incident is now known as the “Munich Massacre.”

3.) 1968 – Black Power Salutes by Olympic Athletes – In 1968’s Olympic Summer Games in Mexico City, two black athletes showed their political leanings by using the black power salute while on the Olympic podium. One athlete, a talented track and field competitor named Tommie Smith, won the gold medal for his performance in the 200m dash in Mexico City. The other athlete, John Carlos, won the bronze medal in the same event. While sharing the podium with another, white athlete, both runners gave the infamous black power salute. Silver medallist, Australian runner Peter Norman, stood beside them, and donned a badge supporting human rights, to show his solidarity with them. The IOC were dismayed at the political display, and attempted to punish the athletes by stripping them of their team member status. Many people thought the actions of the athletes involved were noble and heroic, and the actions of the IOC were not acceptable to a lot of people.

2.) 1936 – Hitler Attends The Olympic Games – In 1936, in Berlin, Hitler stood in the stands as Chancellor and President of his country. Hitler was overjoyed to watch his prized athletes prove themselves in the world arena, but his joy turned to nastiness as black athlete Jesse Owens defeated his own athletes in the track and field events he dominated. Owens won four Gold medals, and Hitler, out of spite, refused to give the black athlete the medals he earned that day. The nature of the nascent Third Reich was revealed to many as Hitler’s childishness and racism resulted in a global scandal. Owens got his medals nonetheless, and Hitler and his entourage left the arena in protest.

1.) 1912 – John Thorpe Stripped Of Medals after Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden – John Thorpe was a gifted athlete who excelled in track and field endeavors, such as the demanding pentathlon and decathlon events. During the Olympics, he won two gold medals, and participated in many events. The King of Sweden presented him with his prizes, and deemed him to be “the greatest athlete in the world.” Scandal followed the Oklahoma-born superstar as it was discovered that he was not an amateur athlete: he had played baseball for pay in the past. Thorpe was stripped of his medals and disgraced in front of the entire world. He went on to play pro football in the States. Thorpe’s achievements were so great, however, that, in 1982, the IO restored his medals to his family, and reinstated his athletic records. Unfortunately, Thorpe had already passed on when this happened. In 1999, Thorpe was posthumously named America’s Greatest Athlete of The Century.