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The Most Controversial Olympic Moments
Sport|Mar 17, 2020

The Most Controversial Olympic Moments

Rob Pegley Reflects On The Controversies Of Previous Years' Olympic Games.
Rob Pegley

The goal of the Olympics is to build a peaceful and better world through sport. Often there will be moments during the competition that encapsulate that worthy ideal; perhaps a competitor coming to the aid of a struggling fellow athlete. But as sure as headaches and headlines follow Mad Monday, don’t be surprised if there are just as many five-ring hiccups, spats and tantrums along the way.

It normally starts early in an Olympic year with reports the venues won’t be finished in time for the event. Like with the efficient Germans, that won’t be an issue for the conscientious Japanese. It progresses through stories about the number of condoms that will be provided at the village for randy athletes. Then we all laugh at the hideous mascot. And this is way before a javelin has been thrown in anger.

“Double, double, toil and trouble; Olympic fire burn and Olympic cauldron bubble…”

(Is it worth mentioning that’s a parody of the speech from Macbeth: a play about the damaging consequences for those who seek power for power’s sake?). 

See also: ‘Games Without Frontiers’ by Peter Gabriel. It’s a song about adults acting like children, especially when competing in the Olympics. 

The former Genesis frontman wrote it just before the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and things certainly didn’t get any better from there. 

Take this year’s games: Already Russia is banned from competing due to myriad doping transgressions. There are allegations of bribery over Tokyo winning the games in the first place. Political and human rights issues have been raised over workers constructing Olympics sites. There are concerns about the fallout from Fukushima affecting athletes, as well as adverse heat and water conditions. A backlash to Japan’s Rising Sun flag being displayed is in progress (the flag is banned by FIFA and often compared to the Nazi swastika). There’s even a territory dispute with Korea about the route the torch took.

And all this before the emergence of COVID-19 put the future of the event in doubt.   

Olympics controversy certainly didn’t start in 1980 either.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the first modern Games in Athens in 1896 they were a massive success. Four years later in Paris, three US marathon runners accused the French runners who came first and second of taking a short cut – they were the only runners without mud splatters. It was on.
In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War affected competing nations in St Louis. In 1908, the Olympics moved from Rome to London after Mount Vesuvius erupted. And in 1916 the Olympics – due to be held in Berlin – were cancelled altogether due to World War I. In 1920, when the war was ended, Austria, Bulgaria,

Germany, Hungary and Turkey were not invited to take part. 

Germany still wasn’t allowed back in 1924. But by 1936, Hitler hosted the games in Berlin and was not happy when black athlete Jesse Owen ruined his Aryan Supremacy Celebrations by winning four gold medals to become the athlete of the games. Racism also meant Jesse didn’t get an invite to the White House afterwards.

By Melbourne, in 1956, the bans were joined by boycotts. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon stuck two fingers up due to the Suez Crisis. The Netherlands, Cambodia, Spain and Switzerland said, “Niet, te, no and nein“ due to the Ruskies ending the Hungarian Revolution. And The People’s Republic of China pulled out because the Republic of China had been invited.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich saw the Black Power salute and also, tragically, the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes who had been taken hostage by Palestinian terror organisation Black September.

Some 29 countries boycotted Montreal in 1976, and the concept really took off four years later when 65 countries led by US president Jimmy Carter skipped Moscow due to the Soviet-Afghan War. Of course, the Soviets responded when the following games were held in LA, but only persuaded 14 countries not to RSVP in the affirmative.

Seoul in South Korea had just about full attendance – apart from near-neighbour North Korea, of course. But it was time for drugs to really take the spotlight as boggle-eyed Ben Johnson jumped out of his steroid-pumped skin to romp home in the 100m. 

And so it continues, 1996 had a bombing, 2000 saw Marion Jones stripped of five medals due to steroid use, 2004 had an ex-Irish priest in a skirt attack the leader of the marathon (that doesn’t happen very often), 2008 was in Beijing and by 2017 some 50 medals had been stripped for doping.  

We don't know if this July in Tokyo the Olympics will even go ahead.

What's already evident is there will be controversy. Lots and lots of controversy.