Olympic scandals are nothing new. In 2021, for example, despite the fact that Tokyo is currently under a fourth state of emergency, expected to last through August 22, in response to its growing number of COVID-19 cases and slow vaccination rates; despite polls indicating that a majority of residents want the Summer Olympic Games canceled or postponed; and despite protests erupting across the country, the Games are set to begin in the Japanese capital on July 23.
The Games, originally scheduled for summer 2020, had been postponed for the first time in history due to the pandemic. Over the decades, the Olympics have pressed on through history, despite international conflicts, doping scandals, boycotts, and even massacres. Now they’ll continue through a pandemic that isn’t yet under control.
Teen Vogue looks back at eight of the biggest Olympic scandals and controversies in history.
1. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin held amid the Nazis’ rise to power
Three years into Adolf Hitler’s horrifying reign as dictator of Germany, the country hosted the Summer Olympics. Berlin was chosen as the site of the 1936 Olympics before Hitler had come to power and there were questions about whether he would go through with hosting the Games. In the end, he did; historians say he and his comrades saw the Games as an opportunity to spread propaganda and demonstrate the power of the Nazi regime on an international stage.
At the time, the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany, were gaining power, Jewish people were being persecuted in Germany and across Europe, and some American Jewish athletes had boycotted the Games in protest. Although Hitler is said to have thought of the Berlin Games as a perfect opportunity to spread his message of Aryan racial superiority, that message was usurped by Black American Jesse Owens’s stunning victories, for which he secured four gold medals.
Interestingly, in one of Owens's victories, the 400-meter relay, he was not in the original lineup. Owens and another Black athlete, Ralph Metcalfe, were brought into that race as substitutes for Jewish American athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stroller. Glickman reportedly said this move was a capitulation to anti-Semitism, with the American track coach and American Olympic Committee president trying to prevent a scenario in which Hitler had to witness two Jewish athletes triumph in the race.
2. The 1956 Games in Melbourne saw boycotts over multiple international crises
The 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, took place in November and December to accommodate the summer schedule of the Southern Hemisphere. (They were the first Games to be staged outside of the Northern Hemisphere.) These Games were also affected by a number of boycotts: Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq refused to participate in protest of the Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula; and the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland opted out due to the International Olympic Committee’s decision not to suspend the Soviet Union over its invasion of Hungary.
Tensions over the Soviet invasion of Hungary came to blows during a water polo match that came to be known as the “blood in the water” match. Throughout the game, four players were taken out of the pool for unsportsmanlike conduct. By the fourth quarter, the Hungarians were leading the Russians 4-0, when Russian athlete Valentin Prokopov punched Bulgarian Ervin Zador in the face. Zador says he “saw 4,000 stars” and felt warm blood pouring down in the moments after the attack. The game ended prematurely with the Hungarian staking the victory and being escorted from the pool by Australian officials.
The Hungarians went on to win the gold against Yugoslavia in their next match.
3. The 1968 Mexico Games were preceded by a massacre
Ten days before the opening ceremony of the 1968 Mexico City Games, the country was rocked by the Tlatelolco Massacre. Students fighting for their right to protest and demonstrating against the government’s imprisonment of political prisoners and their right to protest were shot down in the street by the Mexican military. Fifty years later, the death toll from the massacre is still unknown, though at the time student leaders estimated 190 protesters had died (the government claimed it was only 26). Historians say the massacre stemmed from the government’s fear that the student protests would disrupt the upcoming Olympic Games.
Though the Games did start on schedule 10 days later, they were also marked by another scandal. Black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos climbed the podium shoeless to receive their medals, wearing only black socks to symbolize Black poverty, and raised black-gloved fists into the air. The Black Power salute raised on the Olympic podium was a powerful moment of protest seen around the world, and a demonstration of solidarity with the U.S. civil rights movement. (Black members of the U.S. track team had even considered boycotting the Games over the racist treatment of Black people in America.)
Smith and Carlos were both kicked off the U.S. Olympic team after raising their fists on the winner’s podium, but they went on to become celebrated figures in sports history.
4. The terrorist massacre at the 1972 Games in Munich
Thirty-six years after the Olympic Games were hosted by Berlin while Germany was in the crux of Hitler’s power, the Games returned to the country with Munich as the host city. Eager to change Germany’s international reputation, organizers called the Games “the smiling games” and “the games of peace and joy.” But the reality fell stunningly short of this goal when Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic village at night and took a group of Israeli athletes and coaches hostage, demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners and imprisoned German terrorists. Ultimately, 11 members of the Israeli team were killed.
The Games were rich in symbolism from the start: Just 27 years after the end of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews had been systematically murdered, Jewish athletes were returning to Germany to compete under the Israeli flag. The Olympic Park was built just six miles from the Dachau concentration camp. A member of the Olympic organizing committee told The Guardian at the time, “There is a great deal that we are trying to bury — finally and forever — with the Games of 1972; we so much want these games to be full of peace and sport and nothing else.”
The Games were halted after the killings but began again 24 hours later.
5. The 1980 Games in Moscow saw the most boycotts ever
The 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, Russia, hold two important distinctions: They were the first Summer Olympic Games to be held in a communist country and they were heavily boycotted, with 65 nations choosing not to compete, including the United States. The boycott, announced by President Jimmy Carter, was instituted based on U.S. disapproval of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter even threatened to revoke the passports of any U.S. athletes who chose to attend. Four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games in retaliation.
6. The 1994 Winter Olympics followed the attack on Nancy Kerrigan
In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were at the apex of their figure skating careers. They were also fierce competitors who were often pitted against each other by the media and the figure skating world.
After a practice session for the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in Detroit, Kerrigan came off the ice and was clubbed with a baton in the right knee by an assailant who then fled the scene. (Fellow skating star Michelle Kwan, who was 13 at the time, remembers Kerrigan screaming in the moments after the attack.)
Just a week after the assault, the identity of the assailant came to light: He was a hit man hired by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his friend Shawn Eckhardt. In a bid to pave the way for Harding to make the qualifiers for the 1994 Olympics, they had decided to put Kerrigan out of commission. (Harding insisted she wasn’t aware of the plan, only that “something was up.”)
Despite the injury, Kerrigan went on to qualify for the Olympics, earning a silver medal in the 1994 Games — less than two months after the assault — while Harding placed eighth. Harding was then stripped of her 1994 national championship title and banned from competing in U.S. figure skating. (For more on this story, check out You’re Wrong About’s Tonya Harding episode.)
7. The 2008 Beijing Games took place amid alleged human rights violations and anti-Asian racism
While China prepared to host the Games in Beijing, Chinese athletes were reportedly pushed beyond the limit in the country’s bid to win more medals than the Americans. According to a report from the New York Times, a diver lost a retina; female athletes were pressured to resume training soon after childbirth; and athletes were told that if they didn’t secure a gold in the Beijing Olympics, all of their other athletic feats were for nothing.
The scandals of the Beijing Olympics weren’t limited to the government’s treatment of the athletes: Migrant workers were reportedly denied proper wages and protections while building infrastructure for the Games, leading to accusations of human rights violations. Chinese government agencies also made headlines for gathering intelligence on “potentially troublesome foreign organizations,” according to security experts who spoke to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Spain’s men's and women's basketball teams got in trouble for making a racist gesture while posing for an Olympics advertisement. The newspaper advertisement, put out by Spain’s Basketball Federation to wish the team good luck in the Games, showed all 15 members of the men’s team posed against a court floor adorned with a Chinese dragon, pulling their eyes to the sides in what one player said was meant to be a “friendly gesture” toward the Chinese. Later, other photos of the Spanish women’s basketball team posing the same way surfaced, as well as the Spanish women’s tennis team and the Argentinian women’s soccer team. The teams insisted the gesture was one of camaraderie, but the racist tone behind the gesture was hard to ignore.
8. The U.S. swim team concocts an elaborate lie at the 2016 Games in Rio
In 2016, Ryan Lochte was competing in the Rio Summer Olympics. As a 12-time Olympic Gold medalist and celebrated member of the United States swimming team, all eyes were already on Lochte — but the scrutiny got even more intense when he and three of his teammates claimed they had been held up at gunpoint after a night out in Brazil.
According to Lochte’s initial account, the swimmers were robbed by men who appeared to be police officers. (Lochte even added this detail: His teammates dropped to the ground when faced with the gun, but he refused the “attackers'" orders.) But Lochte’s account fell apart quickly under probing from Olympic officials and eventually the true story crystallized: Lochte and the other swimmers were confronted by security guards after vandalizing a gas station bathroom.
Lochte ended up capitulating somewhat in an interview with since-disgraced NBC News host Matt Lauer, saying he had “over-exaggerated” what had happened, but maintained that the events were open to interpretation. The incident tarnished Lochte’s reputation, and he’ll miss an opportunity to try to reinvigorate his career at this year’s Tokyo Games — at the June swimming trials in Omaha, he failed to qualify for the Olympics.
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