6 Olympics Scandals And Controversies

Personal vendettas, doping and corruption, edgy international politics – the Olympic Games have always courted controversy…

Olympic Games


The now infamous 1936 Berlin games took place at the height of Hitler's power, in a swathe of Nazi pomp and ceremony. While protests against the Nazi regime and talk of boycotts rumbled around prior to the games, it turned out to be a major display of Nazi flamboyance and showmanship. But while it should have been the perfect vehicle for Hitler to illustrate his claims about the superiority of the Aryan race, the games are in fact best remembered for the blistering performance of Jesse Owens. The African-American athlete clinched a clutch of gold medals, more than any other competitor, and rather upset the Nazi apple-cart in the process.

Hitler's Grand Plans Weekend

Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens from the programme Hitler's Olympics.

Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens from the programme Hitler's Olympics.


Most people have seen the iconic photo of the gloved Black Power salute given by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City games, but did you know that the silver medallist on the podium was also involved? Australian Peter Norman knew he was taking a risk when he showed solidarity with the two African-Americans in their protest for civil rights in America. Like Smith and Carlos, he sported a human rights badge on his tracksuit, and he suggested that the pair wear one glove each, after Carlos forgot his. But just as Smith and Carlos faced hefty punishments and abuse for their daring protest, so too did Norman get intense criticism for supporting them. The men remained lifelong friends until Norman's death in 2006.


The 1976 Montreal Olympics have the dual distinction of being the only summer games ever held in Canada, and one of the most controversial in history. And it was because of a sporting scandal on the other side of the world. Apartheid was at its height in South Africa when New Zealand's rugby team decided to go on tour there, which caused massive international outcry and calls for New Zealand to be banned from the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee did not uphold this, leading to a boycott by 25 African nations. This led to a loss of well over a million Canadian dollars in refunds and cancellations, and meant that numerous world record holders were absent.

THE COLD WAR GAMES, 1980 & 1984

The Olympics have often been used to play out international political struggles, but never more so than during the Cold War. In the lead-up to the 1980 games in Moscow, the US led an international boycott in retaliation against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, more than 60 countries either withdrew completely or limited their participation in the games. Never one to take a snub lying down, the Soviet Union reciprocated with a boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games, with many Eastern Bloc countries organising their own Friendship Games instead.


One of the strangest stories of a bungled crime, bizarre revenge, and ice-skating the world has ever known occurred just before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were US figure-skating teammates, but in January 1994 their rivalry got very ugly indeed when Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, sent a stooge to club Kerrigan in the knee. Though she missed the national competitions due to the injury, her knee recovered in time for the Olympics, where she won a silver medal. Harding only came 8th, and was subsequently given a lifetime ban from the sport.


Doping has been a controversy hanging over the modern Olympics for almost as long as the games have been going, but a concerted, blanket effort to ban performance-enhancing drugs has only been in place since 1999. Before that, drug testing and rules against their use were piecemeal, and systematic doping, such as of the East German team in 1976, were neither rare nor particularly well-concealed occurrences. But the earliest recorded use of performance-enhancing drugs dates back to 1904, only the third Olympics, in which marathon runner Thomas Hicks won the race with the help of a bizarre concoction of rat poison and brandy.