The Dark Side of the Olympics

Olympic logo

The official Olympic Games logo, symbolizing the harmonious intermeshing of human cultures from around the world

Ah, Leap Years. So many rare, exciting things happening in the same twelve months. A 29th day in February. US Presidential elections. And the Summer Olympics! Guess what? It’s 2012, and in just a few months the XXX Olympiad will officially kick off in London. What do the Olympics mean to people around the world? It’s a celebration of international peace and cooperation, harmony and goodwill, glorious pageantry and a rare view into the beauty of the human spirit and form at their most highly developed levels.

Eh, okay. I can buy that. But if you’re going to get very culturally disparate humans together from every corner of the globe, no matter what the high-minded motivation, we’re also going to take our shadier baggage with us. Of course I could write about all the great and wonderful things the Olympics bring us, but that just wouldn’t be as much fun. What’s the Olympian subject of this blog post? Why, controversy of course!

Being the professional realist that I am, I have scientifically concluded that Olympic controversy can be broken down into three broad categories in order of ascending severity: competitive, municipal, and national/ideological. I will attempt to briefly address a single example of an historical high(low?)light in each subject.

First, the competitive. This is the stuff that has to do more with individual people. The athletes and officials that arrive at each Olympics represent their respective countries and are the best in the world. They have trained their entire lives for this moment. Motivation, tensions, and emotions are at a fever pitch.

Former 1972 Basketballhalle

The former 1972 Basketballhalle, site of the United States’ national basketball team’s most controversial loss

In 1972 the American basketball team was still all-time undefeated in Olympic play. In the final game they took a 50-49 lead against the Soviets with three seconds to play. The referees then stopped the game with one second left and added three more seconds because the Soviets had been complaining they had signaled for a time-out at the three second mark that wasn’t awarded. The Soviets then inbounded the ball a second time and the horn signaled the apparent end of the game with an American gold medal victory. The Americans celebrated a second time, but both teams were then ordered back on the court again, the referees now saying the clock had not been properly reset. Play resumed a third time with the Soviets this time throwing the ball the length of the court for a game-winning lay-up at the buzzer. This time the referees said it was final. The shocked Americans refused to accept the silver medal. An American appeal was lost 3-to-2, with all three judges voting for the Soviets members of Communist countries. To this day the American basketball team refuses to accept the silver medal; they sit in a vault in Lusanne, Switzerland. American team captain Kenny Davis has it written into his will that his wife and children are not allowed to accept the silver medal either.

The second category of Olympic controversy is municipal. By this I am referring to the city government and infrastructure that hosts the Games. The prestige that goes with hosting the Olympics is enormous; the entire world is focused on your city for nearly a month. Politics and money clearly play a central role in landing and producing the Games. Corruption and Pollyannish financial predictions are common.

Interior of 1976 Olympic Stadium

An interior view of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and its problem-plagued roof

In 1970 Montreal was named the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics, allegedly in part because it was not a superpower during this highly-charged period. Excitement to host Canada’s first ever Olympiad was intense; Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau predicted “The Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.” But the Olympics ended up being an utter financial disaster; before they began the province of Quebec had to step in to help Montreal fund it; the tower that was supposed to manipulate the retractable roof on the Olympic Stadium could not be completed in time, and ultimately Montreal would be mired in debt for the next thirty years. The Olympic Stadium was not paid off until 2006; by then it was hopelessly out of date and the final insult had come a year earlier when the Montreal Expos Major League baseball team had relocated to Washington, DC, leaving the aging stadium empty. The whole intractable mess was summed up in a tasteless political cartoon showing an obviously pregnant Drapeau on the phone inquiring about a particular medical procedure.

The third Olympic controversy category, and my personal favorite to read about or discuss, is the national/ideological kind. In theory the Olympics are supposed to be about the humanity of the individual athletes; the International Olympic Committee itself doesn’t even officially keep score of national medals. In actuality the Olympics do become about the nations themselves — who follows the Olympics without keeping track of their country’s victories? More importantly, the Olympics become a world stage for the expression of nationalism and ideology.

No Olympiad is more associated with nationalism and ideology than the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics–the “Nazi” Olympics. Berlin was voted on as the Olympic site in 1931; two years later the Nazis came to power and in typical Nazi style seized the opportunity as a showcase for Nazi German pageantry and propaganda.

1936 Olympic Stadium

The 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin

Among other things, the Nazis rounded up thousands of homeless Gypsies and put them in camps, but also temporarily took down the now-ubiquitous anti-Semitic signs. The German national team was composed almost entirely of Nazi-approved “Aryan” athletes. That most famous of Olympic traditions, the running and lighting of the torch, was a Nazi innovation of 1936.

In simple terms the 1936 Olympics may best be understood by a juxtaposition of Nazi Germany and the United States. The United States seriously considered boycotting the Berlin Olympics in protest of Nazi dogma. American Jewish groups were generally against participation, while African-American groups tended to support participation as a means of undermining Nazi claims of racial superiority. The United States would ultimately compete, but the city council of Los Angeles refused to spend $2,000 of taxpayer money to ship the 1932 Olympic flag to the Nazis.

Owens and Long on the medal stand

1936 Olympics long jump medal ceremony — Jesse Owens is in the center, Luz Long to the right giving the Nazi salute

No discussion of the 1936 Olympics would be complete without mention of African-American sprinter Jesse Owens’ track and field domination. He won four gold medals, including a four-man relay that included two Jewish-Americans and a second African-American. One of his gold medals came in the long jump. It was here that Luz Long, a visibly textbook “Aryan” German, struck up an impromptu friendship with Owens and gave him technical advice that Owens later credited with helping him win the gold. Long won the silver, was the first to congratulate Owens, and they walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room in front of the Nazi audience. In 1943 Long, a German soldier, would die of wounds suffered in combat in Italy. Hitler infamously refused to attend the medal presentations for the rest of the Olympics. Ultimately in 1936 the Germans would win the most medals and the United States would come in second.

So as July, 2012 rolls around, I will be eagerly awaiting the London Olympic Games like much of the rest of the developed world. I will enjoy the international flavor, the pageantry, the competition, even the architecture. But I will be waiting to see what kind of yet-unimaginable controversy, mild or severe, genuine or manufactured, flares up. It always does.


Further Reading:

The Olympics, a history of the modern games

The Olympics at the millennium : power, politics, and the games

The Olympics’ most wanted : the top 10 book of gold medal gaffes, improbable triumphs, and other oddities


Photo Credits:,_Sommerolympiade,_Siegerehrung_Weitsprung.jpg


10 thoughts on “The Dark Side of the Olympics

  1. Excellent article Brian, thank you. I am fortunate enough to know several Olympians and pursued the dream myself. I was able to live at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for several years before injury forced me into retirement and in 2000 I was able to travel to Sydney, Australia to watch my training partner win the Gold Medal in Olympic Weightlifting. I do love the “celebration of international peace and cooperation, harmony and goodwill, glorious pageantry and a rare view into the beauty of the human spirit and form at their most highly developed levels” and I know most of my fellow athletes, at least at the amateur level felt the same. We pushed our bodies and minds to the knife’s razor edge between athletic perfection, and utter ruin.

    You are correct, inevitable controversy mars what should be an international celebration of high achievement, perseverance and competition in the best spirit of the word. I think you break it down quite well. If I were to boil it down even further I would say most problems come down to greed and pride. Let us not forget the ever present problems of drugs. I do not refer to the controversies such as the Michael Phelps marijuana headlines. Let’s face it; recreational drugs only hinder high level athletic performance. The true problem is with the performance enhancing drugs that many athletes use to get an edge in the competition. This is the true dark side of the Olympics, and what tarnishes many gold, silver and bronze medals. How much of the Olympics is science and how much is the human body. And as science advances, where is the line?

    Nevertheless, I still believe in the purity of the Olympic dream. I believe in hard work, sacrifice, mental and physical perseverance and a little bit of craziness. I believe in meeting an athlete from across the globe, competing against them, and then shaking their hand no matter who wins. I believe in being proud of competing for the country you come from as well as being a good ambassador. But most of all I believe in being true to yourself as an athlete. This is something that is true at the Olympics, or at little league.

  2. I’ll also mention another Olympic controversy and tragedy. The 1976 Munich Olympics which entailed the Palestinian group Black September taking Israeli Olympians hostage at the Olympic village. After a standoff and a rescue attempt all athletes were killed. The event and Israel’s reaction is detailed in George Jonas’ book Vengeance: the true story of an Israeli counter-terrorist team.

  3. Thanks guys! Lisa, I was unaware we had anyone at TSCPL that close to Olympic competition. That is amazing. I’ve spent much of my life doing athletics or exercise in some form, but certainly never at that level.

    As you said there must just be a knife’s edge between perfection and ruin on both the physical and mental level. Whenever I see a runner trip or a gymnast fall at the Olympics and know that their livelihood is suddenly over I am always moved watching them get up and finish anyway and unable to imagine the emotions going through their head. To me that human spirit that got them there and will sustain them after it’s over is the greatest inspiration I draw from the Games.

  4. Great article! I’m not much of a sports fan (outside of the STL Cardinals) so I started reading your article with some hesitation. The stories you use to illustrate your examples really bring the Olympics to life though! Is there a particular book you would recommend for the high interest “people” stories like you relate here? Thanks!
    p.s. Also, Lisa, your Olympic connection is awesome, I didn’t know that either! Thank you for sharing your perspective here.

  5. Good article Brian. Sports can be the only pure form of competition. Ideally you are only judged by your performance nothing else matters, race nationality, politics, sex. Sadly this isnt always the case, however I feel it gives us a great insight into the heart and and soul of people who are striving for a dream.

    The Olympics have changed in my mind over the decades, for most of my life it until the 84 Olympics the Cold War and politics were played out in this arena.

    There will always be controversies over, judging, drugs, politics, and whatever else. Still the world will watch as atheletes compete at the highest level imaginable.

  6. This is a great write up, Brian. And we can see from all the responses you’ve gotten how interesting the Olympics are to people. Even Lissa, who isn’t a sports fan. I find the Olympics to be interesting because it is one of the few times it feels like our country completely comes together to support someone or something. It’s hard to believe you can get so into the eight man rowing competition, for example, but if there is an American team involved, I’ll be cheering for them wholeheartedly.

  7. Nice article, Brian. I think one of the most overlooked “dark side” incidents is the 1936 Olympics when 2 Jewish members of the U.S. 4×100 team were pulled the morning of their race. Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were the only two Jews on the American track and field team who went to the Berlin Olympics. They were scheduled to run in the 4 x 100 meter relay event on the next to the last day but their coach, Dean Cromwell, announced in a team meeting that Stoller would be replaced by Frank Metcalfe and Glickman by Jesse Owens. Glickman says that Owens immediately tried to decline and let Glickman run, but Cromwell was adamant. As Glickman says, “After all, Black athletes — in those days — did as they were told.”
    My favorite U.S. Olympic incident that I actually saw was the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968. Both men are now coaching high school track teams.

  8. Jean — I have no idea . . . London has been a center of European multicultural tension for a while though, I wonder if we will see any demonstrations.

    Lisa — I thought about including the 1972 Munich terrorist event, but that is such a huge subject I thought I would leave it for another time. Certainly the most tragic Olympic-related event.

    Lissa — I haven’t really had a chance to peruse our books much yet. Jesse Owens is quite an interesting story though, before and after the Olympics.

    Dave — I agree with you. We have seen sports cut through the various darker aspects of our culture many times. I too miss the rivalry with the Communists. I am just old enough to remember it.

    Nate — I totally agree. If an American is competing I am interested. Same reason I follow the World Cup even though I don’t particularly care to watch soccer any other time.

    Terri — Jesse Owens has such an interesting story. The race issue at the 1936 Olympics was so complex and not as cut-and-dry as people like to make it out. Owens was not allowed to stay at white hotels in the US but got to stay at them in Nazi Germany. He claimed he got an autograph mailed to him afterwards from Hitler, but nothing from FDR. He had to ride the freight elevator to go to his own parade in NYC. He was later criticized for racing (and beating) horses as a stunt that was beneath human beings, but defended himself by saying he needed the money like anyone else.

    I also thought about including the 1968 controversy but simply ran out of space. There’s so much one can include.

  9. Brian, I’m glad you opened up a discussion. It’s always fun to see what other people have experienced. The Olympics are so full of ironies and triumphs and tragedies it’s truly amazing.

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