OK – I will be the cynic. To many, the Olympics used to be something that made us gape in awe and inspiration at the marvel of amateur athletes. Now the games have evolved into nothing more than one giant advertisement with a lot of spoiled professional athletes looking for their next endorsement. While commercialism is rampant in 2008, politics and nationalism has been endemic since the rebirth of the games in 1896.
The Beijing Olympics are right around the corner, and like clockwork – the controversy has already started. Protests about China’s treatment of Tibet has disrupted the torch relay tradition in many countries. The selection of China was controversial in of itself — and the Beijing Games will undoubtedly be filled with problems, politics and pharmaceuticals — just like every games before it — only I believe even more magnified.
While there is much to admire about the games, the Olympics has had a checkered and tragic history. The 1972 Munich massacre, the boycotts of 1976, 1980, 1984, Hitler’s Games of 1936, the protests in Mexico City 1968, the dissolution of the Soviet Union before the Barcelona games in 1992, the skating cheating scandal in 2002, Jim Thorpe, Karl Schranz, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones, the list goes on.
The quadrennial event strives to be a gathering of the world’s athletes in a celebration of competition. But the Olympics has proven to be anything but. I will take a look at four of the most common problems that have plagued the Olympics – Women’s Issues, cheating, politics and drugs.
Women’s 800 Meter Run – 1928 Amsterdam
At the 1928 games in Amsterdam, the IOC added a new track event for Women – the 800 meter run (which is about ½ mile). Prior to this, the longest event on the calendar for women was the 200 meter run. The winner was Lina Radke of Germany with a time of 2:16.8, which was a world record. She was followed by runners from Japan, Sweden and Canada. After the race, several of the women collapsed from exhaustion and the heat. The Press (yeah they sucked back then too) and the Int’l Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) seized on this as evidence women should be banned from running more than 200 meters. One doctor said “women who took part in races this long would become old too soon.” The president of the IOC, Comte de Baillet-Latour, took this one step further – he wanted to ban all women from the Olympics (even though men had collapsed during many of the rowing events in the same Olympiad).
Guess who won? While the IOC did not get a complete ban on women, IOC officials bought the IAAF argument about long distance races for women. The 800 meter was dropped after 1928, and there were no races for women over 200 meters for 32 years — until 1960 in Rome. The 1500 meter race was added in 1972, and the marathon in 1984 (notably won by American Joan Benoit Samuelson).
Men’s Basketball Final – USA vs. USSR – 1972 Munich
Before the hockey game in 1980, there was the basketball game in 1972. The Americans entered the tournament as heavy favorites, having never lost a basketball game since the event was added to the Olympics in 1936 – 54 straight wins and 7 gold medals. The US team was coached by Hank Iba of Oklahoma (who coached the winning teams in the two previous Olympics) and led by amateur collegiate stars Doug Collins, Tom McMillen, Kevin Joyce and Ed Ratleff (unlike the current Olympics, which is chock full of NBA stars).
The US handily won its first 8 games by an average of 32 points – including a 66 point margin of victory over Japan. The final against the USSR, during the height of the Cold War was to be broadcast live back to the US.
The game was a slow paced game, not the run-and-shoot strategy the players had been employing. With six seconds to go, the USSR had a one point lead. Soviet player Sasha Belov threw the ball straight to American Doug Collins, who was then fouled intentionally (and quite hard). Dazed, Collins sank two free throws with :03 left, and the US led 50-49. Now it gets interesting.
The USSR in-bounded the ball, but 2-seconds later, the Brazilian referee called an administrative time out when he saw an argument at the scorer’s table. It seems the Soviet coach had called a time-out after Collins first shot. The horn indicating a time-out went off just as Collins shot his second free throw. The international rules in 1972 stated that the time-out could be called before or after the shot. The German scoring officials thought the Soviet coach had cancelled the time out when he saw the Soviet players line-up for Collins free throw, so the Brazilian referee was never notified of the time out.
With one second left, the USSR was given their time out. They in-bounded the ball, the clock ran out and the US celebrated. Not so fast.
The head of FIBA (that is the International Basketball Federation), Robert Jones of Great Britain intervened and ordered the clock set back to :03, which was how much time was left when the Soviet coach called the time out. Jones had absolutely no authority to make this call, but no one was going to criticize the tyrannical head of FIBA. The USSR got another chance to inbound the ball, whereby Ivan Edehsko threw the ball way downcourt to Belov, who pushed past his American defenders and scored the winning basket, USSR 51-50.
Anger and chaos erupted on the American side, and Iba filed a protest with Jones. Iba claimed that there was no way that play could have been accomplished in :03. However, under international rules, the clock does not start on inbounds plays until the ball is touched, in this case by Belov. The five man panel voted straight geo-political lines (sounds familiar huh?) – the judges from [then] communist Hungary, Poland Cuba voted for the USSR, while the judges from Italy and Puerto Rico voted to disallow the basket. The US refused to accept the silver and boycotted the medal ceremony. As for Soviet hero Sasha Belov, he died mysteriously 6 years later.
Men’s 4×100 meter relay – 1936 Berlin
The Berlin Games of 1936 were Hitler’s Games – where he would prove to the world that the Germans were superior. Jesse Owens put a major crimp in that assertion, as he won 4 gold medals in Track & Field, much to the chagrin of Hitler. Owens got his gold 4th gold from a very controversial decision.
The 4×100 relay runners were originally scheduled to be Marty Glickman, Frank Wykoff, Sam Stoller and Foy Draper. Owens was not originally part of that team. The four men practiced baton passing (a tricky part in the relay) for weeks. After Owens won his third gold in the 200, there was some pressure to add him to the relay. Coach Robertson initially resisted.
The day before the qualifying heats, Owens was added and Glickman was dropped. Then on the day of the heats, Stoller was taken off the team and Ralph Metcalfe replaced him. Robertson’s reason for the last minute change was that he feared the German team and wanted the relay to have the four fastest men running, not the ones who practiced the baton-passing. The new team led by Owens easily won the 4×100 gold medal by 15 meters – a huge difference. In most 4×100 relays the difference is usually less than 1 meter. Owens had his 4th gold. Interestingly enough, Robertson did not follow his own 4×100 advice for the 4×400 relay and have the four fastest men running on that relay, including 400 meter winner Archie Williams. Robertson kept the original line-up and that relay lost to the British.
What was the worst kept secret about the 4×100 line-up change was the fact that Stoller and Glickman were removed because they were Jewish – the only two Jews on the US track team, and the only two athletes who did not compete at all in Berlin. Much of the blame for the change is attributed to Avery (aka Slavery) Brundage, head of the US Olympic Committee – who did not want to offend Hitler. Brundage was a notorious anti-Semite and used twisted logic to justify that keeping black athletes on the team somehow didn’t offend Hitler, but Jewish ones did. Glickman went on to be a sports announcer in New York.
The East German Women’s Swimming team – 1976 Montreal
Since the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the US women had dominated the swimming races. At the 1972 Munich Games, the US women won 17 medals, including 8 golds. The East German (DDR) women’s swimming team won 4 silvers and one bronze. Four years later there was a complete turnabout, as the East Germans won 11 of 13 events and 18 medals. The US won 7 medals and only one gold. What happened in between?
In 1976, the IOC was testing for amphetamines, barbiturates and a few other drugs. They were barely testing for steroids. Between 1972 and 1976, the physicians and scientists of the German Democratic Republic were studying the biochemistry of the body. They began feeding their star athletes, including the women swimmers, a variety of steroids and hormones to give their athletes an edge. At the 1975 World Swimming Championships, many athletes from all over the world (not just American) remarked that the East German women were bulked-up, over-developed and man-like. The East German officials dismissed these claims, stating the Americans did not train hard enough, master the technology of ulta-thin swimsuits or incorporate nutrition into the training regimen.
In Montreal, Kornelia Ender was the star of the DDR team, racking up 4 golds, 1 silver and a lot of world records. Shirley Babashoff, the leading American swimmer, came to Montreal as one of the favorites in the four free style events. She lost to East Germans in all four and remarked that the East Germans looked huge (and they did, they had shoulders beyond comprehension). Babashoff was labeled by the East Germans as a “sore loser.” In the final event of the meet, the 4×100 freestyle relay, the Americans upset the heavily favored East Germans, for their only win of the ’76 games. Shirley got her gold and eventually the last word – for she was right about the East Germans and her being tagged as a sore loser premature.
Every sports official and physician in the DDR knew the athletes were being injected with steroids. All the competitors could tell. But for the athletes themselves, many were being injected without their knowledge. When the wall came down in 1989, the curtain went up on the whole East German chemical program. It was discovered that East German doctors were regularly injecting their stars with steroids and hormones, telling the swimmers they were vitamins. Years later, many of the women who received the drugs were suffering from a variety of diseases, tumors, reproductive problems and mental health issues as a result of being chemically-enhanced. Turns out those 1976 and subsequent East German swimming medals were tarnished and then turned rotten.
Kornelia Ender, DDR