This list is the companion piece to the Top 10 Best Summer Olympic Moments article, and the third in a series of four Olympic-themed pieces here at TopTenz. Previously, we looked as some of the best moments that exemplified the Olympic spirit. By and large, the Olympics are exactly what they are supposed to be: a time in which the world’s athletes and their supporters can put aside so many of the differences and issues that burden life, and bask in the light of goodwill in the arena of athletic competition.
Unfortunately, while international benevolence is certainly the case more often than not at the Games, there are those occasions that have diminished (and at times, tainted) the illumination of the Olympic spirit. This list looks at some of the less-savory aspects of the modern Olympiad. Here are the top 10 worst Summer Olympic Moments.
*Authors note: The moments selected were not necessarily the most memorable, but rather those that best illustrate (I believe) a detraction of Olympic spirit.
10. China And The Lip-Syncing Girl
I’m on record for stating that the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were spectacular, and raised the bar for such events. The Chinese, for their part, were apparently thinking the same thing. One of the performances during the ceremony featured a cute Chinese kid, nine-year-old Lin Miaoke, singing “Ode to the Motherland”. It was a tender performance that achieved the desired “awww, isn’t she adorable” reaction from the audience.
But was it an authentic moment? It seems Chinese officials had a self-perceived PR problem. They believed that the voice of Miaoke simply was not good enough to represent the grandeur of the opening ceremonies. Equally, while the pristine voice of another performer, 7-year-old Yang Peiyi was superior to that of Miaoke, Peiyi was deemed not as cute (the words of Chinese officials was “suitable” instead of cute). As a result, and in the pursuit of what was best for the national interest (this is what they said!), it was decided that Maioke would lip-sync to the voice of Peiyi.
The Chinese people and the world audience in general didn’t appreciate the duplicity. Cute is cute, and either of the kids would have probably done a fine job with their own voice. One can certainly understand China’s desire to put their best foot forward with the world’s spotlight shining on them. However, the guiding principles of what the Olympics stand for – unity, peace, goodwill and fair play – should also stand as a measure of conduct for all concerned, not self promoting PR tactics. The whole debacle smacked of wanton over-commercialization of an experience that should have been genuine.
9. America Loses Gold to Soviet Union
Hear me out on this one. The 1972 gold medal contest between the United States and the Soviet Union was much more than just a basketball game. It (and virtually every other competitive contest between the two nations) was East v. West, Democracy v. Communism. While the two superpowers of the world managed not to start WWIII, they did take the opportunity of any other venue to showcase the dominance of their respective ideology. In other words, it was big and, if the reader happened to have grown up during the Cold War, then they know what I mean.
Here’s the setup: the US, up to this point in history, had not lost a single game of basketball in Olympic competition – ever. They were 63-0, and favored to win in Munich as well. The game itself was tight. With only seconds left and trailing by one point, the Soviet team sank the winning bucket. The problem, however, was that the opportunity to sink this shot is mired in controversy. There were several controversial acts that took place in the final moments of the game – including questionable substitutions, questions about the amount of time remaining on the clock, and a couple of do-overs. Basically, the kind of crazy thing that happens in sports all the time.
Nevertheless, when the final horn sounded, the Soviets had made the play on the court (albeit after a couple of tries). The US was stunned. Official protests ensued, which were subsequently denied. Conspiracy theories were bandied about. Ultimately, the US refused to accept their silver medals. Stating that the game was the “the most controversial game in international basketball history”, the US team just walked away.
And this is what makes this one of the worst moments of summer Olympics. The Olympics are about the competitive goodwill of sports. It’s about the embodiment of highest level of great sportsmanship. It’s not about crying over spilled milk and throwing a tantrum. I’ve seen the footage of the game and read in detail about the controversial calls. The refs messed up. But human error is a component of the game, and every athlete knows this. To use this as a pretext for their behavior is ridiculous. At the end of the day, the Soviets obviously played well enough to be in a position to win, and they did. The actions of the US team (to this very day most members still refuse to accept their silver medals, and they all remain in the custody of the IOC) reflected poorly on the ideals that Olympic athletes are expected to personify.
8. Ara Abrahamian’s Childish Tantrum
US basketball players are not the only Olympians to forget their manners and proper decorum. Abrahamian’s behavior following his reception of the bronze medal ranks right up there in the realm of childish behavior. Abrahamian, an Armenian/Swedish Greco-Roman wrestler and a world champion, apparently considered anything less than a gold medal performance to be a failure. This was especially a poignant issue for this Olympian after falling in the gold medal match in the previous 2004 Games in Athens (where there was a questionable call that he believes cost him that match as well). His chance at redemption was the 2008 Games in Beijing. Unfortunately, Abrahamian believes that his opportunity was taken from him yet again by questionable officiating.
As a result, Abrahamian decided to make his displeasure public. During the award ceremony, after shaking hands with the other athletes he shared a podium with – he stepped down, walked to the center of the wrestling mat tossed his bronze medal there and promptly left. Then, taking the opportunity to address the media (who were now swarming), he launched into a rant about corrupt officials (involved in bribery and nepotism) and his imminent retirement (because implied of disgust) from the sport. While the officiating in question could indeed have been erroneous – again – this is the nature of sports. What ultimately matters is the actions of Abrahamian, whose lack of humility and good sportsmanship earned him a spot on this list.
7. Angel Matos Goes “Bruce Lee’” on Referee
There is a line that you just don’t cross in sports: you never touch the referee, no matter how upset one may be at a bad call. Granted, we’ve seen plenty of instances – like the two previous entries on this list – of Olympians falling victim to childish fits due to questionable calls. But Angel Matos, a Cuban Taekwondo participant (and Olympic champion at the 2004 Games) did the unimaginable. After being disqualified in his bronze medal match, Matos went directly to the referee to argue the call and then – unbelievably – kicks him in the face. Matos pushes another judge and spits on the floor in succession, as arena security finally subdues him and escorts him from the competition area.
This level of violence, beyond the competitive confines of the sport, is fairly unprecedented in Olympic annals, and certainly represents a departure from the values that embody the Olympic spirit. In fact, it is this type of behavior that the ideals that form the foundation of the essence of the Olympics attempts to counter. Matos’ action led to a lifetime ban from competing in Taekwondo. But here’s the interesting thing: despite Matos’ egregious behavior, the crowd at the venue were actually cheering for him and chanting his name. Apparently, the officiating was so bad that even the spectators were fed up. But what does it say about our collective psyche that we would applaud the assault of another person as the result of an error in officiating a sporting competition? Not a whole lot of good things…
6. IOC Overreaction to Black Power Protest
I will be the first to agree that the Olympics is not the platform to air political grievances. Nevertheless, the Olympics provide one with a world stage to draw attention to a given plight if one has the nerves to attempt it. This was the scenario at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. Two African-American sprinters, Tom Smith and John Carlos, were the gold and bronze medal winners, respectively, in the 200 meter dash (Tom Smith setting the world record in the process).
The drama, such as it was, didn’t take place until the medal awarding ceremony. Keep in mind that this was 1968, and the civil rights movement in the United States was reaching its peak. Racial tensions were at an all-time high, and Americans of color were struggling mightily for their rights. The two American sprinters took advantage of the spotlight. With hands adorned with black gloves, heads bowed and barefooted; the two Americans raised their fists in the black power salute (the salute represents unity of the black community, and the bare feet represented poverty in the black community).
The incident did not go over very well, which is not necessarily unexpected. The International Olympic Committee, specifically IOC president Avery Brundage, citing that the protest was not in the spirit of the ideals of the Olympic Games, demanded that the two athletes be removed from the US team and prohibited from staying in the Olympic Village (in other words, that they be sent home). US officials initially refused. However, Brundage then threatened that he would suspend the entire US track team if Smith and Carlos were not removed. Under this looming and unprecedented threat, the US complied with the IOC’s mandate.
The ironic side note to this incident is that in 1936, Brundage was the president of the US Olympic committee and he had no problems or objections whatsoever about the Nazi salute being used during those games (as it turns out, Brundage was a Nazi sympathizer). More to the point, the fall out for Smith and Carlos was significant. After the medal ceremony, they were booed by the crowd as they exited the stadium. They were kicked off the US team. They were blacklisted in track and field for sometime thereafter and, of course, received the expected death threats back home.
Overall, history (at least American history) remembers these two athletes as men who had the courage to bring attention to an oppressive plight. While their choice of a stage was inappropriate, so was the reaction by the IOC. After all, the very ideals that personify the Olympic spirit were the very same principles that Smith and Carlos themselves wished for.
5. Olympic Boycott of 1980
One could rightfully argue that international politics should not factor into the Olympic Games. After all, the prominence of the Games is partly founded on the premise that the competitive scope of the event transcends and unites the various peoples of the world despite politics. Great in theory, but the nature of our world often puts such grand ideas aside for the practicality of political intrigue.
Such was the case with the 1980 Games held in Moscow, Russia (then the Soviet Union). The previous year, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and President Jimmy Carter, in response, announced that the United States would not attend the Games in Moscow if Soviet troops did not withdraw. They didn’t, and the United States called for a boycott of the Games. Not every country responded positively, reflecting that the Olympics were supposed to be above the political framework that shapes international policy.
Nevertheless, this was the tail end of the Cold War, and lines were drawn in the sand. As such, many countries such as Canada, China, West Germany and Japan (along with 61 other countries) did not attend the Games in Moscow. Interestingly, most European countries took a different approach. While countries such as Great Britain, France and Italy supported the boycott, they nevertheless allowed their athletes to make the final determination of whether to attend or not, with some electing to do so. As a result, while the Olympic delegations from these countries were smaller than usual – they did attend. However, many of these countries elected to not be represented under their national flags (using the Olympic flag instead), or did not participate in the opening and/or closing ceremonies as a form of protest.
In the end, the Olympiad was marred by the political nastiness of the situation. 65 countries did not attend these games, and the event stands as a sad testimony of what happens when we succumb to our national inclinations in opposition to the call of the Olympic spirit.
4. Olympic Boycott of 1984
In a tit-for-tat move that was a direct reaction to the US-led 1980 boycott of the Games in Moscow, the former Soviet bloc and other similarly aligned countries boycotted the 1984 Games held in Los Angeles, California. Stating that it believed the US would allow the “massacre” of its athletes, the Soviet Union announced that it would not attend the games. What followed was a string of Soviet allies deciding not to attend for various reasons. Ultimately, the Soviet Union would be joined by Cuba, Hungary, East Germany and 11 other countries (Iran, Albania and Libya also did not attend, but for other reasons).
The move obviously diluted the competitive field in a number of sports. But more importantly, it further eroded the plateau that the Olympics had occupied. With the exception of World Wars, the Olympics have been an enduring vehicle of international unity. Whatever else was going on in the world and between its nations – for two weeks every four years, the competitors and fans from virtually every nation would come together in the spirit of competitive goodwill.
Now a precedent was being set, first in 1980 and again in 1984, that the political drama that normally consumes and comprises international relations trumped the ideals of the Olympics. Even worse, whether or not one agrees with the premise behind the 1980 boycott, the 1984 boycott was even more pronounced (even though a much fewer number of nations participated) because it was simply based on a desire to “get even.” Really? If we, the people of the world, ever hope to aspire to the ideals epitomized in the Olympic spirit, then we have to do a lot better than this..
3. Steroid Scandals
Cheating. There is not much more that can dampen the competitive nature of sports than cheating. World-class athletes (presumably) train and work incredibly hard to hone their skills to be able to compete at the levels they do. All of that work, however, is minimized when someone (or several someones) does something a little extra to give themselves an edge over the rest of the competition.
While the use of performance enhancing steroids is not something new, it is unfortunate that the problem has marred the otherwise pristine competitive image of the Olympics. And not just on one occasion. In fact, doping can be traced as far back as the 1960 Games in Rome. At these Games, cyclist Knud Jensen lost consciousness during one of his events, falling from his cycle and fracturing his skull. He died not long afterwards in an Italian hospital.
It was learned later that he had been taking enhanced amphetamines to improve performance. In turn, this incident prompted the International Olympic Committee to begin drug testing as early as the 1968 Games. The trend would continue. Fast forward to the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. World champion Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was matched up with renowned sprinter Carl Lewis for a battle of who would be crowned the fastest man in the world. Ben Johnson took home the gold (and broke his own world record). It was a spectacular moment for the Olympics and the sport of track and field. And three days later, he had to give it all back, as he tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug Stanozolol.
The entire affair was an embarrassment for not only Canada, but for the competitive integrity of track and field – both as a sport and as an Olympic event. The Johnson scandal, in fact, would call into question the performances of every other athlete that competed that day (as Johnson’s trainer made claims that Johnson wasn’t the only one that was cheating). This was pointedly made evident with the case of American sprinter Marion Jones, who recently admitted (and ultimately served time in prison) to using anabolic steroids (THG) prior to her stellar performance at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. The IOC reclaimed her Olympic medals (3 gold and 2 bronze), but the reputation – hers, the Olympics, and the sport of track and field – had taken another blow. In short, the use of steroids has been and continues to be a dark cloud that impedes the illumination of the Olympic spirit.
2. Bombing at the Atlanta Games
Unfortunately, terrorism is not a stranger to the Olympic Games, as our final two entries on this list allude to. The most recent incident was of the “home grown” nature perpetrated by a run-of-the-mill maniac who was an anti-abortion zealot. The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia were billed as the Games of unity and peace. These worthy ideals were disrupted when Eric Robert Rudolph, an American, decided to explode three pipe bombs that he had manufactured and planted in Centennial Park, an area where Olympic spectators gathered. The pipe bombs were constructed not only to explode, but to shower nails into the expected crowd of people that would be in the vicinity.
Of course, maniac that Rudolph was, he called his pending threat in to the police. At the same time, a security guard that was on duty in the park, noticed the unattended backpack that contained the pipe bombs on a park bench. When he couldn’t find who the bag belonged too, he became suspicious and began clearing the immediate area – too late. The bombs exploded, directly killing one individual, with a second person dying later as a result, and injuring 111 others.
Though Richard Jewell, the security guard who found the bomb, was initially a suspect for the bombing, he was eventually exonerated and hailed as a hero for preventing an even greater number of casualties as a result of actions. While the real bomber hoped to shut the Games down or otherwise deter the event, he only succeeded in showing the world that a madman cannot completely destroy the Olympic spirit, and what it means to the vast majority of people.
1. Israeli Hostage Tragedy (Munich Massacre)
Terrorism, so much the center of attention today, was the bloody taint that stained the 1972 Games in Munich, Germany (West Germany at that time). Unfortunately, the very real threat of terrorism was lost on German authorities, and security was quite lax, despite protests to the contrary by Israeli officials, who were well aware of the potential threat.
Nevertheless, on September 5, eight members of a wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, called Black September, managed to infiltrate the Olympic village where the athletes were being housed during the Games. The terrorists made a beeline directly to the apartment complex where the Israeli team was staying and, after an initial scuffle (two athletes were killed at this point), managed to capture nine Israeli athletes. By this time, German security authorities, as well as the international media, were on the scene. The Black September members demanded the release of several hundred fellow Palestinians that were being held by Israel, and safe passage to Egypt.
The Israeli government, for its part, refused the demands of the terrorists, or to negotiate with them. Germany, however, sensitive to the political fallout of the situation, tried to buy time. Ultimately, the Germans devised a plan in which they would lull the terrorists into a false sense of security by pretending to agree to their demands, all the while planning a deadly ambush.
Unfortunately, the plan was poorly executed. The idea was to bus the terrorists and hostages to the airport (where an empty plane awaited them) where they would be met by snipers and military personnel. However, there were not enough snipers to deal with all of the terrorists simultaneously, and the personal carriers that carried the military troops were delayed in traffic. Once the terrorists reached the airport, the ruse began to unravel and chaos erupted. The Germans opened fire, and the terrorists began shooting and blowing up hostages.
When the smoke cleared, all nine hostages were dead, along with five of the terrorists. The surviving terrorists were taken into custody and charged with murder. The German government decided to finish the Games (a decision that was widely criticized), with events suspended only for a day of mourning. Without doubt, this affair left an indelible imprint on the Olympiad, as every subsequent Olympic Games has instituted unparalleled security measures. A sad, but true commentary: even in a climate of peace, there are those who would call for unnecessary violence and harm to their fellow man.