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Top 10 Olympics controversies

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.

No. 5 (1988): Roy Jones Jr. of the United States dominated the three-round light-middleweight championship fight. That he would win was a foregone conclusion. He landed 86 blows; opponent Park Si-hun of South Korea landed 32. These Games were in Seoul, and one judge told Sports Illustrated he “voted for the Korean” so the boxers from the host country would not be shut out. But two of the other four judges favored Park as well, giving him the gold medal in a decision that triggered this commentary in the French newspaper L’Equipe: “Scandalous. To vomit.” Park reportedly admitted he had lost the fight, but he did not return the medal. The decision stood — yet Jones was selected as the most outstanding boxer of the Olympics.

No. 4 (1956): As the Hungarian water polo team left for Melbourne to defend its gold medal, Hungary withdrew from the Warsaw Pact and declared itself a free and independent country. By the time the team arrived at the Olympics three weeks later, the Soviet Union had invaded Hungary and crushed the rebellion. The Hungarians played on, and drew the Soviets in the water polo semifinals. “We were yelling at them, ‘You dirty bastards. You come over and bomb our country,’” Hungarian star Ervin Zador told the BBC. “They were calling us traitors.” Hungary led 4-0 when a Soviet player pummeled Zador so severely that blood streamed from above his eye. The match was stopped, with pro-Hungarian fans threatening to storm the playing area and fight with the Soviet team. Zador’s injury forced him to sit out the gold-medal game, which Hungary won, but the semifinal has been immortalized as the “Blood in the Water” game.

No. 3 (1976): The light went on whenever the sword made contact with the opponent. Get a hit, trigger the light. That was fencing. But how could the light go off when there was no hit? That was what Britain’s modern pentathlon team wanted to know when two of its competitors complained that Boris Onischenko of the Soviet Union was getting credit for mythical hits. An examination of Onischenko’s sword revealed he could push a concealed button and trigger the light whenever he wanted. He was disqualified, and the nickname wrote itself in headlines around the world: “Disonischenko.”

No. 2 (1988): “I’d like to say my name is Benjamin Sinclair Johnson Jr. and this world record will last 50 years, maybe 100.” That is how Canada’s Ben Johnson opened the news conference after winning gold in the men’s 100 meters in Beijing, obliterating the previous record with a time of 9.79 seconds. He was stripped of the gold medal three days later, after testing positive for steroids, the biggest name to be caught in Olympic drug testing. Carl Lewis of the U.S. was declared the winner, with a runner-up 9.92 that set an Olympic record. It was not until 1999 that Maurice Greene ran the first legitimate 9.79. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt holds the current world record of 9.58.

No. 1 (1972): The United States never had lost a men’s basketball game in the Olympics, and three seconds were all that stood between the U.S. and another gold medal. The Americans led, 50-49. The Soviet Union inbounded the ball, and time ran out. But a British official from the international basketball federation — in the stands, not on the court — ordered three seconds restored, ostensibly the time left when the Soviets tried to call time out. Again the clock ran out, and again three seconds were ordered restored, this time because the clock allegedly had not been properly reset. Alexander Belov converted a long pass into the winning basket, the Americans’ record in the Olympics fell to 63-1 and the U.S. team refused to accept its silver medals. The medals remain locked in a Swiss vault.

Sources for this report included the Guardian’s “50 Stunning Olympic Moments” and David Wallechinsky’s “The Complete Book of the Olympics.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin


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