Top 20 Most Scandalous Olympic Controversies Ever

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Top 20 Most Scandalous Olympic Controversies Ever

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
These moments gave the Olympics a black eye. For this list, we'll be looking at the worst controversies to have plagued the Olympic Games. Our countdown includes South Korea Bribes Judges, The Salt Lake City Bid Scandal, Nazi Olympics, and more!
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Top 20 scandalous Olympic controversies


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 scandalous Olympic controversies.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the worst controversies to have plagued the Olympic Games.

Which of these do you find the most outrageous? Let us know in the comments below!

#20: Many Concerns Over the 2020 Olympics

Tokyo, Japan (2020/21)
The COVID pandemic not only pushed the original 2020 date of the Tokyo Olympics to the following summer, but also brought up issues of contagious spread. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Various events are set to occur in Fukushima, despite possible safety concerns from the 2011 nuclear disaster. Tokyo Bay’s water quality has also been questioned with respect to its warm temperature, repellent smell, and reported high levels of the fecal coliform bacteria, which could result in typhoid and dysentery. Meanwhile, asbestos was found in one of the competition’s buildings, the Games’ logos and stadium designs were accused of plagiarism, Russia allegedly conducted pre-cyber-reconnaissance, and there’ve been issues regarding politics and worker rights.

#19: Zola Budd Collides with Mary Decker

Los Angeles, California, USA (1984)
There was a lot of hype preceding the 3000-metre event at the 1984 Summer Olympics, as many were excited to watch South Africa’s Zola Budd - who was competing for Great Britain - race American world champion Mary Decker. Unfortunately, it was a major letdown. They repeatedly bumped into each other, and Decker went down hard following a collision, forcing her to be carried off the field. The barefoot Budd was troubled by the incident and finished a disappointing 7th. The media didn’t know who to blame, and each runner earned a degree of criticism. Most fell on Budd, but a later International Association of Athletics Federations investigation found that the collision wasn’t her fault. To this day, Decker blames it on her inexperience in pack running.

#18: Making Way for the Games

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2016)
In 2009, Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Summer Games. There was just one problem - working class favela Vila Autódromo was in the spot where they wanted the Olympic Village. So they attempted to kick everyone out. The favela inhabitants received eviction notices, reducing the area’s population by 83%. Those remaining formed a civil society and rejected eviction, often coming face-to-face with riot police and their community’s literal destruction. The billionaire owner of the real estate development firm Carvalho Hosken further invited controversy with media comments about the indigenous population. It’s estimated that 60,000 locals were displaced for the village’s construction.


#17: South Korea Bribes Judges

Seoul, South Korea (1988)
The 1988 Summer Olympics were held in Seoul, South Korea. Representing his home country was light middleweight boxer Park Si-hun, who faced American Roy Jones, Jr. in the gold medal match. Jones landed 86 punches against Park, with Park only landing 32. Despite this, Park was awarded the win in a controversial 3-2 decision, prompting an intense outcry. A judge allegedly admitted Jones should’ve won, but that he voted for Park to avoid disappointing South Korea. Multiple judges involved with the finals were subsequently prohibited from boxing, and an IOC investigation found South Korean officials had won the judges over after taking them out for dinner. A new scoring system was later integrated to prevent future issues.

#16: The American Swimmers’ Scandal

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2016)
During the 2016 Rio Olympics, various American swimmers, including Ryan Lochte, claimed they had been robbed at gunpoint. It didn’t take long for the so-called truth to come out. The athletes - some of whom were reportedly intoxicated - had allegedly vandalized a gas station and urinated in public, prompting a security guard confrontation. They then paid the guards for the damages. Deemed “Lochtegate”, the incident saw the eponymous swimmer charged for falsely reporting a crime. He was also suspended for ten months by the U.S. Olympic Committee and banned from its training centers. However, a later USA Today investigation brought up the possibility that the swimmers were actually innocent of vandalism and may’ve actually been coerced into handing over the money.

#15: Boris Onishchenko’s Magic Épée

Montreal, Quebec, Canada (1976)
As a distinguished-yet-aging modern pentathlete and respected figure in the Soviet Union, 38-year-old Onishchenko had a considerable reputation to uphold in his homeland. The pressure to perform, particularly in the Cold War era of sport, was too much to bear however, and caused the former army major to cheat, eventually leading to his downfall. Desperate to match his previous silver medal performance, he altered his épée to register hits even when he wasn’t making contact with his opponent. Just as quickly as this plot was discovered, “Boris the Cheat” was stripped of his sporting honors and personally reprimanded by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, therefore suffering the very fall from grace he was trying to avoid.

#14: Ángel Matos Kicks a Referee

Beijing, China (2008)
Cuban taekwondo fighter Ángel Matos took home gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and following a disappointing 2004 outcome, he was looking to reclaim some glory in Beijing. Instead, he was permanently kicked out of the sport. During the bronze medal match, Matos sustained an injury and took a brief medical time-out called Kyeshi. Kyeshi runs out after one minute, so when this time elapsed and Matos hadn’t returned to the ring, the referee called the game and awarded the win to Matos’s opponent. In return, Matos kicked him in the face. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Matos was subsequently banned for life by the World Taekwondo Federation, effectively ending his professional career.

#13: The Salt Lake City Bid Scandal

Salt Lake City, Utah, United States (2002)
Salt Lake City really wanted to host the Olympics and had bidded four times to no avail. Finally, their luck turned around in 1995, and they were given the 2002 Winter Olympics. However, allegations of bribery soon surfaced: IOC officials had reportedly accepted money from the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee. It wasn’t the only time. After future digging, it was found IOC officials had accepted bribes for both the 1998 and 2000 Olympics. The controversy launched numerous investigations, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice. Fifteen bribery charges were laid, and many prominent officials either resigned their posts or were officially expelled for corruption.

#12: The 2002 Figure Skating Scandal

Salt Lake City, Utah, United States (2002)
The Salt Lake City games were mired in controversy. If it wasn’t charges of bribery, it was a reportedly fixed figure skating competition. The pairs’ figure skating event ended in trouble when Russia won gold over Canada, despite Canada’s arguably better performance. The media criticized the judges for their decision, and suspicion landed on French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne. She supposedly broke down when confronted by the Technical Committee’s chair and later admitted she’d been coerced into voting for the Russians. However, she later retracted these statements, stating she’d genuinely believed the Russians had won. Though an investigation into the event was never launched, Le Gougne’s judging career was over.

#11: The 1972 Men’s Basketball Final

Munich, Germany (1972)
The American men’s basketball team was the stuff of Olympics legend, having won every gold medal event since 1936. They were also completely undefeated with a 63-0 Olympics record. And then the Cold War was brought to the basketball court, as Team USA faced the Soviet Union in the 1972 Munich finals. Following an intense game, the final three seconds were a complete mess in terms of technical gameplay, and without going into complex detail, the USSR edged ahead for a 51-50 victory. Team USA wasn’t happy and protested the outcome. They refused to accept silver, and the surviving team members continue to refuse both the outcome of the game and the medals today.

#10: Displacement in Beijing

Beijing, China (2008)
As far back as 2000, Chinese officials were reportedly implementing “environmental improvement projects” – aka the systematic demolition of Beijing’s impoverished areas – resulting in an estimated displacement of 1.5 million people for the 2008 Summer Games. Although local government claimed they only moved between 6,000-15,000, all with compensation, numerous reports exposed the mistreatment of those unwilling to shift by heavy-handed police. Beijing’s “floating population” – consisting of rural migrants, the homeless and other so-called second-class citizens – were most at risk from this purported “social cleansing”. It was reported that $40 billion was spent on Olympic or corporate infrastructure, while human rights were allegedly ignored, adding to an already large list of controversies surrounding the Beijing Games.

#9: Jim Thorpe’s Disqualification

Stockholm, Sweden (1912)
Reportedly dubbed the greatest athlete in the world by the King of Sweden, this legendary all-rounder took gold in both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Summer Games, setting records that endured well into the 20th century. The Native American and European’s athletic career is defined by tales of his nonchalant excellence – his winning the high jump in mismatched shoes is one of many anecdotes. Yet his feats will always be tainted by the IOC’s elitist and potentially racist attempts to punish him for violating their Victorian rules on amateurism - rules that white athletes frequently abused without consequence. Under serious pressure from Thorpe supporters, the IOC did eventually yield on the subject by returning Thorpe’s medals in the early 1980s.

#8: The African Boycott

Montreal, Quebec, Canada (1976)
During the 1976 Montreal games, South Africa was in the height of apartheid, a system of racial segregation based on the concept of white supremacy that saw major oppression against black Africans. In 1976, the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team toured South Africa, and dozens of African countries requested that the IOC ban New Zealand from the then-upcoming Olympics. In their opinion, the controversial tour indirectly condoned the regime, and they wanted New Zealand punished. The IOC refused, so 29 countries protested the Olympics and failed to show. This prevented the former 1500-metre world record holder from competing, as Filbert Bayi hailed from Tanzania, one of the countries protesting the games.

#7: ‘Blood in the Water’ Match

Melbourne, Australia (1956)
Just a few weeks before this water polo match, Soviet tanks had rumbled into Budapest to end a revolution that claimed about 3,000 Hungarians. Hoping to restore their country’s pride, the Hungarian team planned to rile up the Russians, get physical and force them into rash decisions. With Hungary leading 4-0 late in the game, the Russians took matters into their own hands: Hungarian player Ervin Zador was struck in the eye, sending the hundreds of Hungarians in the crowd into a frenzy that required police intervention. In a bittersweet finish, the Hungarian team took home the gold, but they could never escape the match’s political subtext, forcing many members to find refuge in less oppressive lands.

#6: Ben Johnson Doping

Seoul, South Korea (1988)
The Men’s 100-Meters at the 1988 Summer Olympics may’ve been labeled “the dirtiest race in history,” but it was also one of the most enthralling to watch. Six members of that all-star lineup were implicated in other doping controversies post-race, but it was Johnson, the world record holder after his 9.79-second race, who’ll forever be defined by the steroid use he began in 1981. The Canadian was open about his long-term cheating and rightly stripped of his gold medal, yet is still irked to be the only one punished when others also failed drug tests. He’s even claimed the IOC only selectively cracks down on the pervasive doping culture in athletics – but even if Johnson’s allegations are true, we may never fully know.

#5: Tonya Harding & Nancy Kerrigan

Lillehammer, Norway (1994)
Containing jealousy, a hitman, and an unrelenting desire for sporting success, it’s no surprise a feature-length film adaptation of this event was released. During a practice that was crucial for determining the U.S. Olympic figure skating team, a henchman hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard struck Nancy Kerrigan in the leg. Since she was then the sport’s poster girl, the attack was orchestrated to intentionally put her out of the ’94 games. Branded as the “do anything for gold” skater, Harding’s alleged knowledge of the attack was soon exposed. However, she was still allowed to compete at the Olympics. Fortunately, Kerrigan recovered and landed silver at Lillehammer, while Harding placed 8th, was fined, received 3 years of probation and never skated competitively again.

#4: Russian Doping Scandal

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2016)
Details of Russia’s alleged state-sponsored systematic doping came to light in 2014, but they were expanded upon when ex-Russian anti-doping official, Grigory Rodchenkov, provided an insider’s look into a conspiracy that forced him to flee to the U.S. Exploiting the increased access granted by their hosting of the games, Sochi 2014 competitors were reportedly allowed to dope without consequence while their urine samples were exchanged in covert operations carried out by Rodchenkov and others. He claimed that at least 15 medallists from the 2014 Winter Olympics might be implicated. Due to these supposedly Kremlin-sanctioned schemes, Russia was suspended from world sports events. They were also investigated before the 2016 Summer Olympics, resulting in the IOC ejecting 110 team members.

#3: U.S. Boycotts Moscow Olympics

Moscow, Soviet Union (1980)
In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan beginning in 1979, U.S. president Jimmy Carter led an international boycott that doomed his period in office and triggered the Soviet Union’s own boycott of the L.A. games in 1984. While the reasons behind this action were righteous and well-supported – the US enlisted Muhammad Ali’s help, and ultimately 65 nations joined up – the boycott threatened the Olympic Movement by embroiling the Games in the political maneuvering of two world powers. 25 angry U.S. athletes even sued the government for denying them a dream they worked so hard towards - and yet Carter stuck to his morals, strengthening a stance that’d later be described by the Soviet Union as “anti-Soviet hysteria”.

#2: Olympics Black Power Salute

Mexico City, Mexico (1968)
It’s one of the 20th century’s most powerful images: during the medal ceremony for the 200m race at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, shoeless and with their heads bowed, each thrust up a gloved hand. Smith said it was meant to symbolize human rights for all, but others believed it was in support of “Black Power.” Expelled and met with hostility when they returned home, they stood by the political statement, claiming it was their moral obligation to sacrifice their individual reputations to send a message to those watching. Meanwhile, the third man in the photograph, Peter Norman, was an Olympics pariah for decades thereafter because he showed his support by donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Whistler’s Homeless Forced Out for Winter Olympics, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (2010)
The Displacement of Low-Income Residents Resulted in Protests

Surya Bonaly’s Backflip, Nagano, Japan (1998)
Bonaly Performed a Backflip at the 1998 Olympics, Despite the Move Being Prohibited

BLM Apparel, Tokyo, Japan (2020/21)
Black Lives Matter Gear Has Been Banned from the 2020 Olympics

#1: Nazi Olympics

Berlin, Germany (1936)
For two weeks in 1936 Berlin, Nazi prosperity and hospitality blinded the world, while Germany’s precisely directed propaganda campaign obscured their anti-Semitic, discriminatory and expansionist policies from view. Numerous nations that’d form the Allied Powers were present for carefully manufactured demonstrations of fervent German pride, while arguments stating participation in the Games were tantamount to an endorsement of fascism went unheard. And so, despite mentions of a potential boycott, the Games begun. Medals were even won by some Jewish and Black athletes, but it was Hitler who truly prospered. The Reich Chancellor turned the Games into an advertising campaign for his administration, with some asserting he successfully manipulated European powers into a complacency that allowed the Nazi regime to spread across Europe in subsequent years.
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I definitely agreed with this very very bad but also horrible list.