February 15, 2022
Melinda Head

Olympic Controversies

Like it or not, sports and controversy are synonymous

The ultimate battlefield for elite athletes, the Olympic Games have rarely been without controversy. Be it doping or rigged judging – we’ve all heard of those incidents, but there have been many other Olympic controversies over the years including:

  • Equipment controversies, such as illegally warming up luge blades, “clicking” encouragement to a horse or setting a gymnastics vault too low
  • Discrimination controversies, such as performing a Black Power or X salute on the medal podium
  • Physical violence controversies, such as attacking an opponent or official, or even a stranger interfering with the performance of an athlete
  • Age controversies, such as lying about the age of Olympic gymnasts
  • Safety controversies, such as ignoring concerns about an unsafe downhill ski run, resulting in the death of a competitor

At the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Ervin Zador from Hungary was punched in the face by Valentin Prokopov from Russia, souring the water polo match

Alpine skier Ross Milne, from Austria, died of a head injury during a training run at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck. Concerns about the course being unsafe were ignored by officials

At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the Olympic podium to protest against racial injustice

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Canadian Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for anabolic steroids

In 1994, Tonya Harding’s ex-husband attacked figure skater Nancy Kerrigan 2 days before the U.S. Olympic trials. With Kerrigan unable to skate, Harding won the Championship and a place at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. This historic series of events is superbly re-enacted in the film “I, Tonya”. Allison Janey won an Academy Award for her role as Tonya’s mother, and Margot Robbie, playing Tonya, received an Oscar nomination

Dubbed as “dirty dancing” by the media, skating controversy erupted at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, when judges were caught deliberately dropping  Canada’s Victor Kraatz and Shae-Lynn Bourne to 4th place in favor of a 3rd place for France’s Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat

At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the women’s gymnastics vault was set 2” lower than it should have been during the first 2 rotations of the competition. This “unthinkable error” risked athletes’ lives and impacted results

In 2004, at the Summer Olympic Games in Athens, a mentally ill spectator pushed the lead marathon runner, Brazilian Banderlei de Lima, into the crowd. He was robbed of his victory and eventually placed 3rd

 At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, serious questions were posed about the true age of gymnasts Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin and He Kexin

While many readers will not be old enough to remember the 1936 Berlin Olympics, history should not be forgotten. Although not in power when the Summer Olympics was awarded to Berlin, the event became a showcase for the Nazi party, despite deep concerns about racism and human rights violations which reared their ugly head just a few years later when WWII erupted.

In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympic Games, China was an emerging nation. Today it boasts the 2nd largest economy in the world after the U.S., and is a more confident Country than ever before.

“We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves in a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.” (Xi Jinping, President, People’s Republic of China)

China is worrying less about global scrutiny with its political, economic and military clout. There is essentially no freedom of the press, and mass detentions, forced labor, torture and genocide have been documented. It is a shame that the revised Olympic Charter (which requires host cities to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) won’t be in effect until the Paris Olympics in 2024.

There have been diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which no one seems to care much about – will you miss seeing First Lady Jill Biden or Second Gentleman Douglas Emnoff in the dignitaries’ box?

Olympic sponsors have been predictably quiet, preferring to steer away from controversy to protect their almighty brands.

The IOC has rarely been one to throw its gloves in the ring and has lived up to its political neutrality ethos in 2022, avoiding all such difficult discussions in the name of pure sport. Personally, I think it is naïve to think that the Olympics can take place in a bubble (and I am NOT referring to a COVID bubble). Sports is about power and money, even if it is framed as glorifying athletic achievement.

“No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites.” (IOC)

“Sport is war minus the shooting.” (George Orwell)

The Chinese have warned that they may inflict “punishment” on any athlete who speaks out at the Olympic medal ceremonies, but we all know that’s just posturing. However, should any Chinese athlete exercise free speech, he/she will likely follow in the footsteps of tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view after accusing a top member of the Chinese Communist Party of sexually assaulting her. In response, the Women’s Tennis Association suspended all events in China. Shortly thereafter, at the Australian Open, organizers prohibited spectators from wearing t-shirts saying “Where is Peng Shuai?”, but eventually recanted after mounting public pressure.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has not been physically seen since she revealed that a senior member of the Chinese Community Party sexually assaulted her

Politics aside, let’s change topics and focus on something that is important to all of us, athletes or not: the environment. Touted as an Olympics that will be the “greenest and cleanest ever”, without any truly rigorous, independent assessment, host countries like Beijing are largely their own arbiters of success in reaching sustainability goals. The IOC doesn’t have formal guidelines or thresholds which they impose on host countries. There is little to no hope for any Games to be “green and clean” without robust third-party monitoring, clear objectives and the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.

The SGS Assurance Statement provided at the end of Beijing’s Pre-Games Sustainability Report is nothing more than a report review – no onsite inspections were made. In the fine print, this testing, inspection and certification company admits that only a moderate level of scrutiny was performed. OMG: carbon emissions data provided by other third parties was accepted de facto.

Studies have shown that the Olympics have become more harmful to the environment over the years as they have become larger and larger. Not only do more athletes, spectators, events and venues emit more carbon and consume more natural resources, but Olympic construction has also reshaped ecological landscapes, and displaced animals and people. To truly lead in the area of sustainability, some have recommended that Olympic organizers consider selecting a city on each continent to host the Games every time and reuse existing infrastructure. A laudable idea, but do you think that will ever happen?

There is much work to do to bring the Olympics into the modern age. And I don’t mean introducing breakdancing as a new Olympic sport. I mean social and environmental responsibility. We can’t depend on the IOC or sponsors to be proactive, as they are risk-averse and slow-moving. Who should champion this challenge? What role can you play in moving the dial?

Now take what you’ve learned and play today’s Olympic Controversies Trivia Quiz of the Day:

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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