The Olympics – 120 years of scandal
From Athens 1896 to London 2012, the Summer Olympics has produced more than its fair share of glory. But wherever there are medals to be won, you can be sure that there will be those athletes willing to bend the rules. And if you think that cheating and skulduggery are new phenomena in Olympic sport, prepare to have your illusions shattered.
1908: Halswelle’s swimming walkover
London’s first games was memorable for many things, among them the only walkover in the history of Olympic sport. And, irony of ironies, it occurred in the men’s 400m swimming. American John Carpenter won the event, only to be disqualified for deliberately blocking British competitor Wyndham Halswelle. Carpenter’s manoeuvre would have been legal in his homeland but was outlawed in the UK. The gold medallist disqualified, a rerun was requested but since Halswelle’s sole rivals were also from the US, they decided to give it a miss so guaranteeing the home athlete his unusual place in Olympic history.
1912: The ballad of Jim Thorpe
The greatest sportsman that ever lived? Without a doubt it’s Jim Thorpe, the Oklahoma-born American football legend who, when he wasn’t playing a mean game of baseball or basketball, won gold medals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon at the Stockholm games. Only problem was, in the age of the amateur, Thorpe dared to play two seasons of semi-pro baseball. For this, he was stripped of his Olympic titles, an astonishing overreaction that wouldn’t be reversed until 1983, fully 30 years after the death of the Sac and Fox sporting colossus, a man whose name still looms large over the games he dominated.
1936: Hitler’s Games
There are any number of awful things about the Berlin Olympics but the behaviour of American Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage is particulary contemptible. With Jesse Owens winning every gold going, the US looked set to complete its sprint dominance with victory in the men’s 4×100. This they subsequently did but it was without the involvement of Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, two Jewish Americans who were withdrawn from the team on Brundage’s instructions for fear of upsetting the hosts. By the way, the only country to boycott the Berlin games in opposition to Hitler’s treatment of Jewish Germans? The Republic of Ireland.
1956: The real duel in the pool
The Hungarian revolution having been swiftly put down by the Soviet Union in the autumn, it was a sure thing that any Magyar-USSR match-up in Melbourne the following December would be a feisty affair. Cue the ‘Blood In The Water’ match, a water polo fixture which ended with Hungarian Ervin Zador bleeding profusely from an eye wound and the Magyar fans on the brink of riot. That Zador’s team won the fixture handsomely hardly seemed to matter. An oppressed people had been given a chance to square up their oppresses and they had been sure to make it stick.
1972: The Cold War on the court
When it comes to the Olympics, one thing is all but guaranteed – America’s men’s basketball team will win gold. And that’s what appeared to have happened in Munich with the US pipping rival superpower the Soviet Union by a single point. But what was this? The Soviets had called a timeout with three seconds left to play. Then when the final buzzer sounded again, it was noticed that the time had frozen. With three seconds still on the clock, the Soviets threw long and scored the winning basket, leaving one superpower euphoric and the other fumbling for its nuclear codes.
1976: En garde!
Boris Onishchenko had won gold in Munich as part of the Soviet Union’s modern pentathlon team. An exceptional fencer, the Ukrainian-born athlete was having a particularly good day on the piste in Montreal when British captain Jim Fox noticed that Onishchenko seemed to be scoring hits without actually striking his opponents. An investigation revealed that the Soviet’s epee had been modified to include a button with which he could automatically trigger the scoring mechanism. Onishchenko was immediately disqualified and returned home to be scolded by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Fox, meanwhile, lead the British team to victory.
1988: The dirtiest race in history
Of course, anyone with a passing interest in sport knows that Canada’s Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100m gold in Seoul after, as Clive James remarked, traces of urine were found in his anabolic steroids. What’s less widely acknowledged is that, of the right participants in the race, only America’s Calvin Smith and Brazil’s Robson Da Silva completed their careers without having failed a drugs test. Everyone else, including Johnson’s fellow countryman Desai Williams, Britain’s Linford Christie and eventual winner and nine-time Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis would walk away from the sport with an asterisk beside their name.
2004: Greek tragedy
What Jessica Ennis was to London 2012 Konstantinos Kenteris should have been to the Athens Olympics of 2004. The reigning 200m World and Olympic champion, Kenteris was so much the poster boy of the event, he was hotly tipped to light the torch at the opening ceremony. That was until, the day before the games began, both he and his training partner Ekatarini Thanou tested positive for illegal substances. To make matters worse, the athletes then tried to create a smokescreen by claiming they’d be hurt in a motorcycle crash. Withdrawn from the games, Kenteris never ran for his country again.
2008: Ain’t that a kick in the head?
We’ve all seen refs receiving tongue lashings from incensed sportsman. Rather less common is the sight of a frustrated athlete giving the man in charge a swift kick in the face. That, though, is what a Cuban taekwondo player did upon being adjudged to have lost his bronze medal match during the Beijing games. The not-wholly-appropriately named Angel Matos had looked a good bet to regain the title he’d won in Sydney. But as it was a case of close but no cigar for Matos so it was a case of foot in mouth for Swedish judge Chakir Chelbat.
Who knew women’s badminton was such a wretched hive of scum and villainy? In the group stages of the London tournament, not one but four doubles teams – two from South Korea and one each from Indonesia and China – were disqualified for deliberately trying to lose fixtures to secure better draws come the knockout stages. The sport’s governing body concluded that the eight players were “conducting [themselves] in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”. Still, at least the controversy guaranteed badminton front page news coverage for the first time in the history of both the sport and the print media.