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Controversy and Scandal at the Winter Olympics

Snow, ice and red hot scandal

by Gerry Brown

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The Summer Games may have it all over the Winter Games when it comes to history, pageantry, and worldwide television ratings, but the Winter Olympics dominate when it comes to good old-fashioned controversy and deliciously irresistible scandal.

Aftermath of World War II

Just before the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics, Lebanon, the only Arab nation competing, threatened to boycott if the all-Jewish team representing Palestine competed under a Zionist flag. In the end, the team from Palestine did not come to the Games, claiming they did not have enough time to train properly.

Other countries, including Norway and Yugoslavia, protested to the IOC that former Nazis were competing for Austria. Switzerland did refuse to grant a visa to at least one athlete, but in the end the former Nazi soldiers claimed they were drafted into the army and had no say in the matter. The scandal blew over.

Bobsled Whodunit

Also at the 1948 St. Moritz Olympics, unknown vandals tampered with some of the American bobsleds the night before competition by loosening the nuts on the sleds' steering mechanisms. Fortunately, the treachery was discovered before the race. The offenders were never caught.

One Team Too Many

Controversy struck once more in 1948 when two separate U.S. ice hockey teams showed up at the Games, both claiming to be the legitimate American squad. The IOC initially ruled that due to infractions on both sides, neither the Amateur Hockey Association nor Amateur Athletic Union teams would be allowed to compete. When the Swiss Olympic Committee overruled the IOC and declared that the AHA team would compete, the United States Olympic Committee threatened to withdraw their entire delegation from the Games. But the Swiss stood their ground and the Games went on as scheduled, even though the AAU squad marched with the rest of the US delegation at the opening ceremonies while the AHA squad was forced to observe from the stands. The AHA team took the ice for the USA, and despite the controversy, finished a respectable fourth.

Professionalism under Scrutiny

At Innsbruck in 1964, two Germans were stripped of their medals after it was determined they were professionals. Canada was also denied a medal in ice hockey—despite finishing in a three-way tie for second place with a 5–2 record—due to unclear tie-breaking procedures. And in a sign of bigger things to come in future Olympics, the figure skating finals were filled with accusations of biased judging practices.

East Germans Catch Heat

At Grenoble in 1968, East Germany competed for the first time. The team got off to a dubious start when they were disqualified from the women's luge event after dominating early in the competition. They had been heating the runners of their sleds to gain an edge.

Brundage's Misplaced Priorities

Also in 1968, IOC President Avery Brundage continued his growing crusade against commercialism, fingering French national hero Jean-Claude Killy as the biggest example of the problem. Killy went on to continued glory on the slopes. Brundage even threatened to completely strike Alpine skiing from the Olympic roster of sports.

At the same time, however, he ignored the existence of apartheid in South Africa, and invited the country back into the Olympic fold. Ultimately, South Africa's return did not occur until in 1992, after all apartheid laws had been repealed.

"Jiminy Tickets"

A ticket scandal erupted in Calgary in 1988 when it came to light that the ticket manager, James McGregor, was forcing American spectators to pay face value in U.S. dollars to his company, World Tickets. He then pocketed the difference between the exchange rate of the U.S. dollars and the lower valued Canadian dollars. "Jiminy Tickets," as he came to be known, was charged with fraud, theft, and mischief.

Tonya vs. Nancy

But the scandal against which all other Olympic scandals will be judged can be described with only two words: Tonya and Nancy. The "whack heard 'round the world" quickly developed into a global tabloid sensation and their eventual showdown on the ice at Lillehammer in 1994 drew the highest television ratings in Olympic history, not to mention one of the biggest television audiences in American history. Both would fall short of gold when Oksana Baiul swept in and narrowly edged out Kerrigan in the ladies final—a result that had its share of controversy among Kerrigan fans.

Read more about this scandal.

Bid-rigging Comes to Light

Scandal struck the Salt Lake City Games years before the Games took place when allegations were leveled late in 1998 that IOC members were bribed by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for their votes in the bid selection for the 2002 Winter Games. As a result, the legitimacy of the bids of previous Games came into question and in the end the leaders of the SLOC were forced to resign along with 10 members of the IOC. New guidelines were set and closer scrutiny became part of the process for future bids.

Skate Gate

The Salt Lake City scandals were far from over, however. A doping scandal hit cross-country skiing, an umpire's ruling in a short-track speed skating event raised the national ire of South Korea, but the biggie was "Skate Gate." A judging conspiracy came to light after Canadian pairs skater Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were blatantly robbed of the gold medal. Despite skating an apparently flawless program, coupled with obvious mistakes by their closest rivals, the Canadians finished second to the Russians. Cries of foul play erupted and French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne was quickly suspended after admitting to succumbing to pressure to vote for the Russians. The circle of corruption quickly widened and the broad conspiracy that was unearthed led to an entire new judging system for future international figure skating competitions. In the end Sale and Pelletier were issued duplicate gold medals and the Russian pair was allowed to keep theirs. While it didn't have the soap opera flair and dramatic crescendo of Tonya-Nancy, Skate Gate's bid-rigging scandal, with its backroom deals and bald-faced vote swapping, made the plot to get Nancy look like a schoolyard mugging.

Recent troubles

Scandal has most recently affected the U.S. skeleton team in the wake of allegations that head coach Tim Nardiello sexually harassed several female athletes. The coach has been placed on administrative leave during an investigation into the matter. Hopefully it will all be sorted out in time for Torino, but it has certainly led to unwanted distractions during the critical Olympic training and qualifying period.



More about the 2006 Winter Olympics

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