Ever since their beginnings in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games have been a symbol of peaceful cooperation between nations, mutual respect between political enemies and -- above all -- the celebration of athletic prowess untainted by bribes, cheats or poor sportsmanship.
In reality, both today and in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games have been marred by violent conflicts, political one-upsmanship and nearly every form of bribery or doping scandal known to man. While Olympic officials of old knew that the cure to nearly every controversy was a good solid whipping, today’s complex and whip-averse global society must resolve problems with tools ranging from cancelled endorsement contracts to elite-commando raids.
As the 2012 Olympics in London approach, let’s take a look at 10 infamous Olympic scandals and catastrophes, and see if we can determine whether or not Michael Phelps is going to be shot by an Israeli paratrooper for smoking pot that one time.
10. EUPHOLUS OF THESSALY BOXING SCANDAL, MT. OLYMPUS, 388 B.C.Although histories of the Olympic Games record many conflicts and controversies over alleged doping and cheating incidents, the first person to actually be caught and made an example of was wealthy fixer Eupholus of Thessaly, who was convicted of paying at least three boxers to throw their fights (although oddly, the reason he had them lose has been lost to history). Eupholus received an Olympic flogging -- a particularly degrading form of punishment normally reserved for slaves -- and a heavy fine that was used to build both a statue of Zeus outside the Mount Olympus stadium and a plaque that explained Eupholus’ crime.
This served the dual purpose of eternally shaming Eupholus and appeasing the gods, which was always a good idea in Greco-Roman society, and it began an official policy of punishing cheats and dopers by making them pay for the construction of a holy statue or “zane” and a permanent record of their crimes carved into a marble plaque. Unfortunately for fans of Olympic justice, an earthquake sometime in 600 AD buried the original stadium and its line of zanes, erasing most of the roster of ancient Olympic cheaters, but the story of Eupholus of Thessaly and his shame-statue persist to this day, proving that you can’t ever trust anybody from Thessaly.
9. CENTENNIAL OLYMPIC PARK BOMBING, ATLANTA, 1996The Atlanta (aka Hotlanta) Summer Olympics were marked by an enormous increase in Atlanta Police Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation funds and activity, as the government of Georgia was worried that Atlanta’s homeless and gang populations might put a damper on the Olympics’ international celebration of athleticism. It would have been really unfortunate if the world’s greatest discus thrower got mugged outside a Krystal’s on Peachtree Avenue.
Tragically, the APD and GBI neglected to guard against the possibility of insane right-wing American bombers, meaning that fundamentalist Christian terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was able to plant the largest pipe bomb in U.S. history at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. APD officer Richard Jewell was working as a security guard at the time and successfully identified Rudolph’s dumped Army-surplus backpack as a possible bomb. Jewell notified the GBI and FBI of the threat and did his best to evacuate the crowded marketplace, but when the nail-filled bomb went off, it still managed to wound 111 people and kill reporter Alice Hawthorne.
As one of the few confirmed names connected with the bombing, Jewell was soon implicated by the national news networks as a possible suspect, and every aspect of his career as a policeman was called into question, in addition to his house being searched and all of his family and friends being aggressively questioned. After FBI investigations managed to connect fugitive nutball Eric Rudolph with the Atlanta bombings (as well as a number of attacks against gay nightclubs and abortion clinics) the case against Richard Jewell was officially settled, but Jewell continued to fight against the news networks that accused him of murder. He won or settled a handful of cases against the American TV journalism organization, but the stress of the effort took its toll and Richard Jewell died at the age of 44. Eric Rudolph, the actual perpetrator of the Centennial Park bombing and numerous other terrorist attacks, plead guilty in order to dodge the death penalty and remains to this day a resident of Colorado’s Florence Supermax Prison.
8. “BLOOD IN THE WATER / MELBOURNE BLOODBATH” WATER POLO MATCH, MELBOURNE, 1956When the Hungarian national water polo team departed for the ’56 Summer Olympics, they had a lot more on their minds than treading water and batting a ball around a swimming pool. A student-led demonstration had just recently stormed the Russian-controlled parliament of Budapest in the face of lethal opposition by government security forces, and Hungarian Olympians (including water-polo captain Dezso Gyarmati) had foregone their training regimen to assist their countrymen in what looked like a successful and relatively painless national independence movement.
At the time, the Soviet Union seemed like it was willing to accept Hungarian independence as it was calling for a temporary cease-fire, and Hungarian Olympians believed that the situation was at least stable enough for them to fly out to Australia and participate in what was supposedly an internationally recognized symbol of peace and cooperation.
Shortly after the Hungarian athletes were out of the country, however, the Soviets launched a full-scale armored assault on the rebel students. Confronted with targeted airstrikes, massive artillery barrages and the combined Russian tank and infantry assaults that had dominated Europe 10 years prior, the Hungarian independence movement was smashed to bits in less than a week. The Hungarians sent to Melbourne could do nothing but watch and listen to reports of Soviet armored columns running roughshod over their friends and neighbors, and to add insult to injury, all the Hungarian athletic teams had shared their exercise regimens and training secrets with the Russian teams that they would now have to face.
In spite of this, the Hungarians fought bravely in every event they entered, and no one fought harder than the Hungarian water-polo team under Gyarmati and lead by international swimming champion Ervin Zador. For the first time, audiences actually gave a damn about water polo, especially after Zador caught a fierce elbow from Russian Valentin Prokopov right below the eye, causing a bloody facial gash that Zador presented to the crowd as a symbolic example of Russian violence. Despite the Soviet team’s violence, Hungary went on to win 4–0, and later won their fourth Olympic gold medal. Ervin Zador emigrated to the United States, where he would end up training famous American Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz.
7. THE JIM THORPE CONTROVERSY, STOCKHOLM, 1912James Francis Thorpe (in his native Sauk, Wa-Tho-Huk or “Bright Path”) was a Native American, a European-American, and possibly the most talented athlete born on American soil. Beginning almost by accident as a track-and-field athlete after he out-jumped a local high-jump team on a dare, Thorpe soon moved into football, basketball, baseball and virtually any sport that would allow a half-Indian to participate, dominating all athletic competitions with a grace and modesty that won the respect of both teammates and opponents. Thorpe’s all-around performance led his friends and coaches to tell him that he should take a shot at the Olympics, and after blasting past the American trials in New York, he found himself on a boat to Sweden to compete in the 1912 Olympics.
Thorpe obliterated the competition in nearly every event he was entered, and even placed third in the javelin competition despite having trained for it in less than a year. Thorpe’s performance in the relatively new decathlon event was particularly amazing, as he not only beat the popular favorite by a margin of more than 7000 points, but set a record that wasn’t broken for more than 20 years.
Unfortunately, nitpicky Olympic officials discovered that Thorpe had played professional baseball in North Carolina back in 1910 (for barely 50 modern American dollars per game) and that conflicted with the Olympiad’s stated goal of promoting completely amateur and non-professional athletes. Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals, and the International Olympic Commission only saw fit to return them to him in 1982, 30 years after Thorpe died in alcoholic poverty.
6. AMERICAN SUMMER OLYMPICS BOYCOTT MOSCOW, 1980 / SOVIET SUMMER OLYMPICS BOYCOTT, LOS ANGELES, 1984Another Olympic scandal precipitated by Russian military action, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 pissed off Jimmy Carter so much that he took the unprecedented step of ordering all American athletes to boycott the upcoming Moscow Olympics, and formally requested “all other free nations” to do the same. There was some outcry at the idea of using athletes as political pawns (although the Afghans didn’t seem too upset about it) and a few athletes from boycotting countries participated under the Olympic flag, but the lack of athletes from the more than 60 nations that followed America’s example hurt the event’s popularity.
The Soviet Union held a grudge for the next four years and counter-boycotted the ’84 Games held in Los Angeles, ordering all the countries in the Warsaw Pact to boycott with them, leading to unprecedented wins by American teams in sports traditionally dominated by Eastern Bloc athletes.
5. THE BLACK POWER SALUTE, MEXICO CITY, 1968A less successful Olympic boycott was that organized by the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a largely black organization of athletes and community leaders that asked that minorities refuse invitations to the Olympics until more attention was paid to racial and human-rights issues in member countries such as South Africa, which the IOC was considering re-admitting to the Games despite their Apartheid policies. While a few high-profile stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar honored the boycott and stayed home, most athletes still attended, albeit wearing OPHR badges or other symbols of the civil-rights movement that were not officially approved by Olympic officials.
The most overt display of OPHR sentiment was the “black power” salute made by American 200-meter-race gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos (although Smith later stated that he intended his salute as a more general “human-rights salute”). Both men prominently sported OPHR badges (as did sympathetic white Australian silver medalist Peter Norman) and wore black socks instead of shoes to symbolize African-American poverty, while Carlos wore his track top unzipped to show solidarity with working-class Americans of all races.
IOC president Avery Brundage (who had no problems with the Nazi salutes and iconography on display in the Berlin Games of 1936) was outraged, and banned the two Americans from the Olympic Village outright. Upon their return, they were blacklisted from many sports organizations and received regular death threats (Norman was allowed to stay on for the rest of the Games, but was officially reprimanded by the Australian government and denied further chances at Olympic participation). After Brundage was finally kicked out of office in 1972, Smith’s and Carlos’ reputations were slowly rehabilitated, and today they are rightly considered as both excellent athletes and significant civil-rights figures.
4. PRETTY MUCH ALL OF THE NAZI OLYMPICS, BERLIN, 1936In 1931, a recovering Berlin beat out Barcelona for the right to host the ’36 Olympics, only to see Germany fall under Nazi control two years later. As Berlin threw up the massive, neo-Classical, swastika-encrusted arenas and stadiums for the event, many countries started learning more about Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and became very leery about participating in what looked more and more like a gigantic racial and political propaganda exercise. Much of the event’s look was designed by Nazi artists and aestheticians like Leni Riefenstahl and Albert Speer, and the German athletes allowed to participate were subject to strict purity tests that banned citizens with any Jewish or Roma (i.e. gypsy) heritage.
The Soviet Union and the newly-elected left-wing Spanish government both boycotted the event, Spain going so far as to hold a “People’s Games” in Barcelona that was sadly cut short by the beginning of their civil war. But in spite of the wishes of many American citizens, politicians and athletes (including Jeremiah Mahoney of the Amateur Athletic Union, the organization that would actually be sending American Olympians to the games), Avery Brundage convinced the public and government that sending people to compete in a stadium practically slathered in Nazi political symbols, slogans and iconography was a completely politically neutral act that would in no way legitimize the Third Reich.
In private, Brundage was also convinced that the pesky “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” that got up to so much trouble back in the '30s was determined to undermine American sports by joining the Soviet-Spanish boycott.
To some extent, the international pressure on the Nazi government worked. The various "no Jews allowed" signs around Berlin were taken down, and Hitler even allowed a token half-Jewish woman to the German Olympic team. On the other hand, all of the city’s Roma population were rounded up and sent to a camp outside town to “clean up” the town for tourists, and American Jewish sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman were pulled from their relay event a day before the race for suspicious reasons.
African-American athletes, however, were encouraged to participate by civil-rights leaders and black newspapers like the famous Chicago Defender, who believed that the best way to blow a hole in Aryan theories of physical perfection was to have supposedly inferior races win the crap out of as many events as possible. That’s exactly what legendary sprinter Jesse Owens accomplished, winning four gold medals in track and field. Other decidedly non-Aryan types such as Korean marathon runner Sohn Kee-chung and Egyptian weightlifter Khadr El-Touni similarly rained on Hitler’s torchlight parade, forcing him to change his public philosophy from “the dark-skinned races are inferior” to “the dark-skinned races are mostly inferior but don’t get into a foot race with them if you can help it.”
3. WINTER OLYMPIC BRIBERY SCANDAL, SALT LAKE CITY, 2002After four unsuccessful bids to host the Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City finally snared the 2002 Games in 1995, supposedly on its merits as one of America’s skiing capitals and/or the only place in Utah one can find good sushi. Three years later, however, a local TV station found that SLC’s Olympic committee had essentially paid the entire college tuition of an IOC delegate’s daughter. This lead to a public statement by Swiss skier and IOC member Marc Hodler that the Games were tainted by “massive corruption” that had dictated the hosting city of the Olympics for at least the last 10 years.
At that point, the floodgates opened, and evidence of bribery from simple cash payouts to plastic surgery led to the expulsion of 10 IOC members and the “sanctioning” of 10 more, although it appears that all 20 crooked Olympic bureaucrats got to keep all their loot. (We guess it would be pretty tough to confiscate the effects of plastic surgery.) Most of the city’s existing Olympic committee resigned, and the two most grievous offenders were brought up on Department of Justice charges (but later were acquitted). Desperate to salvage the Games (which were now found to be short more than $379 million) the city fathers brought on a successful financier and failed Senate candidate named Willard “Mitt” Romney, whom you might have noticed on TV lately.
Romney used his business, political and even Mormon connections to solicit donations to make up the budget shortfall, at the same time managing expectations in case a check bounced and the bobsled event had to be replaced by something like competitive clog dancing. Although some Utahns (no seriously, that’s what you’re supposed to call someone from Utah) have found issue with Romney’s arguably self-aggrandizing public-relations strategy at the time, the XIX Olympic Winter Games went off without a hitch and cleared $100 million in profit. The following year, Romney went on to claim governorship of Massachussetts, a state yet to host an Olympiad given that “driving like a psychopath” and “listening to Dropkick Murphys for months at a time” are not yet recognized Olympic sports.
2. EMPEROR NERO WINS EVERYTHING EVER, MT. OLYMPUS, 67 A.D.Among Nero’s many interests (religious persecution, torture, murder, arson, fiddles) was the culture, both intellectual and athletic, of Ancient Greece. He often sang or recited poetry in the Greek style for his citizens, who are believed to have been willing to put up with a lot of silly crap as long as Nero didn’t get up to anything like his uncle Caligula. Nero was a big fan of the Olympic Games, which were still dominated by Greek athletes and Greek culture.
In a move that some believe was part of a diplomatic strategy to assert Roman dominance over Greece, and that others believe was part of Nero being crazy as hell, he spent a colossal amount of money first to delay the Games for two years (giving him time to train and qualify), then to allow him to race a 10-horse chariot in the four-horse chariot race, then to be declared the winner of said race after being thrown from his chariot early on, and then -- for a little icing on the cake -- to be given a few extra gold medals for his singing and acting skills.
This diplomatic exercise/nutball adventure culminated in his proclamation to an audience of bewildered Greeks that they were an independent nation under Rome somehow, at which point he triumphally entered Naples four different times to allow for maximum partying. Nero eventually was killed in the most dramatic and attention-whorish way possible, crying out “What an artist dies in me!” after ordering his secretary to stab him to death, and Olympic officials quietly erased his name from the official records.
Next: 12 Unusual Discontinued Olympic Events
1. THE MUNICH MASSACRE, MUNICH, 1972The second German Olympic event, Munich was specifically focused on being as little like the ’36 Olympics as possible, trying to do away with the image of Germans as militaristic authoritarians. Indeed, postwar West Germany was as pacifistic as practical conditions could allow. The German government was determined to be as pleasant to everyone as possible, even though everybody knew that an hour after war would’ve been declared between the East and West, you’d be able to walk from France to Poland on top of a sea of tanks.
West German police in particular were trained to seek peaceful resolutions and avoid violent confrontations, and this attitude was reflected by the security precautions in the Olympic Village. Athletes rarely needed to show identification, and in the rare occasion that a guard was likely to hassle you for it, you could often just walk around security checkpoints or climb the completely unmonitored chain-link fence. This was the case when eight men in tracksuits with duffel bags scaled the fence at 4:30 a.m. on the Sept. 4, aided by two Canadians who believed they were simply helping out another group of athletes who stayed out to party past curfew.
The eight men were in reality Palestinian commandoes of the Black September movement, and their duffel bags weren’t stuffed with track shorts and jockstraps but cut-down Kalashnikovs and grenades. Breaking into several Olympic Village apartments, the invaders subdued the Israeli wrestling team (at some cost to themselves, as at least two of the athletes were able to attack and wound the gunmen before being shot to death).
In the morning, the hostage takers released their official demands to release 234 prisoners of the Israeli government as well as infamous Communist German prisoners Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff. Israel flatly denied to negotiate, and some believe that they requested (and were denied) permission from the West German government to dispatch one of their elite counter-terror units to the Olympic Village.
Meanwhile, the Germans began a doomed effort to negotiate the release of the hostages independent of Israeli diplomatic concessions, and eventually offered a flight to Egypt that was secretly staffed by disguised German cops and monitored by five men described by the government as “snipers” whose only real experience was scoring highly in competitive shooting events. This rescue attempt failed badly, leaving all hostages dead and only three gunmen captured. The entire incident led Germany to abandon the idea of an entirely pacifist police force, instead adopting Israeli and American tactics with the creation of the hyper-elite paramilitary GSG-9 strike force.
Incredibly, for at least 12 hours after the incident, the IOC insisted that the Olympics continue as normal, even though many athletes could literally see the hostage situation unfolding from the balconies of their apartments. This was due to the influence of good old Avery Brundage, still smarting from a recent vote where it was determined against his objections that the racist Apartheid-esque country of Rhodesia did not deserve to participate in the Games.
After the bloody, botched rescue, many argued that the Games should just be cancelled for that year (Israel and several Arab nations had already left for home) which Brundage took as an even worse affront, and in a speech re-launching the games, he condemned the Munich Massacre not so much because 17 people had been shot to death, but because he considered it an injection of political concerns into the supposedly apolitical Olympics on par with the ’68 Black Power Salute or the rejection of South African and Rhodesian Olympic entries (but again, nothing like running sporting events in a building covered with swastikas). This was the last straw for the IOC, and Brundage was finally forced out of his position. He died near Munich three years later from complications of flu and heart failure.