When the world’s best athletes convene every four years to celebrate the majesty and pageantry that is the Olympic Games, organizers hope that the world focuses on the spotlight of sport, not the shadow of scandal.
Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of Olympics’ officials and organizers, breaches in sports ethics ranging from players cheating to insider gambling manage to worm their way into seemingly every Olympiad. This causes scandal and misconduct to grab more of the limelight than it should.
Take a look at some of the most famous and unfortunate ethical missteps from past Olympic Games both Winter and Summer through the years.
4 Famous Ethics Violations in Past Olympic Games
1988 Summer Olympics – Seoul, South Korea – Men’s 100 Meters
Already the premier glamor event of the track and field competition, the 100 meter final at the 1988 games dialed up the intrigue even more with defending Olympic champion Carl Lewis lining up against emerging world record holder, Ben Johnson.
Johnson blazed out of the blocks and zoomed to the finish line first, setting a new world record time of 9.79, only to see his gold medal and world record stripped from him day later after a positive test for stanozolol, a banned substance. This incident grabbed headlines at the games and spurred much dialogue and action in the modern effort to thwart steroid use among athletes.
2002 Winter Olympics – Salt Lake City, Utah – Figure Skating
Canada’s figure skating duo of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier put on a dazzling display in the free skate program, only to have Russia’s Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze skate away with the gold medal, despite an inferior performance.
Immediately the judges came under scrutiny for questionable marks, especially French judge Marie-Reine Le Gougne. She admitted to falling prey to undue pressure from the head of the French delegation to give higher marks to the Russian skaters, regardless of how well anyone skated. Eventually, to correct this flagrant breach of sports ethics, the International Olympic Committee decided to award a gold medal to the Canadian skaters in addition to the gold medal that the Russian skaters were allowed to keep.
2008 Summer Olympics – Beijing, China – Sailing
In 2008 Irish sailor Peter O’Leary placed a bet on two of his chief competitors, British sailors Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, to win the gold medal in a sailing event, despite the fact that he was also vying for the gold.
O’Leary won $4,700 when the British pair ended up winning the gold, but faced no disciplinary action from the International Olympic Committe because no definite indication of deliberate losing could be found.
2012 Summer Olympics – London, England – Badminton
In one of the more interesting cases of ethics, eight different women’s badminton players were expelled from the Olympic Games amid accusations of attempting to throw their matches during the 2012 Olympics.
The different players in question, including Chinese superstars Wang Xiaoli and Yu Yang, all gave less than their best efforts in an attempt to better their positions in the medal round and face more favorable opponents. The International Olympic Committee, charging that giving less than their best violated the spirit of the Olympic Games, immediately dismissed players from China, Indonesia and South Korea for their involvement.
Because of the prevalence of these types of scandals, the Olympic authorities needed to take action. In the effort to promote ethical behavior on the part of athletes, coaches and games organizers, the International Olympic Committee founded The Ethics Commission in 1999. This 9-member panel is tasked with promoting ethical practices in all Olympic matters.
According to The Olympic Movement’s website, the Commission’s mission is three-pronged:
- Define the ethical principles that govern the Olympic Movement
- Investigate any possible breaches in ethical conduct
- Prevent unethical practices by giving counsel and advice to the International Olympic Committee.
A primary focus of the Ethics Commission is regarding betting. Realizing the destructive nature of betting that violates the integrity of a sport, the commission has outlawed betting in any capacity by Olympics athletes, whether the wagering is on an athlete’s particular sport or not.
In addition, the Ethics Commission forbids the offering of any kind of insider information, a practice that often nefariously pairs with the world of professional wagering. To keep the Olympic Games as a celebrated sporting event free from breaches of ethics, the commission strives to educate athletes as well as strictly monitor the flow of information regarding the games that happens between athletes, coaches and organizers.
An Uphill Battle At These Olympic Games
While the efforts of the Ethics Commission to thwart injustice and promote fair play are inspiring, the nature of competitive sport and the the human condition ensures that future Olympic Games will still struggle with questions of ethics. The will to win often causes athletes and coaches to pursue any possible means of victory, no matter the path to the medal stand.
In this world of ethical land mines, one thing is sure: Olympic authorities will need to continue to be vigilant in Russia and beyond to fight to keep the Olympic Games what they were originally intended to be: a celebration of the human spirit that yearns to go “faster, higher and stronger.”