I’m so ready for the Olympics and its strange variety of sports. When else are you going to watch the pentathlon, where competitors ride horses, shoot guns and fight with swords?! In some cases, you’re watching these sporting events live at three in the morning and you don’t have to question yourself when doing so. I would never watch this crap any other time of year, but it’s about civic pride! If you can’t root for your country in a gun/sword fight, when can you?
The Olympics aren’t just about the athletes and stories. On more than one occasion, the games have been the scene of terror attacks, they’ve been used as a political pawn, they’ve been boycotted and more. It is undoubtedly the sporting event that has seen the most controversy in its history, due to being on a global scale.
They’ve also been the scene of some, “did that just really happen” moments. What was it they said at the beginning of Wide World of Sports … the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. That tells just part of the Olympic story. Here’s a look at the top 15 shocking moments from the summer games.
15 Greg Louganis hits his head on diving board, has HIV (Seoul 1988)
Every time I watch these divers jump off the platform I get a little geeked out and rightfully so. Watching American Olympian Greg Louganis hit his head during qualifying at the 1988 games was gnarly. What’s even crazier is what came out in seven years later, when Louganis admitted that he knew he was HIV positive when the incident occurred. If this fact had been leaked in 1988, the stigma of the disease could have made Louganis’ accident an international incident. He ended up going on to win two gold medals that year.
Louganis recalled his internal struggle in an ESPN article: "Had they known about my HIV status at the '88 Olympics in Seoul, I would have never been allowed into the country. But my doctor encouraged me that the healthiest thing for me would be to continue training for the Olympics."
Louganis has since suffered from chronic depression.
14 Hungary and the Soviet Union go at it during water polo match (Melbourne 1956)
There are so many political moments that have played out at the Olympic games. A few weeks before the 1956 games, there was a revolt against the government of the Hungarian People's Republic as the people were tired of Soviet control. The unrest played out in the pool during a water polo semi-final match between the two countries where with just moments left, Hungarian Ervin Zador was busted open thanks to a shot from Russian Valentin Prokopov. The Hungarians won that match and the gold medal game as well.
The incident has since come to be known as the "Blood in the Water match". Following the fight, the match was ultimately stopped, with Hungary being declared the winner since they were leading at the time. They went on to defeat Yugoslavia in the gold medal match, so you could argue that the blood was worth it for Hungary.
13 Kurt Angle wins a gold medal with a broken neck (Atlanta 1996)
Twenty years ago Kurt Angle won a heavyweight wrestling gold medal with a couple of fractured vertebrae. Thus began his legendary run which continues to this day. Sure, there are other athletes who may have become bigger stars or won more medals, but is there a more badass Olympian than Kurt Angle? He sustained the injury during the Olympic trials and just a few months later won the gold by defeating Iranian Abbas Jadidi in the finals. Wrestling doesn’t seem like one of those sports where a neck injury doesn’t play a role in how you perform. The man is an animal.
We all know the success Angle went on to have, albeit not in the sports world, but in the sports entertainment world of professional wrestling. Angle went on to become one of the most accomplished pro wrestlers of all time and this gold medal gave him legitimacy and leaves him as a legend in two mediums of wrestling.
12 U.S. Men’s basketball team fails to win gold (Athens 2004)
Consider this: The US men’s basketball team made 14 Olympic appearances previous to the 2004 Athens games, winning the gold medal 12 times. In those games, they had a record of 109-2, but the team and the world were stunned when they finished the games in third place with a record of 5-3. How big an impact did the loss have? The 2008 squad dubbed themselves the Redeem Team and did just that, winning the gold in Beijing. In fact, the U.S. Olympic team hasn’t lost a game since 2004, winning the gold medal in 2012 as well.
The United States barely got out of their group at the Olympics. Despite that, the United States will made it to the semifinals, but were eventually defeated by Argentina in the semifinals, who went on to defeat Italy in the gold medal match. You can bet that this was extremely embarrassing for the Americans.
11 Kerri Strug sticks the landing (Atlanta 1996)
Who could forget when Kerri Strug, munchkin voice and all, stuck a vault landing on a messed up ankle and helped the US women’s gymnastics team secure gold at the 1996 Olympics? And who could forget her coach Dracula (my mistake, the coach was Bela Karolyi, not Bela Lugosi) carrying the injured Strug to the medal podium. The four foot, seven-inch Strug became a national hero even appearing on Saturday Night Live with her “brother” Kippi, played by Chris Kattan.
Strug said following the incident that she wasn't going to let an injured ankle stop her from living out her dream. "This is the Olympics," she would say later the media. "This is what you dream about from when you're 5 years old. I wasn't going to stop."
10 Angel Matos kicks a ref (Beijing 2008)
Cuban Angel Matos won a gold medal in taekwondo at the 2000 Sydney Games and was back in 2008 trying to get back to the top. He failed to make it to the gold medal match, but did have a chance to win the bronze, that is until he got hurt and kicked a ref in the face out of frustration. A good move by Matos as all record of him competing in the Beijing games has been erased and he is banned for life from World Taekwondo Federation events. That’s the Olympic spirit!
Granted, there are probably some athletes out there that have had dreams of getting back at a ref who screwed them over, but those dreams should probably remain dreams. When you actually do it in real life, there are, you know, consequences. We hope it was worth it, Angel.
9 Roy Jones Jr. is Screwed Out of Medal (Seoul 1988)
Roy Jones Jr has a career record of 63-9, having held titles across multiple weight classes and federations. He was named the 1990s Fighter of the Decade by the Boxing Writers Association of America. At the 1988 games, Jones landed nearly three times as many punches as the eventual gold medal winner, South Korean Park Si-Hun, but lost a 3-2 decision. Even Park was surprised by his win after getting pounded by Jones for most of the fight. An investigation found that some of the judges may have been bribed, but Jones was stuck with his silver medal.
In 1997, an IOC investigation looked into whether the judges had been bribed, but despite the South Korean judges being wined and dined that"there is no evidence of corruption in the boxing events in Seoul".
Roy Jones Jr. has made peace with the screwjob, as he confronted Park after the fight. "When I had that problem in South Korea. I went with an interpreter to face the guy I fought," he said in 2004. "I asked him 'Did you win that fight?' He shook his head and said 'No'. And then I was cool with it. If you tell me the truth, I'm cool."
8 Wrestling match lasts nearly 12 hours (Stockholm 1912)
The 1912 Olympics lasted nearly three months, which seems like an eternity when you consider that the modern games only last a few weeks. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock that a Greco-Roman wrestling match at those games between Estonia's Martin Klein and Finland's Alfred Asikainen lasted nearly 12 hours. You read that correctly, 12 hours. The match was a semi-final contest, won by Klein, but when it came to a match for the gold the following day, Klein was too exhausted to compete and had to forfeit.
Thank God this took place in the days before television. Can you imagine sitting by your TV screen for 12 hours watching this match? The only ones that would win out would be sponsors, as you can be sure that there'd be many commercials in that span.
7 U.S. boycotts Moscow games (Moscow 1980)
What better place to make a political statement than by using the Olympics? I don’t wanna say what’s right and what’s wrong, but consider all those American athletes from 1980 who missed what might have been, their only opportunity to participate. Nevertheless, 80 nations including the U.S., Japan, Canada and China, decided to boycott the games in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan a few months earlier. The Soviets dominated the medal count. The boycotting nations staged their own event, the Liberty Bell Classic, in Philadelphia.
In response to the US boycott of the 1980 games, the Soviets returned the favor in 1984, boycotting the Los Angeles games. You may fondly remember that this was parodied in The Simpsons, which saw Homer win many free Krusty burgers, due to the Americans running unopposed by the Soviets in many events.
6 Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists (Mexico City 1968)
The 60s were a crazy time in the U.S. as blacks across the country fought for equal rights with much of the drama playing out on the evening news. At the 1968 games in Mexico City, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos used a first and third place finish respectively in the 200 meters to bring attention to inequality. As the Star-Spangled Banner played, the pair raised their clench fists to show solidarity with their black brethren. Smith and Carlos garnered a lot of heat for the move, but have since been inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Following the incident, Smith later explained what his thought process was going into the Olympics: "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."
5 Soviet Union Men’s Basketball wins gold after three do-overs (Munich 1972)
It’s tough to argue that the U.S. men’s basketball team didn’t get screwed out of a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics. It’s a long story, but the crux is that timekeepers couldn’t get their stuff together and the Soviets were given the chance to inbound and score three times with just seconds left in the contest. This was the middle of the Cold War and the U.S. was previously undefeated in basketball since its inclusion in the Olympics in 1936. The U.S. team has never accepted the silver medals.
Some from the IOC will say that the Americans' refusal to accept their silver medals is a poor display of sportsmanship, but clearly there was a lot more than a gold medal at stake for the Americans in a time like the Cold War.
4 Jesse Owens embarrasses Hitler (Berlin 1936)
Hitler planned to show the world how his athletes were superior to everyone else at the 1936 Summer Olympics from Berlin, but he wasn’t counting on American Jesse Owens to spoil the party. Owens, a black man from Alabama, won four gold medals at the games effectively showing Hitler that whites weren’t superior. In two of the events, the long jump and 4 x 100 relay, Germans were on the podium below Owens. Interesting as well when you consider how prevalent racism was in the south when Owens made a name for himself.
Hitler reportedly refused to congratulate Owens personally, and this is what Owens had to say after the incident: "Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the 'man of the hour' in another country."
3 Ben Johnson gets caught cheating (Seoul 1988)
Athletic competition is big business and as with anything else, where there are major dollars involved, people will do whatever they can to claim their piece of the pie. The East Germans created a culture of doping, track star Marion Jones went to prison after lying about her own steroid use, but there aren’t many instances more memorable than Canadian Ben Johnson’s. His 9.79 time in the 100m was a world record but he was disqualified and stripped of his gold just two days later.
As of 2010, Johnson remained unapologetic over the incident, and claims that the PEDs didn't give him an edge over any other athlete at the 1988 games. "What it did for me? It didn't make me run faster. It just [allowed] me to train harder and I could recover quicker. You're in better shape [because you can train harder]. I wasn't the only one doing it. There was a level playing field."
2 Olympic Park Bombing (Atlanta 1996)
There aren’t many things more shocking and appalling than terrorism and to blow up a pipe bomb in the middle of a celebration of athleticism takes a special kind of nutjob. The attack happened about a week into the Centennial Games, injuring more than 100 people and killing two. Media coverage of the aftermath dominated the rest of the competition. A security guard named Richard Jewell, who was later found to have actually saved lives by alerting police to the device, was the original suspect and faced constant harassment from the media.
An abortion clinic bomber named Eric Rudolph was later found guilty of the bombing. He emerged as a suspect to the FBI in 1997 and was finally caught in 2003. He was then convicted for his crimes and is serving four consecutive life sentences plus 120 years in prison for the totality of his crimes.
1 Terrorists take hostages (1972 Munich)
Nothing has put a dark cloud over the Olympics like the events of the 1972 games in Munich. The day was 21 hours of hostage negotiations and terror that unfolded live on television after eight Palestinian terrorists ambushed the Israeli team in their Olympic village apartment. After an hours-long standoff, the terrorists and hostages were transported to an airport, and a rescue attempt wasn’t successful. Seventeen people died in total and the Olympic games were suspended for 24 hours to hold a memorial for those who perished.
The incident caused a lot of embarrassment for Germany, who were clearly not prepared to handle such a crisis and they were heavily criticized for their handling of the whole situation. This led to the formation of the GSG 9, Germany's counter terrorism force.