The Olympics

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Olympic Controversies

For more than 100 years, the modern Olympic Games have been celebrated as a testament to human physical achievement. The games are also seen as an opportunity for peaceful cooperation between nations. However, due to the high profile of this international gathering, some form of controversy has occurred in nearly every Olympic year since 1906. The Olympics have been affected by international and domestic wars, political boycotts, and even devastating unforeseen events. On a more human level, the Olympic games have sometimes been marred by wrongdoing on the part of game officials or Olympic athletes, both on and off the field.

International and domestic wars have deeply influenced the Olympic Games. The onset of World War I led to the cancellation of the 1916 Summer Olympics, which were supposed to have been held in Berlin. Following World War I, members and allies of that war’s Central Powers were not invited to participate in the 1920 summer games. Germany was additionally refused an invitation to the summer games in 1924. The Summer Olympics scheduled to be hosted by Tokyo in 1940 were relocated to Helsinki, due to the Second Sino-Japanese War. When World War II broke out, however, the Olympics were suspended entirely, only resuming in 1948. The losing factions of World War II also lost participation privileges in the 1948 Summer Olympics.

Other political concerns have affected the Olympics, particularly the summer games, throughout its modern history. Countries have boycotted the Olympics for a variety of reasons. For example, an American boycott of the 1936 Summer Olympics was considered due to the reign of the Nazi regime at the time. In the end, the United States did attend the 1936 games, and Adolf Hitler refused to acknowledge the multiple-medal victory of African-American Jesse Owens. In some cases, countries have refused to participate in the Olympics due to conflicts with other attending nations. In 1956, the People’s Republic of China withdrew its participation at the last minute as a way to protest the inclusion of Taiwan.

Under some political circumstances, specific countries have been banned from participation in the Olympic Games. As one significant example, South Africa was not allowed to participate between 1964 to 1992 due to its racially discriminatory apartheid policies. The summers of 1980 and 1984 saw a record number of Olympic boycotts due to political tension between Eastern bloc countries and the West. There have also been hints of a possible boycott of the 2012 Winter Olympics, to be hosted in Sochi, Russia.

The Olympics have often been affected by controversies related to performance-enhancing drug use by athletes. In some cases, medals have been stripped from the accused athletes. Some high-profile examples of Olympians who lost their medals due to drug accusations have included Ben Johnson of Canada in 1988, Marion Jones of the United States in 2000, and three Spanish cross-country skiers in 2002. Some drug-abusing Olympians are individually punished, though others have caused their teammates to also lose their medals by association. 

Occasionally, a devastating event takes its toll on the spirit of the Olympic Games. In 1972, an event now known as the Munich Massacre occurred when Olympian teammates from Israel were taken captive by a Palestinian terrorist organization. The death of 11 Israeli athletes was publicly mourned by a temporary pause in the games. In the summer of 1996, a bombing at Centennial Olympic Park left one woman dead and several others injured.

Olympic athletes’ behavior has often instigated controversy. One dramatic case in 1994 involved a plot by ice skater Tonya Harding to injure her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. In 2008, Cuban tae kwon do athlete Angel Matos attacked two officials after he was disqualified for going overtime on an allotted time-out. One iconic image of the 1968 Summer Olympics shows John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving a “black power” salute after winning gold and bronze medals. As a result of this gesture, which was deemed inappropriate as a domestic political symbol, the two men were expelled from the Olympics.

 The following links offer additional information about Olympic controversies: