The Olympic Games is regarded as the foremost international multi-sport event in the world today. The first Olympic Games hosted under the regulation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. For decades, the series of Olympic Games have influenced and were, in turn, influenced by international affairs and relations between countries. Thus, it is not quite surprising that a number of Olympic Games are associated with major controversies and scandals that have marred international relations and triggered tension between nations. Boycotts by countries for various reasons, the clash of political ideologies between participating nations, wars and terrorism, acts of racial and sexual discrimination, use of barred performance-enhancing drugs by athletes, have all been instrumental in blemishing the success story of some Olympic Games. Here we present some of the most controversial Summer Olympic Games events in history.
20. 2000 Summer Olympics
The 2000 Summer Olympics, held at Sydney, Australia, was associated with controversial events regarding the maintenance of rules and regulations of the game. A Romanian gymnast was stripped of a medal for testing positive for pseudoephedrine. The Romanian doctor who prescribed her this medicine was expelled from the Games. A Chinese gymnast who was found to be under-age was also stripped of her bronze medal. A number of cases of athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s) were also reported during the Games. For example, during the BALCO case in 2007, the US sprinter Marion Jones who had performed exceedingly well in the Games and won 5 medals, admitted to having taken PEDs. She and unfortunately her relay teammates were thus stripped of their medals.
Technical difficulties also led to complaints made by the competitors against the authorities. For example, Australian athlete Allana Slater complained that the vault set in the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics was too low for the players to exhibit their full efficiency. A number of the gymnasts made unusual errors during their performance which were all blamed on the vault settings. Two gymnasts fell during their performance and received substantial injuries. An American gymnast completely missed the vault during her warm-up sessions. Finally, after careful inspection, it was found that the vault was indeed lower than 5 cm of the set height.
19. 2004 Summer Olympics
Three judges of a gymnastics event at the 2004 Summer Olympics held at Athens, Greence were suspended when their miscalculated scoring led to an incorrect interpretation of results, and a South Korean gymnast who could have possibly been the winner, became the recipient of a bronze medal instead. In another incident, a Brazilian marathon runner was attacked by a defrocked Irish priest. However, the runner, Vanderlei de Lima, managed to recover and win the bronze medal for his country.
Several events of flawed rules and regulations of the games were also associated with this Olympics. An Irish show jumper, Cian O'Connor, was stripped of the gold medal when his horse tested positive for banned substances in its system. An unfair game of fencing, wherein a Hungarian fencing official committed six errors favoring Italy, robbed China of a possible victory. In a rowing event at the Olympics, a Canadian rowing pair was disqualified from the Games when their boat erroneously entered the rowing lane assigned to the South African team. As per the South African team, this hampered their progress, leading to the disqualification of the Canadians. A judoist from Iran, Arash Miresmaili, went on a binge-eating spree the day before his contest with the Israeli judoist Ehud Vaks. He did this in protest against IOC’s recognition of the Israeli state. Although Miresmaili was disqualified for being overweight on the day of the game, he was glorified by the Iranian President as a national hero and was declared that for the nation, he was the undoubted Champion of the 2004 Olympics.
18. 2008 Summer Olympics
A number of controversies surrounded the 2008 Summer Olympic Games held at Beijing, China. There were allegations that the host country imposed restrictions on open media access, violated human rights in certain aspects, and supported repressive regimes. There were also concerns regarding the high air pollution rates in Beijing and a possible terror attack during the Games. During the Olympics, it was alleged that the Chinese Government had issued guidelines for the local media to downplay the showcase of all political and social issues that were not directly connected to the Games. This mandate is believed to have triggered the longevity of the 2008 Chinese milk scandal and the late recall of contaminated infant formula.
The Swedish wrestler, Ara Abrahamian was stripped of his bronze medal when he discarded the medal on the floor after it was placed around his neck. He did this in protest to his loss to an Italian athlete. Questions regarding the age of two Chinese athletes also cropped up during the course of the event. Physical assault of a referee by a Cuban taekwando competitor led to the athlete being banned for life from participating in any international Taekwando events. A controversial handball match victory is also related to this Olympic Games.
17. 2012 Summer Olympics
The most recent Summer Olympics held in 2012 in London, United Kingdom, was also not devoid of controversies, public debates, and media commentaries. Two athletes, the Swiss footballer Michel Morganella and the Greek triple and long jumper Paraskevi Papachristou were expelled from the Games due to racial comments made on Twitter. Morganella made the comment against the Koreans when his team lost a game to South Korea. Papachristou’s Twitter comment on the Africans in relation to the West Nile virus outbreak in Greece was deemed insensitive and derogatory by the Olympic Committee.
Several competitive events during this Olympics were also shrouded with controversies over possible wrong judgments of the results. In some of the events, it was alleged that non-deserving candidates or teams were the recipients of the medals. Nadzeya Ostapchuk, an athlete from Belarus, was disqualified after she tested positive for metenolone in her system. Other competitors like the Albanian weightlifter, Hysen Pulaku, runner Tameka Williams, and gymnast Luiza Galiilina were also suspended from the Games. Eight competitors of women’s badminton doubles were disqualified when they were accused of not putting in their “best efforts” to win the game.
16. 1916 Summer Olympics
The first Olympic Games to be adversely impacted by the World War was the 1916 Summer Olympic Games. The games, which was scheduled to be held in Berlin, Germany, was canceled due to the outbreak of the World War I. Eventually, Berlin would host the Summer Olympic Games of 1936, a highly controversial Game in Olympic history.
Prior to the outbreak of the war, work had begun to build the Olympic stadium in Berlin as early as 1912. The stadium was proposed to host 18,000 spectators at a time. Amidst the eyes of 60,000 spectators,10,000 pigeons were released on June 8, 1913, as a gesture of goodwill, dedicating the stadium to the Games. The efforts made by the German government continued until the last moment. No one had any idea that the war would be so long lasting. Thus, the 1916 Summer Olympics was subject to last moment cancellations. Germany had even made plans to host a winter sports week during the Olympics which would feature games like ice hockey, figure skating, speed skating, etc. Though this plan was never turned into a reality, it did give birth to the brand new concept of the Winter Olympic Games.
15. 1924 Summer Olympics
The 1924 Summer Olympics was held in Paris, France, this being the second time after 1900 that Paris hosted the Olympic Games. As post-World War I tensions continued to prevail, the IOC refused to send an invitation to Germany to participate in the 1924 Games. Thus, athletes from Germany did not compete in the 1924 Olympics. Many countries like Ireland, Ecuador, Uruguay, Lithuania, and China attended the Games for the first time. Latvia and Poland, who had attended the 1924 Winter Olympics, attended the Summer Olympics for the first time. In total, 44 countries were present at the 1924 Olympic Games.
This event was the first Olympic Games to introduce an Olympic Village to house the Olympic contestants, officials, and other attendees. During this Olympic Games, the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius was first used. For the first time, Ireland participated in the Olympics as an independent nation. Nearly 60,000 spectators attended the Games at a time. However, despite such high figures, the return on investment was quite low and thus the local economy suffered great losses.
14. 1964 Summer Olympics
The system of apartheid, a racial segregation system practiced in South Africa that discriminated the population on the basis of color, became a debatable topic during the 1964 Summer Olympics held at Tokyo, Japan between October 10 and October 24. This debate ultimately led to the suspension of South Africa from the Games for an indefinite period and was only lifted in 1992. Though South Africa was barred from Summer and Winter Olympic Games, the country was allowed to compete in the 1964 Summer Paralympics, also held in the same city. The 1964 Summer Olympics was also the first Olympics to be hosted by an Asian nation.
Indonesia and North Korea backed out from the Olympics when the IOC decided to ban countries who had attempted to set up the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEF) to counter the Olympic Games. China also did not send athletes to the Olympics for the same reason. The GANEFO was set up by Indonesia to allow the athletes of the “emerging nations” to display their skills and abilities. The first GANEFO event was hosted in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1963. Later, after another GANEFO event held in 1966, the event was discontinued.
13. 1988 Summer Olympics
Unsurprisingly, North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul, South Korea. For different reasons, six other countries, namely Albania, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Madagascar, and Cuba, also boycotted the Games. Several unpleasant incidents, including the physical assault of a referee from New Zealand by Korean boxing officials, the positive test results of a Canadian sprinter who took the drug stanozolol, an accidental injury suffered by an American diver, and a controversial boxing match, also marred the success of the 1988 Summer Olympics.
The Canadian sprinter, Ben Johnson, who won the gold medal in the 100 meters race, tested positive for the forbidden drug stanozolol. He was then stripped of his gold medal. The boxing match was fought between the American boxer Roy Jones Jr. and the host country boxer, Park Si-Hun. Though Jones was clearly visible as the better of the two in the game, a biased decision allowed Si-Hun to win. Shortly after the game, one of the judges admitted that the decision was a mistake and all three judges involved in deciding the results were suspended. However, in the end, Jones ended up receiving the Val Barker Trophy which was only the third time in Olympic history that this trophy was handed over to a non-gold medal winner.
12. 1996 Summer Olympics
An unfortunate incident that killed one person, Alice Hawthorne, wounded 111 others and triggered a heart attack in another victim, took place in the Centennial Olympic Park, Atlanta, USA, on July 27, 1996, during the 1996 Summer Olympics. This incident was a terrorist bomb attack, and an American, Eric Robert Rudolph, an anti-gay and anti-abortion motivated bomber was convicted in the case.
Initially, however, an innocent man, Richard Jewell, was suspected of being involved in the Olympic bombing case. Jewell, a security guard at the Olympics, was the first to detect the bomb and clear off most spectators from the park. Unfortunately, Jewell had to bear a significant amount of harassment when the FBI implicated him as a suspect and the media aggressively preyed on him for days. Months after the bombing, Jewell was finally exonerated when sufficient evidence against him was not found. It was only in 1997 when Rudolph, a handyman, and carpenter, became a new target of the Olympic bombing case. Three more similar cases of terror attacks in abortion clinics and gay bars were linked to him. He was finally arrested in 2003 and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
11. 1940 and 1944 Summer Olympics
The two Olympic Games of 1940 and 1944 were both canceled due to wars. The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War led to the cancellation of the 1940 Summer Olympic Games, scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan between September 21 to October 6. When the Second Sino-Japanese War began on July 7, 1937, requests to immediately cancel the Tokyo Olympic Games were made. However, the IOC at Japan was hopeful that the war would soon end. As the war intensified, other nations of the world could see that the feasibility of Tokyo hosting the Olympics was quite low. They demanded a shift of venue and threatened to boycott the Games if it continued to be scheduled to the venue at Tokyo. However, Japan continued to persist on hosting the Games even when the Japanese military demanded that metals be spared for war and Olympic constructions be made entirely of wood. Finally, Japan yielded to the pressures of the war and declared the Olympics as canceled on July 16, 1938.
Though Helsinki in Finland was designated as the alternative venue for this Olympics, the Winter War that began in 1939 between the Soviet Union and Finland, led to a final cancellation of the 1940 Olympics. Soon, however, the Olympics was indefinitely suspended as the devastating World War II began. The 1944 Summer Olympics was scheduled to be held in London, England but was canceled. London went on to host the 1948 Summer Olympics instead of the 1944 Games.
10. 1948 Summer Olympics
The 1948 Summer Olympics, held in London, England, was the first Summer Olympic Games after the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was held after the two World Wars were over. As in the previous history of the Games, the major losers of World War II, Japan, and Germany, were suspended from attending this Olympic Games. The Soviet Union, though invited, also chose to stay away from this international sporting affair.
London hosted the Olympics for the second time after 1908. No new venues were built for the Games and the athletes were hosted in existing accommodations. An Olympic Village was not built this time. For all these reasons, the 1948 Summer Olympic Games were referred to as the Austerity Games. Forced labor from Germany was used in the construction of the Games facilities. The use of forced labor was done as per the provisions of the Yalta conference. The forced labor primarily involved German prisoners of war. Although Italy was an Axis Power, the country defected to the Allies after Mussolini was overthrown. Thus, Italy was allowed to send its athletes to the Olympics. The 1948 London Games was also the first time when India, Pakistan, and the Philippines competed as independent nations.
9. 1984 Summer Olympics
It is believed that the 1980 boycott of the Olympics held in Moscow by the United States was the reason why the Soviet Union and its fourteen allies boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics hosted by Los Angeles, California, USA. However, the Soviet Union formally stated that a lack of security for its athletes was its reason of boycotting the Games. A parallel event, the Friendship Games, was hosted by the Eastern Bloc. For different reasons, Iran and Libya also boycotted the Games.
In an unfortunate accident during the 3000-meter track event, a US athlete, Mary Decker collided with a South African athlete Zola Budd. The collision injured Decker who had to leave the game. Although Budd was leading the game, the boos from the spectators discouraged her, and she ended up in the 7th position. Inspection of the events by an IAAF jury made it clear that Budd was not responsible for the collision. Also, during the Games, controversy brewed up during a light heavyweight boxing match when the referee, Yugoslavian Gligorije Novicic, disqualified the leading American athlete, Evander Holyfield for repeatedly hitting the break. Holyfield ended up with the bronze medal while his competitor New Zealander Kevin Barry managed to grasp the silver medal.
8. 1968 Summer Olympics
Protests by spectators and athletes against their governments were publicly displayed in stray events during the 1968 Olympic Games held at Mexico City, Mexico. Two African-American athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, from the United States, raised their black-gloved arms during the medal ceremony where they won the gold and silver medals for their country in the 200-meter running event. They kept their arms raised as the American anthem was played. Both also wore black socks in shoeless feet during the ceremony representing black poverty. A black scarf was also adorned by Smith to represent black pride. He later claimed that this gesture was a “human-rights salute,” not a "Black Power" salute.
Sadly, this Olympic Game was also associated with the Tlatelolco Massacre, where between 30 and 300 civilians, including students, were killed by government forces when some students tried to use the Olympic platform to gather media attention against Mexico’s authoritarian government. Also, during the Games, an athlete Věra Čáslavská expressed her dissatisfaction with the Soviet Government’s invasion of Czechoslovakia by avoiding the Soviet flag during the medal ceremony. She was welcomed as a hero in Czechoslovakia but was outcasted by the Soviet government.
7. 2016 Summer Olympics
The 2016 Summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil faced several controversies leading up to and during the games. To being, the health and safety of the athletes was questioned due to not only the Zika virus but also do to water pollution. Numerous athletes declined to participate due to fear on contracting the Zika virus, however the WHO later confirmed that there were no reported cases among athletes. Environmental issues in Rio de Janeiro were also an issue leading up to the games. Many questioned the safety of holding aquatic competitions such as sailing and windsurfing in the heavily polluted Guanabara Bay.
The Russian doping scandal was one of the biggest controversies of the 2016 Olympics. Just prior to the Opening Ceremony, 111 Russian athletes were barred from competing due to doping. Only 278 Russian athletes were cleared to compete.
6. 1976 Summer Olympics
Only 92 countries participated in the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. A number of boycotts resulted in this poor attendance, the worst figure since the 1960 Rome Games. 22 African countries led by Tanzania boycotted the games as a sign of protest against the inclusion of New Zealand. These countries claimed that the All Blacks (New Zealand national rugby union team) tour of South Africa was in support of South Africa’s apartheid regime. The boycott prevented a much awaited competitive meet between two athletes, John Walker of New Zealand and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania, who had previously made world records in 1500 meters and mile run events. Walker went on to win the gold medal in the 1500 meters event.
Taiwan was not allowed to compete in the Olympics due to Canada’s demands and China also boycotted the game since the IOC failed to satisfy its requirements of completely banning Taiwan from the Olympics. A Soviet pentathlete was also caught flouting the rules of the Games, leading to disqualification of the entire Soviet pentathlon team. Finally, the Canadian province of Quebec which hosted the games came under a heavy debt of $1.5 billion USD that was only paid off in 2006.
5. 1920 Summer Olympics
The World War I once more cast its dark shadow on the 1920 Summer Olympic Games hosted by Antwerp, Belgium. The strained relations between countries after the war and the decisions taken at the Paris Peace Conference severely affected the Summer Olympics of 1920. Five nations, successor states of the Central Powers, Austria, Germany, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Hungary, were inhibited from competing in the Games. The loss of the Central Powers in the war influenced the barring of these five nations from the event. Also, although the 1920 Summer Olympic Games was scheduled to be held in Budapest, Hungary, the IOC decided to change the venue to Antwerp, Belgium on April 19, 1919. The alliance between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany displeased the French dominated IOC, triggering such a decision.
The ban on Germany remained in place till 1925. In response, Germany hosted a separate series of games, the Deutsche Kampfspiele, as an alternative option to the Summer Olympics. The first event of this series was hosted in 1922. Soviet Russia was also not invited to the Games by the IOC. The political embargo imposed by the West on the nation triggered this decision. Unfortunately, no formal reports of the 1920 Summer Olympic Games were generated as the local economy of Antwerp went bankrupt after the Games.
4. 1956 Summer Olympics
Political tensions between countries strained relations between participating nations in the 1956 Summer Olympics held at Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. The international event was also boycotted by seven nations. As Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom, not at all happy with Egypt’s decision, invaded the country. In protest, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq decided to boycott the Olympic Games. The Soviet participation in the Olympics and the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union in 1956 during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, also angered Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain, leading to their boycotting of the Olympics. The People's Republic of China also exhibited disdain towards the Olympic Committee’s decision to allow Taiwan to participate independently in the game as Formosa. Thus, China also abstained from sending players to the 1956 Summer Olympics.
The history of this game is also marred by the "Blood In The Water Match" where the men’s water polo teams of Hungary and the Soviet Union played a violent match against each other, supported by a crowd of unruly spectators. Only the arrival of the police at the venue subdued the violent nature of the game. Equestrian events of the 1956 Summer Olympics suffered a setback due to some quarantine issues and had to be scheduled to a new venue in Stockholm, Sweden.
3. 1972 Summer Olympics
The association of the Munich massacre and the 1972 Summer Olympics, held in Munich, Germany, makes it one of the most controversial Olympic Games in history. Eleven coaches, judges, and athletes were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist organization “Black September” when the Olympic team from Israel was taken hostage by the terror group. The terrorists demanded the release of 234 Israeli prisoners as well as the release of the Red Army Faction founders held in Germany. Five of the terrorists were killed by the police and the remaining three, though caught, had to be released during the Lufthansa Flight 615 hijacking on October 1972, in response to the demands of the terror group.
During the same time, the IOC was forced to expel Rhodesia from the Olympics when the African countries which did not accept the legitimacy of the newly formed state of Rhodesia, threatened to boycott the games. Several incidents of protests during sports events, unruly players and spectators also marred the story of the 1972 Summer Olympics. In the final match of the men’s field hockey, enraged Pakistani spectators entered the field and allegedly dumped water on an Olympic official when Pakistan lost the game 1-0 to West Germany. The Pakistani players had earlier accused the umpires of the game of misjudged umpiring. It is also claimed that during the award ceremony, the Pakistani players handled their silver medals disrespectfully and showed their backs to the German flag.
2. 1980 Summer Olympics
Only 80 nations competed at the 1980 Summer Olympics held in Moscow, Russia. It is estimated that 62 eligible nations backed out of the Games. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was heavily criticized by the US and was stated as the major cause behind this mass boycott of the Olympics. Also, half of the nations that had boycotted the 1976 Olympics for reasons related to the apartheid regime in South Africa continued to avoid the 1980 Games. Financial crisis also forced certain nations to back out from the 1980 Summer Olympics.
The Liberty Bell Classic, popularly known as the Olympic Boycott Games, was held in Pennsylvania in the United States as an alternative competitive event that was attended by 29 of the Olympic boycotting countries. Among the countries that participated in the Olympics, fifteen countries displayed the Olympic flag instead of their national flag during the Opening Ceremony March, as a sign of protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott severely affected some events like equestrian sports and hockey. However, many countries like Italy, France, Ireland, and Romania won more medals that the previous Olympic Games. Athletes from “Third World” countries also took part in a greater number of events and won more medals than in earlier events. Accusations of Soviet officials favoring the home team also cropped up frequently during the course of the Games.
1. 1936 Summer Olympics
Perhaps the most controversial Olympic Games associated with World Wars, the 1936 Summer Olympics, was riddled with boycotts by nations, racial discrimination and unhealthy politics. The Olympic was held in Berlin, Germany, and coincided with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Critics claimed that Hitler used the Olympic stage to propagate his own political ideologies. Hitler was also heavily criticized for his racist attitude towards the Jewish participants in the games. Recognizing the exploitation of the Olympic Games for political purposes by Hitler, a number of organizations and leading politicians called for the boycott of the games.
The Spanish government was the first to take step in this direction and announce the arrangement of a parallel event, the People’s Olympiad. However, the Spanish Civil War, led to the suspension of this event. The American leaders also heavily debated their prospects in boycotting the games altogether. There were fears that Hitler would apply his ideology of racial supremacy at the Olympics and evidence of the exclusion of a majority of the Jewish athletes from the German team hinted at this fact. Ireland was the only nation to boycott the 1936 Olympics as a sign of protest against the alleged racism practiced at the games. There were also controversial wins during this game, one of which forced the Olympic delegations of Peru and Colombia to leave Germany as a sign of protest.