The 11 Most Notorious Summer Olympics Controversies, Scandals, and Tragedies

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The Olympics are a pinnacle of human achievement.

For two weeks every four years we set aside the political, religious, and financial matters that divide us in favor of friendly athletic competition.

Representatives from nations that are at odds run (or swim or bike or ride) side-by-side in contests that result in no lost lives or economic sanctions. Political rivals within a nation can forget about upcoming elections or legislative battles and come together to cheer on their country’s strongest and fastest.

But like all human institutions, the Olympic Games are far from perfect.

There have been plenty of times when participants or organizers have fallen short of Olympic ideals or when ugly politics have imposed themselves on the games.

Here are 11 low points from the history of the Summer Olympics.

Note: This list concerns only the Summer Olympics. Look for a similar list of Winter Olympics lows in 2014.

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1912: The International Olympic Committee strips Jim Thorpe of his gold medals.

By most criteria, Jim Thorpe was the greatest, most accomplished American athlete of the first half of the twentieth century (and possibly the entire century).

He’s a member of the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames, having played running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter for Carlisle Indian Industrial School and several early NFL teams. He played Major League Baseball for the Giants, Reds, and Braves. And he even played on a barnstorming basketball team called the World Famous Indians.

But perhaps the most impressive athletic feat on Thorpe’s résumé is his performance at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Thorpe won gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon, winning four of the five pentathlon events and finishing in the top five of all ten decathlon events.

But 100 years ago Olympic athletes had to adhere to strict amateurism rules. Following the 1912 games the Worcester (MA) Telegram reported that Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball in North Carolina prior to competing in the Olympics. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which back then was a big deal and more than just a haven for shady basketball coaches, recommended that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retroactively void Thorpe’s amateur status.

In 1913, several months after the Stockholm Olympics, the IOC did exactly that, and stripped Thorpe of his gold medals.

Jim Thorpe in 1912 won the discus portion of the pentathlon and finished third in the discuss portion of the decathlon. He won gold in both events, before the IOC took away his medals less than a year later.

Thorpe never denied earning money (albeit very little money) for playing baseball, but he claimed that he was ignorant of the rules. His supporters over the years have noted that Olympic amateurism rules were applied and enforced capriciously and that Olympic rules allowed only 30 days to challenge an athlete’s eligibility. The AAU took much longer to file its complaint.

Advocates working on Thorpe’s behalf tried unsuccessfully for decades to convince the IOC to reverse its decision. Avery Brundage, IOC President from 1952 to 1972 was particularly stubborn. Brundage had competed with Thorpe in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, but he had no sympathy for his late Team USA teammate.

In 1982, 70 years after Thorpe’s dominance in the decathlon and pentathlon and more than 30 years after Thorpe’s death, the IOC reinstated his gold medals.

* * * * *

1936: Germany doesn’t allow Jewish athletes to compete.

We know the 1936 summer games today as the “Hitler Olympics,” although Berlin actually won its bid to host the games two years before Hitler and the Nazi party came to power. But by 1936 Hitler was running the show in Germany, and he planned to use the Olympics to showcase not only his nation but also his party’s ideology.

In addition to building a new 100,000-seat stadium and several state-of-the-art smaller venues, Hitler wanted to deny black and Jewish athletes the chance to compete in the games. The Nazi regime abandoned this plan when many countries threatened a boycott, but Hitler had no reservations about putting restrictions on German athletes.

With the exception of a single token athlete who had a Jewish father, fencer Helene Mayer, Jews and non-white athletes were barred from competing on the German team.

Among those denied a chance to compete were Lilli Henoch, a Jewish athlete who’d set world records in the shot put and discus and as a member of a record-setting 4 x 100 relay team, and Gretel Bergmann, who held the German national record in the high jump. Henoch died in the Holocaust in 1942.

The Nazi regime didn’t allow Jewish track-and-field star Lilli Henoch to compete for Germany in the 1936 Olympics. She was one of many Jews that Nazis massacred in a ghetto in Riga, Latvia in 1942.

Black American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens famously made a mockery of Nazi notions of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals. But he won one of those medals as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team. Team USA track coach Lawson Robertson added Owens to the relay team after removing Jewish American sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. (Owens spoke up on behalf of Stoller and Glickman, but to no avail.)

While Robertson insisted that his only intent was to field the best possible team, Glickman believes that it was a political move, that Team USA leaders—among them Avery Brundage—didn’t want to embarrass their Nazi hosts by putting a half-Jewish relay team on the gold-medal podium.

* * * * *

Click the red button below to continue reading about…

  • Terrorists attack the Israeli delegation in Munich.
  • Officials do all sorts of shady things during the final three seconds of the basketball gold medal game.
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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

Comments

  1. ben francis says:

    ha ha ha like Lewis wasn’t doping too in ’88 a ha ha ha ha ha

  2. Ben johnson is barry bonds of track and field

  3. We shall change the rules back to old of the famous Olympics and limit the age back to 20’s or younger…. then create new Olympic-like events for older players or…. maybe just into three groups of Teen-Olympic; Adult-Olympic; Senior-Olympic for all of us….and.probably even with regular special Olympic,too. Then it is being fair for everyone equally. We will profit from doing this way in greater way! And Good Luck to you, all for the best thrills of World Famous Olympics, D.

    P.S. Think for better economy for every country of the World!

  4. Lee Banks says:

    I’m wondering if the 1972 silver medals for the USA Basketball Team are still unclaimed-The needs to be updated.

    • They are still unclaimed. Most of the other players still feel cheated and the rest of the team doesn’t want to go against them. It’s pretty much an all or nothing stance.

      • Harrier says:

        I would ask for their gold medals back from that dirty Russian team that got the gold given to them by the refs. Those would be the only medals I would except. Greatest travesty in Olympic history.

  5. RoadRunner says:

    The events in the modern pentatholon represent the skills vital to a military officers of the time. You lose alot of credibility with me when you say they were so arbitrarily selected.

  6. Racism…. alive then and still going on today. Shame on all of you racist.

  7. The 1972 silve medal in basketball remains unclaimed.

  8. Rod James says:

    Mr. Tinley, the events of the Modern Pentathlon are not from a grab-bag as you speculate, but represent the skills historically necessary to a military dispatch courier who, in order to successfully get through enemy pickets had to be able to ride, shoot, fence, swim,and run.

  9. How could you leave off the Black Power protest of John carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexican Olympics?

  10. Lee Banks, be advised the 1972 silver medals for our cheated athletes are still unclaimed. As a matter of fact, some of the players from that ill fated event have gone so far as to stipulate in their will to not have the silver medal accepted, even after their passing.

  11. sharon walker says:

    Dear Friends:
    Oh what a historical moment that the next Olympics for the American team our own designer will come to the plate and be hero! I can not applaud or say enough hurrays!!!!!!!! Thank you! Thank you!!! Thank you!!!! …

  12. sharon walker says:

    Dear Friends:
    Olympians, Good Luck each and everyone of you! You are all winners! You have been selected and completed what it takes to be at the Olympics! May the USA Team bring home the Gold! Silver! and Bronze! Like the Red, White and Blue that waves for you!

  13. dave lynn says:

    The responses here appear to be from special Olympians. Or, at the very least, writing English as a foreign language. Good times, good times.

    • So….grammar nazi,
      Because I’m Québécois,I’m a paralympian ,right?
      Stupido (thats Spanish…I think…smh…)

      • Georges Reivres. says:

        Hey chum, “Académie française” ring a bell? What a hoot, the term “grammar nazi” being tossed around by a speaker of French – most especially a friggin “I DEMAND a legal mandate REQUIRING that my language have parity everywhere!” Québécois.

  14. I cannot recall the boxer but the USA boxer knocked out his man after that the referee disqualified the USA boxer so that the gold was given to a boxer from his country without a gold medal match. Talk about miscarriage.

    • I think the robbed US boxer was Evander Holyfield. The boxer who was knocked out was not able to fight in the following match because he had been knocked out creating the winner by default scenario. The gold medal “winner” was from the same country as the referee. At least the “winner” brought Holyfield onto the top level of the podium during the medal ceremony to in essence acknowledge that Holyfield should have been there instead.

  15. listen up says:

    And all the Soviets get a bye! Look at what has happened will ya! The whole Soviet system gets away with it and you guys argue over a few pro athletes!

  16. Thought the same thing! That’s racist!

  17. “The Olympics are a pinnacle of human achievement.”

    Um, no.

  18. Jesse Greene says:

    Maybe because it’s NOT relevant in an article than has nothing to do with the Mexican Olympics?

  19. Steve Smith says:

    Overshadowed by the terrorist attack in 1972 was the Vaulting Poles I designed being banned the day before the games leaving many of us to compete on light weight practice equipment, removing any chance of being competitive.
    The disappointment led to my increased motivation and 7 world indoor records

    • And you dare imply that the banning of your poles SHOULDN’T have been ignored in the the face of that horrific anti-Semitic terrorism taking place in the heartland of the Nazis? Take your poles, Smith, and shove them up your rectum and STFU!

  20. Actually, the comments written here, compared to many other sites, are not too bad.

  21. Realist says:

    “Black American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens famously made a mockery of Nazi notions of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals.” Check the medal count and see which country won the most medals.

    • statsand facts says:

      To your point Realist, Nazi Germany was the host nation and top medal recipient for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

      But look closer at the facts:

      Germany won 33 Gold, 26 Silver and 30 Bronze
      The United States won 24 Gold, 20 Silver and 12 Bronze

      But Germany sent 433 competitors, 389 men and 44 women, who took part in 143 events in 22 sports.

      The US only sent 358 competitors, 313 men and 46 women, took part in 127 events in 21 sports.

      Thats 75 more Olymians competing in 16 more events

      Does the use of sheer numbers define “Superiority”?

  22. May none of these be repeated although I believe we are capable of doing greater evils to each other.

    .

  23. Douglas Zwaan says:

    Ok. Ben Johnson was stripped of the gold medal at the 1988 Seoul olympics. Why then is Carl Lewis not stripped of his medals as well? Carl Lewis was tested by USA track and field many times and failed many tests including those tests before Seoul. USA track and field buried the results and they were only made public knowledge in the last couple of years. Carl Lewis’ entire athletic career is a sham. He should lose all medals.Period.Finito.

  24. RAMADAN says:

    Hey..i am not black but JESSIE OWENS is the greater famous and first black american athlet in the whole damn olympics and US history who had been discriminated against,he had to raise horses for living back then

  25. RAMADAN says:

    i have a lot respect for jessie owens he never back down or let his family down what a man

  26. You really need to ask – or have you forgotten “news” “stories” like the Don Imus affair?

    • So, jujigatame, you’re admitting that you can’t forgive a white man who has apologized for a stupid remark? You are a retard if you think the rest of us don’t know that you yourself have said things you regret (or maybe not) that were racist and hateful. And you also want us to forget the story of the young white couple who were brutally sexually assaulted and murdered by 4 blacks in one of the worst black on white hate crimes of this century? Carjackings do not take over 24 hours – they take mere minutes. If you can drag up Imus then this story http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,542564,00.html needs refreshing in the publics eyes also.

  27. Weinstein says:

    They left out John Carlos and Tommy Smith’s protest with a Black Power salute in Mexico City in 1968. I very poignant and moving moment protesting the struggles of African Americans in free America.

  28. Roy Jones losing to Korean in 1988 was highway robbery.

  29. Statsand facts says:

    To your point, Nazi Germany was the host nation and top medal recipient for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

    But look closer at the facts:

    Germany won 33 Gold, 26 Silver and 30 Bronze
    The United States won 24 Gold, 20 Silver and 12 Bronze

    But Germany sent 433 competitors, 389 men and 44 women, who took part in 143 events in 22 sports.

    The US only sent 358 competitors, 313 men and 46 women, took part in 127 events in 21 sports.

    Thats 75 more Olymians competing in 16 more events

    Does the use of sheer numbers and a hom field advantage define “Superiority”?

  30. Another day, another example of American whining, hypocrisy and selective memory and historical revisionism.

    First, Eric Rudolph is a _christian_ terrorist. He made bombs because of rabid christian ideology, the same as muslim terrorists.

    Second, 1972 was forty years ago. Get over it. The English got screwed in the 1986 World Cup and they got past it within a year.

    Third, Johnson wasn’t the only dirty runner in 1988. Carl Lewis was just as dirty as Johnson, just as guilty of cheating, and the USOC covered it up. And Lewis and Marion Jones aren’t the only dirty US competitors, there are many who were caught but whined that surprise drug testing was “unfair”.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2003/apr/18/athletics.comment

    Fourth, whining about Roy Jones losing in South Korea requires ignoring what happened in 1984 in Los Angeles. The US was desperate to beat the USSR’s record 80 gold medals in 1980, so the US rigged the officiating in numerous events, several of them in boxing.

    In 1984, South Korean boxers got screwed over in fights against US boxers. 1988 was simply payback, and payback is a bitch…or at least, the US is a collective whiny bitch about it. The US got 83 gold medals in 1984, so without the US’s fixing of many events (e.g. boxing, synchronized swimming, etc.) the US would never have beaten the record. The US cheated for political ideology.

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