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Top 10 Olympics controversies

Top 10 list of Olympic controversies includes 1972 men's basketball final, and issues that affected Jesse Owens, Ben Johnson, Roy Jones Jr., Zola Budd, Tommie Smith, Jim Thorpe and Fred Lorz among many others.

June 10, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • Roy Jones Jr.'s controversial loss to Park Si Hun at the 1988 Seoul Olympics sparked calls for boxing's expulsion, but it never happened.
Roy Jones Jr.'s controversial loss to Park Si Hun at the 1988 Seoul… (Associated Press )

The Olympic Games offer competitors the chance to bathe in national glory and international acclaim. The victors — indeed, all the athletes who aspire to victory — are celebrated in the Olympic motto of "Citius, Altius, Fortius."

Faster, higher, stronger.

Yet celebration and aspiration sometimes share the Olympic spotlight with controversy, with scandal and with athletes who train and compete outside the bounds of Citius, Altius and Fortius. One ranking of the 10 least pure moments in the history of the Summer Games:

No. 10 (1912): Jim Thorpe never had participated in a decathlon until the 1912 Olympics. He won the pentathlon, then gave the decathlon a try and won gold there too. He was saluted as the greatest athlete in the world, rewarded with a ticker-tape parade in New York and generally revered until the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram reported a few months later that Thorpe had made a few bucks playing minor league baseball — $25 or $35 a week, in the summers of 1909 and 1910. That made him a professional athlete, in the eyes of U.S. Olympic officials, and the International Olympic Committee stripped him of his medals. However, decathlon runner-up Hugo Wieslander of Sweden said he considered Thorpe the fair champion and would not accept the gold medal. The IOC reinstated Thorpe posthumously and awarded his children duplicate gold medals in 1983.

No. 9 (1984): At a time South Africa was banned from the Olympics because of its state-sponsored racial segregation, a South African teenager named Zola Budd ran for Britain, after London's Daily Mail paid for her to move to England four months before the Games. She had a British grandfather, it turned out, and soon enough she had British citizenship. In the final of the women's 3,000 meters, she and American favorite Mary Decker bumped, with Decker tripping on Budd's right leg and falling to the ground with a hip injury. She did not finish. Budd, loudly booed at the Los Angeles Coliseum, finished seventh. Budd apologized to Decker, who told her, "Don't bother. I don't want to talk to you." Decker faulted Budd for improperly cutting inside; track officials briefly disqualified her and then reinstated her. Budd had grown up with a poster of Decker on her wall.

No. 8 (1904): On a sweltering afternoon in St. Louis, Fred Lorz of the U.S. crossed the marathon finish line with no other runners in sight. The day was so hot and the course so poor — the only water available came from a well 12 miles into the race — that 18 of the 32 runners to start the race did not complete it. As it turned out, neither did Lorz. He tired after about nine miles, then jumped into a car for the next 11. The car broke down, so Lorz ran the rest of the way, and he was greeted as the winner. The fraud was quickly discovered, and Lorz confessed to what he said was a practical joke. He did win the Boston Marathon in 1905.

No. 7 (1936): Perhaps the most enduring myth of the Olympic Games is that Adolf Hitler refused to extend a congratulatory handshake to Jesse Owens, a claim for which Olympic historians have found no supporting evidence. It is clear that Hitler was neither pleased nor impressed by the four gold medals Owens won, even as the German crowd cheered him loudly and mobbed him for pictures and autographs. As Owens pierced the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority, his home country acted with regrettable caution, replacing two Jewish sprinters on the U.S. team. Owens got a hero's welcome upon returning home, yet as a black man he had to ride the freight elevator to a New York hotel reception in his honor. Once the Olympic glow faded, Owens had to earn money by racing against horses.

No. 6 (1968): In the months following the assassinations ofMartin Luther King Jr. andRobert F. Kennedy, black American athletes debated whether to protest strained race relations by boycotting the Olympics. Instead, Tommie Smith and John Carlos offered a silent protest from the medal stand. Smith won gold in the men's 200 meters, Carlos won bronze. As the national anthem played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist toward the sky. The silver medalist, Australia's Peter Norman, volunteered to wear a sticker supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The International Olympic Committee threatened to expel the U.S. team if Smith and Carlos were not sent home at once. Smith and Carlos both attended San Jose State, which erected a statue in their honor in 2005. When Norman died the next year, Smith and Carlos each served as pallbearers at the funeral.

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