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Top 10 Olympic Scandals

by Toby Oliva
fact checked by Rachel Jones

Since their modern relaunch in the late 1800s, the Olympics have become the single largest and most prestigious sporting event globally. The majority of the world’s nations, over 200 of them, gather over 10,000 of the world’s best athletes to compete in over 300 events. Anything that massive in scope, with that many different cultures, and with so much on the line, is virtually guaranteed to create controversy. 

Every Olympic Games has met with some form of contention or drama, from small spats to outright violence to clandestine long-term schemes. And with no truly neutral third party (no unaligned nation just volunteers to sit this one out and referee), disputes can last a long time or even go unresolved entirely. 

As a result, the Olympic Games go perpetually hand in hand with scandal. Here are ten of the best/worst Olympics scandals of all time.

10 The Worst Referee Ever

2012 London Olympics Fixed boxing match Satoshi Shimizu (Japan) vs Magomed Abdulhamidov (Azerbaijan)

During the 2012 London Olympics, one referee gave perhaps the worst, most blatantly corrupt performance in history. A bantamweight fight between Japan’s Satoshi Shimizu and Azerbaijan’s Magomed Abdulhamidov took place and was completely one-sided, ending in an easy decision. Except that the person who got completely rocked was given the win.

Satoshi brought Magomed to the floor six times, an unusually high number. Yet at every fall, the referee failed to count the boxer down. At one point, the ref even helped the downed Magomed straighten his headgear so he could continue. Although Satoshi was the obvious winner at the end of the fight, the match was given to Magomed. It’s worth a watch, as the crowd and the announcers alike are vocally outraged. Thankfully, the decision was later overturned after Japan appealed.

9 Twin Cheats

The story of how Madeline and Margaret de Jesus cheated at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics sounds made up. It sounds like a children’s movie plot, because truly—the pair pulled a Parent Trap.

While competing for Puerto Rico in the long jump, Madeline de Jesus injured her hamstring. She was scheduled to compete again six days later in the 4×400 relay and did not want to miss out. So she concocted a plan to use her sister—her identical twin and also a skilled sprinter—to secretly take her place in the relay. The plan worked, and Margaret ran for Madeline—meeting the qualifying time—until a reporter found them out. To the credit of Madeline’s coach, he pulled the entire team from the competition rather than tarnish anyone’s reputation.

8 The French Judge

Figure Skating Scandal Dominates at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics | Strangest Moments

Marie-Reine Le Gougne was a French judge for pairs’ figure skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. She watched as the Canadian and Russian teams led the field and vied for the gold. In the end, it seemed clear to viewers and the live crowd that the Canadians had out-skated the Russians. And then the judges voted and the Russians were given the gold.

It turns out that Russia and France had agreed to cheat together by trading judges’ votes and that’s why the Russians had so surprisingly come out ahead. Le Gougne was distraught by her role in the scheme and confessed to officials and the press. Because she confessed, she was vilified the most of any judge, gaining the derisive title The French Judge, even though she was seemingly the only one with any sense of integrity or remorse.

7 Salt Lake City Bribes

Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Bid Bribery Scandal (CBC)

Speaking of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, they probably shouldn’t have been in Salt Lake City. The city had tried to successfully bid for the Olympics four times and failed, and so to clinch the fifth attempt, they decided to bribe International Olympics Committee members with money, gifts, and possibly even prostitutes.

The scandal cost the jobs of several IOC members and many within SLC who initiated the bribes. It also revealed that bribery of Olympic officials was not unique to SLC. Investigations into the previous two Olympics found that similar bribery had occurred then, as well.

6 Kerrigan and Harding

Almanac: The Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding scandal

The Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident is notorious, even enough so to spawn a Margot Robbie-led movie, “I, Tonya.” In 1993, Harding and Kerrigan were two of the best female figure skaters in America and were set to compete against one another in qualifying trials for spots on the American team at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. Then tragedy struck when Kerrigan was assaulted by a man with a lead pipe, thus granting Harding her spot.

Of course, the entire incident turned into one big soap opera. Harding’s ex-husband hired the attacker—Harding may or may not have helped plan the attack, and she certainly knew about it before authorities did. Both skaters ended up making it to Lillehammer, where Kerrigan took silver and Harding had a mini-meltdown.

5 Greg Louganis’s Secret

Greg Louganis Hits Head on Diving Board | Remember When | NowThis

Greg Louganis may be the greatest diver in history, and he was looking to add to his impressive record at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In a preliminary round, Louganis struck the back of his head on the diving board, giving him a concussion and causing him to bleed into the pool. He was stitched up and went on to perform as well as he ever had.

However, it wasn’t until seven years later that Louganis revealed that he had been diagnosed with HIV a full six months before the 1988 games had started. Because HIV can be transmissible via fluid and Louganis had bled in the pool, he was terrified that he might infect another swimmer. That, combined with the intense bigotry around homosexuality at the time, caused Louganis to conceal his diagnosis and the apparent risk. Luckily, no one was infected, and health experts since have made it clear that the odds of infection were essentially zero.

4 Boris the Cheat

The most devious cheat in Olympic Games history? | Strangest Moments

Boris Onishchenko is a former pentathlete whose crafty, preplanned cheat at the 1976 Montreal Olympics has earned him the nicknames ‘Boris the Cheat,’ ‘Dishonest Boris’, and ‘the biggest cheat’ in Olympic history.

During one point of the fencing portion of the pentathlon, Onishchenko’s epee lit up, signifying a hit. The problem was, his epee was still in midair, nowhere near to touching his opponent. Though it was written off as a one-time accident, suspicions aroused after the second false point. His epee was examined and found to contain a switch that Onishchenko could flick to automatically record a touch, whether an actual touch had occurred or not. The whole rig was deviously clever but stupidly applied.

3 Everything About 1936

How Hitler Used The Berlin Olympics For Nazi Propaganda | The 1936 Olympic Games | Timeline

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are probably the most famous Olympic Games ever held. The games were held in the capital of Nazi Germany, three years after Hitler had brutally seized power and during his reign of terror against European Jewish populations. This caused many Jewish athletes to protest the games.

Hitler saw the games as a way to prove Aryan superiority, and many believe that even American officials joined in, placating the dictator by removing remaining Jewish athletes from certain events. Poetically, this caused black American Jesse Owens to make the 4×100 relay team, which gave him one of his gold medals, thereby making Aryan superiority a little more dubious a concept.

2 Russian Doping

2016: Russian doping at Sochi Winter Olympics exposed

Russia has had a long history of doping offenses at the Olympic Games. The twenty aughts and teens have seen positive test after positive test coupled with allegation after allegation. But it wasn’t until a couple of bombshell confessions from within the state-sponsored doping program itself that the whole scam was brought to light.

Between 2010 and 2014, Russian Anti-Doping Agency employee Vitaly Stepanov and his wife, Olympic runner Yuliya Stepanova, worked to expose the extensive Russian doping program. Vitaly sent hundreds of communications to the World Anti-Doping Agency and Yuliya secretly recording conversations with athletes about the system. Then in 2016, Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory confirmed the whole story. Forty-three medals have since been stripped from Russian athletes, and the country is banned from competing at the 2020(/2021) games in Tokyo.

1 East German Doping

People & Politics | Doping in East Germany

East Germany only existed between the close of WWII and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a period of about 50 years. Despite its short time as a nation, its relatively small size, and an array of economic, social, and political difficulties, East Germany managed to routinely dominate in many sporting events, most famously in the Olympics games from 1964-1988. This turned out to be due to a state-run, widespread doping program- one that puts even the Russian doping scandal to shame.

All told, East German Olympics teams collected a staggering 203 gold, 192 silver, and 177 bronze medals in their short reign and in 1976 alone, they took 40 gold medals. This seemingly impossible feat, combined with anecdotes from former East German athletes who had escaped the state, made the international community suspicious. But since the country performed its own drug-testing, nothing was ever truly confirmed. Until, that is, after Germany reunified and East German records were made public; the doping ring was controlled at every level of government and its health effects are still being felt by former athletes today.

fact checked by Rachel Jones