The Summer Olympics isn’t without its share of controversial events – failed drug tests, mountains of debt for host cities, boycotts from nations against the games, etc. – but the Winter Games has made a reputation for controversy that stands out on its own. From the scandalous to the criminal, the Winter Olympics has seen it all. And with the games being held in Sochi in Vladimir Putin-led Russia, one should certainly not expect things to be much different. In fact, things have already gotten off to a rocky start: the controversy over Russia’s anti-gay laws and ban on pro-gay propaganda (more on that later) and the horribly inadequate hotel rooms – some of which include shirtless paintings of Putin – for athletes and journalists.
Certain controversial moments on this list have led to criminal investigations, revelations of pressure by judges to fix results, positive drug tests for substances that aren’t technically banned, and the hiring of hitmen to assault athletes’ that are competing against you – if you’re reading this and your name is Tonya Harding. In other words, the Winter Olympics is hardly immune to having certain incidents threaten to overshadow the sporting events themselves.
The Olympics are usually a time for the world to come together, put their differences aside and enjoy watching their athletes compete amongst one another in numerous sporting events pertaining to the games’ correlating season of the year. Sadly, scandalous events can take the focus away from what should otherwise be a time for celebration for billions throughout the world, and the Winter Olympics are living proof of that – even if the summer games have been going on for quite a bit longer. The games may usually end successfully, but none has ever truly gone perfectly, regardless of which year and which city. Let’s take a look at the 10 most controversial moments in Winter Olympic history.
10. The Quadruple Jump Controversy – Vancouver 2010
When Evan Lysacek won the gold medal for the United States at the 2010 games in Vancouver, he did it without completing a move that is necessary for virtually all gold-medal winning figure skaters of his kind: the quadruple jump. In his gold medal-winning final free skate, Lysacek completed his skate without performing a quad at any point, beating out Russia’s Evgeny Plushenko – who did perform the jump. Since Lysacek’s gold-winning skate was seen has being lower in difficulty than Plushenko’s, a controversy ensued with Plushenko and his coach blaming the judging plannel for being biased in Lysacek’s favour. Russian sports analysts and the general public also blamed corruption on the part of the judges for the result.
9. Austrian Biathletes’ Village Raided for Banned Substances – Turin 2006
During the 2006 games in Turin, members of Austria’s biathlon and cross-country ski team were the casualties of fairly unorthodox means of cracking down on doping: by the Italian police raiding the athletes’ villages for drugs. After the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had filed a report to the IOC with suspicions about doping on the part of those particular athletes, the raid was conducted. The end result? A fine of roughly $822,000 for the Austrian Olympic Committee and permanent bans for the six athletes in question. The scandal came at a time when the Austrian city of Salzburg was bidding to host this year’s winter games, which would eventually be awarded to Sochi.
8. Jean-Claude Killy’s Sweep of Alpine Skiing Medals – Grenoble 1968
The moment that the IOC has dubbed the “greatest controversy in the history of the Winter Olympics” is also one of the earliest examples of a controversy the winter games have seen. During the 1968 games in Grenoble, French skier Jean-Claude Killy won all three events in alpine skiing that he could possibly win at that time. However, his successful sweep came after Austrian skier Karl Schranz complained that a man was crossing his path during his own race, and had to race again, where he got the fastest run time. After video review, it was decided that Schranz was disqualified for missing a gate on the first run, and Killy won gold after Schranz annulled the results of his second run.
7. IOC Members Admit to Bribery – Salt Lake City 2002
When Salt Lake City was finally awarded the 2002 winter games in 1995, on the city’s fifth attempt at bidding to host them, the process did not come without fishy circumstances. In fact, fishy would be a tame way of describing things: Salt Lake City’s leadership dangled various carrots in front of the IOC – including free trips to the Super Bowl as well as tuition assistance for children of IOC members – as a means of finally securing the games. The strategy worked, but not without some ugly aftermath: 10 IOC members ended up being expelled with 10 others sanctioned – the first corruption-related expulsion or sanction in IOC history.
6. Taiwan Refuses to Compete as Chinese Taipei – Lake Placid 1980
The 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid saw Taiwan do exactly what it did beforehand in Montreal at the 1976 Summer Olympics: refuse to participate by boycotting the games altogether. Since Taiwan wanted to be recognized as the Republic of China at the games – and the IOC wouldn’t let them – they were instead recognized as “Chinese Taipei” by the IOC and were given an Olympic-themed flag to compete under. Rather than competing for medals under their new name, they packed up and went home before the games had really started. Taiwan are still known as “Chinese Taipei” in Olympic events to this day.
5. Ross Dimebag-liati – Nagano 1998
The gold medal victory of Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati in the giant slalom event at the men’s snowboarding competition at the 1998 games in Nagano should have been about Rebagliati making history as the first athlete to win gold in such a sport. However, THC – the active ingredient found in marijuana – was discovered to be in his system during his race, leading to his disqualification. But since marijuana was not on the list of banned substances, Rebagliati’s gold medal was awarded back to him. Stoners across Canada and beyond rejoiced, and Rebagliati is now the founder of a medical marijuana company called Ross’ Gold.
4. Apolo Ohno Wins Gold to South Korea’s Dismay – Salt Lake City 2002
Following a controversial qualification race to be on the U.S. Olympic team ahead of the games, Apolo Ohno was in for an even more debatable race for the gold in Salt Lake in 2002. While the speed skater was competing in the mens’ 1500 m final race, Ohno was in second place and attempted to pass Korean skater Kim Dong-Sung who would then cut in front of him, causing Ohno to raise his arms and complain that he was fouled. Ohno won gold and Kim was disqualified; much to the awry of a number of South Koreans, who used Ohno’s victory as a means of festering a major national anti-American sentiment. Death threats towards Ohno from some South Koreans would also follow.
3. Controversy Over Anti-gay Laws in Russia – Sochi 2014
What’s been happening behind the scenes at this year’s Sochi Olympics has been drawing so much controversy that this year’s games could have very well been an entry on this list all by itself. However, the country’s ban on the distribution of what they call “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors – as well as banning gay pride parades in Moscow for 100 years – has attracted more derision and outrage than Putin and co. could have expected. As far as the Olympics are concerned, this has meant major tiptoeing for LGBT people traveling to the games. The controversy was made more apparent during the opening ceremony: Greece wore rainbow-coloured mittens, Germany with rainbow-coloured jackets during the ceremony, and – in a classic case of irony – Russian faux-lesbian duo t.A.T.u. were among the ceremony’s musical acts performing.
2. The French judge – Salt Lake City 2002
The public outcry from many corners of the figure skating world – and in Canada in general – was palpable after Canadian figure skating pair Jamie Salé and David Pelletier could only finish second after skating a flawless routine, losing to Russia’s Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze who had a minor slip-up in theirs. It would later be revealed that the French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, was pressured into voting for the Russians by the head of the French skating organization, allegedly in exchange for an advantage for the French pair in the ice dancing competition that would come several days later. Following the controversy, both the Canadian and Russian pairs were awarded dual gold medals, and the scoring system in Olympic figure skating was subsequently given an overhaul.
1. Tonya Harding Hires Hitman to Assault Nancy Kerrigan – Lillehammer 1994
As it is quite aptly named, “The Whack Heard ‘Round the World” came just before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, when American figure skater Tonya Harding and her then ex-husband hired a hitman to club rival skater Nancy Kerrigan in her right knee while practicing for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Both Kerrigan and Harding made it to the Olympics, and Kerrigan recovered quickly prior to the games. Harding’s plot backfired: she only finished eighth in Lillehammer, while Kerrigan won silver, losing only to Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul. After the Olympics, Harding’s co-conspirators were all given prison sentences, while Harding was handed three years’ probation – as well as a massive fine and community service – for the attack.
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