The Olympics are viewed as a chance for international co-operation and health competition – a platform on which the world’s best athletes can compete for glory. The decision to cancel the 2020 Tokyo Olympics shook the world of competitive sport, and the ongoing discussions about how and whether the 2021 Olympics will be staged have caused international controversy.
From political boycotts to drug use, underage athletes and illegal moves, there’s almost nothing the Olympics hasn’t seen. Here are 9 of the biggest controversies in Olympic history.
Nazi Germany hosts the Olympics (1936, Berlin)
The infamous 1936 Olympics were held in Munich by Nazi Germany and were seen by Hitler as a chance to promote Nazi ideology, his government and the racial ideologies – particularly anti-Semitism – that it adhered to. Germans of Jewish or Roma ancestry were effectively barred from participating, despite the fact that this meant that several top athletes weren’t able to participate.
Some individual athletes boycotted the Games in protest, and discussions were undertaken about national boycotts in order to show international discontent with the Nazi regime, but ultimately these didn’t happen – 49 teams took place, making the 1936 Olympics the biggest to date.
Former Axis powers banned (1948, London)
Nicknamed the Austerity Games, the 1948 Olympics were a relatively subdued affair thanks to ongoing rationing and a somewhat difficult economic climate. Germany and Japan were not invited to participate in the Games: the Soviet Union was invited, but chose not to send athletes, preferring to wait and train until the 1952 Olympics.
German prisoners of war were used as forced labour in construction for the Olympics – shortly after this, they were finally permitted to return home if they wished to. Around 15,000 POWs stayed and settled in England.
The ‘Blood in the Water’ match (1956, Melbourne)
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution had escalated tensions between Hungary and the Soviet Union: the uprising was brutally suppressed, and many Hungarian competitors saw the Olympics as an opportunity to salvage some of their dented national pride.
A water polo match between the two countries ended in an all out brawl, with punches being thrown in the water and blood eventually turning it red. Police stepped in to calm and remove supporters and spectators, and the referees were forced to stop the match.
South Africa banned (1964 – 1992)
The International Olympic Committee barred South Africa from competing in the Olympics until it overturned its ban on competition between white and black athletes and renounced racial discrimination. It was only following the repeal of all apartheid laws in 1991 that South Africa was allowed to compete once more.
A New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa in 1976 led to call for the IOC to also bar New Zealand from competing. The IOC demurred, and 26 African countries boycotted the games held that year in protest.
Tlatelolco Massacre (1968, Mexico City)
Large scale protests were held in Mexico prior to the 1968 Olympics, agitating for change. The authoritarian government had spent huge amounts of public funding on building facilities for the Olympics, and yet refused to spend public funding on basic infrastructure and in ways which would reduce gross inequality.
On October 2, around 10,000 students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to peacefully protest – the Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on them, killing up to 400 people and arresting a further 1,345 – if not more. Occurring just 10 days before the opening ceremony
First disqualification for drug use (1968, Mexico City)
Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall became the first athlete to be expelled for drug use in the 1968 Olympics. The previous year the IOC had introduced stringent anti-doping legislation, and Liljenwall had been drinking to calm his nerves before the pistol shooting event.
Since then, disqualification for drug use and doping has become increasingly commonplace, with athletes required to undergo rigorous testing to ensure they have not been using prohibited performance-enhancing substances.
US boycotts the Olympics (1980, Moscow)
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced an American boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games as a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan: many other countries followed suit, including Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina and Canada.
Several European countries supported the boycott but left decisions about competing up to individual athletes, meaning they fielded many fewer than they normally would. In response, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles.
Greg Louganis competes with AIDS (1988, Seoul)
Greg Louganis is most known for the so-called ‘diving board incident’ in this Olympics, where he smacked his head on the springboard during a preliminary round and required multiple stitches. Despite this injury, he went on to win gold the next day.
Louganis had been diagnosed with AIDS, but had kept his illness under wraps – his medication had to be smuggled into Seoul as if it had been known, he would not have been able to compete. AIDS cannot be transmitted by water, but Louganis later said he was terrified that blood from his head injury in the water could have led to someone else catching the virus.
In 1995, he publicly came out about his diagnosis in order to help start an international conversation about AIDS and push it into the mainstream consciousness.
Russian doping scandal (2016, Rio de Janeiro)
Prior to the 2016 Olympics, 111 of Russia’s 389 Olympic athletes were barred from competing following the uncovering of a systematic doping programme – they were also barred entirely from the 2016 Paralympics.
The scandal hit at a time when Western concerns about Russian interference – ‘cheating’ – particularly in politics, was widespread, and the doping revelation only served to bolster concerns about the lengths the Russian government would go to ensure that they won. To date, Russia has been stripped of 43 Olympic medals – the most of any country. They also currently have a 2 year ban on participating in major international sporting events.