Sochi Watch: A Look at 20 Years of Olympic Controversy

Photo courtesy of Antonio Villani, licensed through Flickr Via Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Antonio Villani, licensed through Flickr Via Creative Commons

Anyone who’s been paying any attention to the developments around the 2014 Winter Olympics has almost undoubtedly heard some bad things about the International Olympic Committee. If not the IOC, then ire easily found on Twitter, in newsfeeds, or from the athletes themselves has been heaped on the host county — Russia.

Sochi may not have been the best site for the Winter Olympics. Over the last two weeks we’ve heard reports of privacy-deprived bathrooms, unfinished lodgings, and “hotel water you shouldn’t put on your face.” Oh, and for the internationally savvy, yes, Russia did take some flack from NATO for expanding into Sochi, which sits on the uneasy fluid border between Russia and Georgia.

Lost in the volume is the fact that controversy and the Olympics go together as well as sports and competition. From Norway to Nagano, and Turin to Torino, the last twenty years of Winter Olympics have been rife with aspects that haven’t gone so well. In the spirit of history, here’s some of the most memorable Olympic controversies.


1994 — Lillehammer, Nancy Kerrigan, and Tonya Harding

Photo courtesy of ronnie44052, Licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of ronnie44052, Licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

This was the birth of the most awful soundbite in Olympic history. Twenty years ago, on the eve of the Lillehammer Winter Games, figure skating cast a dark pallor over the Olympics, as prospective Olympian Nancy Kerrigan was accosted after a practice at the Cobo Arena in Detroit. A masked man, described as a white man about 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, hit Kerrigan with a club-like instrument resembling a tire iron, a crowbar or a nightstick.” Kerrigan, the then twenty-four year old favorite to bring home the gold, suffered an injury to her right knee — an integral part of her landings, which all began on the right leg.

It was January 6, 1994, and the story quickly consumed the entire pre-Olympic narrative, especially when fellow figure skater and competitor Tonya Harding was implicated. At the time, and to this day, the popular story goes something like this. While Harding was never proven to know about the attack, she probably knew about it, her husband Jeff probably planned it with her bodyguard, Harding was banned for life by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and Kerrigan would go on to take the Silver medal behind Ukranian skater Oksana Baiul.

With Kerrigan-Harding reaching it’s twentieth anniversary, reappraisals of that story have come out. A long-running ESPN documentary series 30 for 30 covered the incident in a short titled The Price of Gold, and retrospectives across the Internet each took a new look at the over-simple breakdown that defined the incident: Kerrigan cast as the lady-like victim and Harding as the tacky, bumbling villain. The new appraisals add a nice bit of nuance when looking back on the “whack heard around the world,” but the narrative is so entrenched in popular culture that, most likely, the needle of public opinion won’t ever be moved.

Photo courtesy of Roland Tanglao, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons.

Photo courtesy of Roland Tanglao, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons.

1998 — Nagano, Ross Rebagliati loses the gold medal

The year 1998 was the first year that snowboarding was allowed into the Olympics. It was also the first Olympics that featured the IOC’s spectrometer, then valued at $500,000, to detect the presence of controlled substances. Ostensibly, the machine was imported to catch athletes using human-growth hormone, or steroids — drugs that would offer a measurable advantage in the competition ahead.

As far as anyone knows, snowboarding Gold Medalist Ross Rebagliati wasn’t on HGH. He didn’t do steroids. But, during the “I never inhaled” era that was the Clinton presidency, Rebagliati tested positive for pot, then, and in a twist worthy of the 41st PotUS, Rebagliati “claim[ed] that the traces of marijuana in his system [was] due to the significant amount of time he spends in an environment with marijuana users.” While the IOC’s rules listed marijuana as a banned substance, Rebagliati’s system had 17.8 nanograms of weed, just above the World Anti-Doping Agency’s limit of 15. After an appeal, the ruling was overturned and Rebagliati was allowed to keep his gold.

The public perception of marijuana has evolved since 1998, with the WADA recently raising the threshold limit to 150 nanograms, ten times the amount it was when Rebagliati was busted. The change was instituted to “ensure that in-competition use is detected and not use during the days and weeks before competition.” In an ending that couldn’t be made up — Rebagliati recently opened a marijuana dispensery, named Ross’ Gold, in Whistler, British Columbia.

2002 — Widespread bribery and graft in Salt Lake City

Photo courtesy of Paul Kelly, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Paul Kelly, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

In a change of pace, the 2002 Winter Olympics’ biggest scandal had little to do with the athletes, and much more to do with the bidding process itself. Eventually, the fallout would fundamentally change the way Olympic host cities were chosen, as well as cost dozens their jobs within the IOC It would also indirectly feature one Presidential nominee.

Journalist Chris Vanocur was at ground zero of the controversy when he received a copy of a letter written on the stationary of the Salt Lake Organization Committee (the group that organized Salt Lake City’s bid for the Olympics.) The letter detailed difficulties in continuing to pay the tuition of a student at American University. This was a problem, because her father was an influential member of the IOC.

Ultimately, it was discovered that, among other tampering, “Salt Lake Olympic officials gave IOC members free credit cards when they came to town, spent $19,991 to take three IOC couples to the 1995 Super Bowl, loaned one member $30,000 to help a friend, and paid for plastic surgery to remove the bags under the eyes of an IOC member.” All that, needless to say, was well beyond the pale, and would cost ten IOC members their positions, either through expulsion or resignation.

Who cleaned the mess up? None other than two-time Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Coming on board in February of 1999 as the chief executive of the Salt Lake Olympics, well before his stint as the governor of Massachusetts, Romney was able to correct the financial pitfalls of the Games, famously “deferring his salary, [getting] rid of catered food for board meetings, and instead offer[ing] pizza at $1 a slice.” Less famously, he raised as much as 1.3 billion dollars in federal funding, a mark that still stands as the most government aid to an Olympic Committee ever.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Allison, licensed through Flickr vacia Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Bryan Allison, licensed through Flickr vacia Creative Commons

2006 — Italy, What to call the city, and what to do about local law enforcement?

Maps go in and out of date. What was once a big red square called ‘USSR’ is now a slightly smaller red square called ‘Russia,’ featuring several Eastern Bloc countries to the left. There was a period of time when it felt like the countries in Africa changed names, sizes, and borders almost monthly. These are things that most people understand, even if it’s not a regular topic of conversation.

This is why there was such a division during the 2006 Winter Olympics. Were they held in Torino or Turin? According to the English speaking world, “and to speakers of the traditional Piedmontese language of the region — as Turin. But the official name, as far as the Olympics are concerened, is ‘Torino,’ in keeping with a decision by the IOC.” The IOC’s decision was influenced by requests from the city’s leaders to use the Italian name. Broadcasters were split. It was a fun distraction from the usual heaviness that followed the Olympics, particularly in the wake of the Salt Lake scandal.

In fact, the biggest scandals at Turin/Torino would be nothing more than IOC fantasies. Italy’s anti-doping laws were significantly harsher than the Committee’s, which (unlike Italy) don’t support jailing athletes for cheating. Then-government supervisor for the Olympics, Mario Pescante, told USA Today that, “The IOC fears police raids in the athletes’ village.”

The debate hinged on whether the Italian government would issue a moratorium on the law for the duration of the Games. As no athletes tested positive during the Turin/Torino Games, there was much ado about nothing. Interestingly, the IOC is retesting samples from the Turin Olympics using new methods developed since 2006, and has just begun to alert athletes to any newly-suspicious status in their samples.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Doroquez, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Melissa Doroquez, licensed through Flickr via Creative Commons

2010 — Vancouver Nodar Kumaritashvili crashes

Like Sochi, Vancouver became famous for a lack of a cold climate. While the British Columbia venue ran out of snow — to the point where buckets of the stuff had to be brought in during the warmest winter the city had seen since 1937 — Sochi has become renown for it’s reputation as a seaside resort town, even though the actual Olympic games are happening at the Ros Khutor ski resort. Also like Sochi, Vancouver dealt with concerns about the courses within the events. Hopefully, Sochi will be spared anything like what happened to Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili in Vancouver.

During a training run on a course that was reported to be fifteen to twenty miles per hour faster than any other course in the world, Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled, was hurled from the course at over 140 kilometers per hour — nearly 89 mph — and into the steel barricades on the side of the track. The footage was so gristly that NBC did not show a replay of it after the fact, though it is available on YouTube. As the first luge racer to be killed since 1964, and the first Winter Olympic fatality since a Swiss Skiier died in 1992, Kumaritashvili cast a pallor over the rest of the Games, and his death lead to a markedly more relaxed course at Sochi.

The IOC will hold a private remembrance of Kumaritashvili’s life on the anniversary of his death — February 12. He was also honored with a moment of silence on Wednesday. The town of Sochi lies near the border of Georgia, Kumaritashvili’s home country, and Russia. The exact boundary remains in dispute.

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