(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
The Olympics Games have unfortunately been the setting of a number of ugly scenes, incidents of political opportunism, and athletes so desperate to win that they resort to cheating. I have tried to pick what I see as the four worst or most publicized incidents, across a wide period and representative of several types of worst moments: terrorism, boycotts, drugs, and political propaganda.
First place, or is that last place, would have to go to the “Munich massacre” at the Summer Olympics in 1972 in Munich, West Germany. Israeli team members were taken hostage by Black September, a splinter group of the Fatah organization of Yasser Arafat. With World War II a distant memory, a joyous time was being had by all, and security was quite relaxed. Concerns were expressed by the Israeli team over security but little was done. In the middle of the night, eight members of Black September climbed a six foot wire fence and entered two apartments of Israeli team members. Several burly wrestlers and weightlifters escaped or tried to escape. Two Israelis were killed at this stage.
Nine hostages were taken and were restrained in the apartments. The attackers wanted the release of 234 Palestinians and others who were in jail in Israel. However, the Israeli government refused to negotiate. The German government offered unlimited money for the release of the hostages, but the kidnappers wouldn’t budge. Negotiators were able to buy time by somehow convincing the terrorists their demands were being looked at. The attackers then demanded to be taken to Cairo.
There was a feigned agreement and about 16 hours after the drama had started, the kidnappers and their hostages were taken by bus to two helicopters that were to take them to an airport. Authorities had planned an ambush at the airport but snipers were outnumbered. The kidnappers took the four helicopter pilots hostage too, and a shoot-out started between the terrorists and authorities when the attackers discovered the plane, a Boeing 727, that was to take them to Cairo was empty.
Armored personnel carriers were headed for the site but they got stuck in traffic and didn’t arrive until midnight. When back-up finally arrived, the kidnappers turned on the hostages and shot several of them dead. One of the terrorists threw a grenade into a helicopter, blowing it up along with several more Israeli hostages inside. Another kidnapper allegedly shot dead the remaining five hostages, who were in the other helicopter, although what happened to them has been a matter of dispute. Some of the attackers had been killed already, and the others were captured by the police.
Initial media reports had all hostages alive and all terrorists dead. But it was soon realized that all 11 hostages were dead and the eight kidnappers dead or in custody. It was a sad day indeed for the Olympic movement. Competition was suspended for a day as more than 80,000 people, including 3,000 athletes, attended a memorial service. Security was tightened considerably at subsequent games.
Another black moment in Olympic history occurred eight years later at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The USSR had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. US president Jimmy Carter gave the Soviets an ultimatum to withdraw by 20 February 1980 or the US would boycott the games. The USSR didn’t pull out and the US announced a boycott on 21 March. Many other countries also decided to stay away in protest. Sport had become a pawn in a political game that athletes had absolutely no influence over.
In all, 62 countries who had been invited did not compete in the games. This included many Third World countries in Asia, Africa, and South America, but only three major European countries: Albania, West Germany, and Norway. Other notable absentees were Japan, China, and Canada. A number of European countries supported the boycott but felt that it was up to individual athletes to decide if they wanted to compete. Many countries didn’t attend the opening or closing ceremonies but their athletes marched under the Olympic flag, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The Olympic anthem was used at many medal presentations.
Sadly, this worst “moment” continued onto the 1984 Los Angeles games where 14 countries boycotted in a political tit-for-tat that had started four years earlier. This consisted of the USSR and 13 of its allies.
On an individual athlete level, perhaps the worst moment was when Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100 meters gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when he tested positive to banned drugs. Johnson had been beating arch-rival Carl Lewis at a number of meetings before the games, breaking the world record in 1987 by a whole tenth of a second, winning in 9.83 seconds. This should probably have set alarm bells ringing more than they did, although Lewis was certainly quite vocal. Johnson suffered some injuries in the lead-up to the games and his times were slower. Lewis declared he would win.
Despite poor preparation, Johnson won the final, clipping another four one-hundredths of a second off his world record. Three days later, Johnson was disqualified after the drug Stanozolol was found in his urine sample. He lost his gold medal and it was awarded to Lewis. Johnson also admitted to using steroids when he broke the world record in 1987 and this was rescinded too. Ironically, four of the fastest five athletes in the Seoul 100 meter final tested positive at some time in their careers. Linford Christie was later banned for using steroids. Lewis himself tested positive for three banned stimulants at the 1988 US Olympic trials, although he was able to get the results overturned as the use was inadvertent.
Any list of worst moments in Olympic history would have to include the 1936 Berlin Olympics which were used as a propaganda machine by the Nazis. Hitler allowed only “Aryan race” members to compete for Germany, pushing his belief in racial supremacy. His country won the most medals but there were some notable exceptions to Hitler’s race theory, including black American Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in track and field. At the time, the Nazis prevented Jews and Gypsies from taking part in sport of any sort. Jews in particular were discriminated against. There were “Jews not wanted” and similar signs around the city, although Hitler removed them from tourist areas. Gypsies were being arrested for no good reason and being put in camps. The US considered boycotting the games.
The Olympic Games will probably always attract their share of “worst moments”, especially as the games receive saturation media coverage around the world. If anyone has a gripe, this is a favourite way to give it exposure. The drug problem probably won’t stop either, with a proportion of athletes willing to take the risk for Olympic glory.