Where there are sports, there is controversy. And the Olympics are commonly linked to complaints about who won what competition, who’s competing that should not be, and various questions of ethics. As stories buzz about the Zika virus, polluted competition waters, and a doping scandal cutting a swath of banned athletes through the Russian delegation for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, it’s a perfect time to highlight some of the most outlandish controversies associated with the Olympic Games in recent history.
Getting a leg up
Right before the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, the USOC was considering whether figure skater Tonya Harding should be eligible to compete in the games after her former husband’s evil plot to take down fellow Team USA skater Nancy Kerrigan. Harding was suing the Olympic committee for $25 million, but the judge presiding over the case urged both sides to come to an agreement so the Olympics would not be overshadowed by the controversy. The USOC agreed to let Harding compete and she agreed to drop her lawsuit. Harding walked away empty-handed from the games and Kerrigan won the silver medal.
What’s in a name?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) love their names. And they don’t like to share. So in 1985, when San Francisco Arts and Athletics used the term “Gay Olympics” for their event, the USOC and the IOC sued—and won. The plaintiff Olympic committees were represented by Vaughn Walker, a gay man who came under serious fire from gay rights activists for being “anti-gay.”
Girls, girls, girls
When prostitution is involved, another country’s Olympic hurdles can’t help but become big news. Taekwondo athlete Logan Campbell of New Zealand attempted to finance his trip to the London 2012 Olympics with proceeds from a brothel he started specifically for raising funds. The scheme was developed after his bid to the Beijing Olympics cost him and his family nearly $100,000. While Campbell’s plan didn’t violate any laws, the New Zealand Olympic Committee threatened to sue him for linking his brothel with the Olympics and tainting Olympic values. Campbell has since sold the brothel, seeking financial support from sponsors instead.
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A need for speed
Before he became a Dancing with the Stars champion, Apolo Anton Ohno was a gold-medal-winning Olympic speedskater with a slightly marred reputation. In 2002, fellow speedskater Tommy O’Hare filed a complaint against Ohno and skater Rusty Smith, claiming that the two men fixed a race in the trials for the 2002 US Olympic team in order to help skater Shani Davis qualify. Smith filed a defamation suit against O’Hare, but when an arbitrator exonerated Smith and Ohno, Smith dropped the case. Ohno, Smith, and Davis all came away with medals between the 2002 and 2006 Olympics.
The biggest boycott
In 1980, the USOC boycotted the Olympics, which were being held in the Soviet Union. But 25 athletes, led by rower Anita DeFrantz, sued the USOC claiming a violation of their constitutional rights. Ultimately, the United States did not send a team to that year’s Olympics and DeFrantz went on to become the first American woman to serve on the IOC.
A Jewell in the rough
At the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, police officer Richard Jewell discovered a backpack filled with pipe bombs on the grounds of the Centennial Olympic Park. Jewell helped evacuate the area before the bomb exploded but, after briefly being called a hero, Jewell was then considered a suspect in planting the bombs. Eventually, Jewell was completely exonerated and Eric Rudolph was discovered to be the bomber. Jewell, however, suffered personally and professionally during his “trial by media” and filed several libel lawsuits against NBC News, The New York Post, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Piedmont College, and CNN.
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