Olympic sports and politics: Beyond the Podium - Where sports and politics compete

December, 2017

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For two weeks this month, from February 9th to the 25th, the nations of the world will join together in the spirit of friendship to celebrate the 23rd Winter Olympic Games. Since ancient times, the Olympics have acted as a celebration of human athletic excellence and have promoted values such as international cooperation and peaceful competition among rivals. While these values are admirable, it’s hard for many nations to put their political agendas aside for the games. So although Olympic athletes find themselves prepared physically and mentally to compete among the world’s greatest athletes, it’s nearly impossible for them to prepare for the political minefield that often awaits them outside of the competition. Here is a look back at some of those Winter Olympic controversies that no amount of physical training can prepare you for.

PyeongChang, South Korea, 2018

Flag of South Korea
Flag of South Korea

This year the Winter Olympics are taking place in PyeongChang, South Korea, a small mountain town in the north of the country. While the games haven’t quite started yet, there have already been controversies aplenty.

Most pressingly, North Korea has been on everyone’s minds. The small dictatorship located only 50 kilometres from PyeongChang has been testing nuclear bombs and missile launches with increasing frequency over the last few years. This, coupled with the nation’s adversarial foreign policy, has given many world leaders cause to worry. France and Austria have both stated that their athletes will not attend the games unless safety can be guaranteed.

Russian athletes will be absent from the games as well, though not by choice. Russia is facing a ban from the games due to the nation’s state-sponsored doping program, in which athletes have been encouraged (even allegedly forced) to take performance-enhancing drugs, a practice that is expressly forbidden by the International Olympic Commission (more commonly known as the IOC). Russia has the highest rate of doping-related disqualifications of all the countries that participate in the games, and the government has been uncooperative with the IOC’s attempts to stop the practice. But while some countries pull support, others such as Mexico are excited to become more involved. PyeongChang will mark the first year that Mexico, a warm-weather country, has qualified to send multiple athletes to compete in the winter games.

Sochi, Russia, 2014

Flag of Russia
Flag of Russia

The Sochi Olympics were filled with political controversy from the very beginning. For starters, Sochi is officially classified as having a tropical climate, making the summer beach resort a less-than-obvious choice as host of the Winter Olympic Games. Throughout the event, snow had to be trucked in from nearby mountains, and skiers routinely had to dodge puddles of water as they ended their runs. Athletes were understandably upset throughout the games, as they had to compete in conditions that they couldn’t reasonably have been expected to train for.

To further add to the frustration of many athletes, there were 33 doping investigations over the course of the games, with over half of those directed at Russian athletes. This overwhelming number of performance-enhancing drug offences is a large part of the reason why Russian athletes are facing a ban during this year’s games.

Many athletes from Georgia and Ukraine, two nations that Russia had recently invaded, boycotted the Sochi Olympics, along with many LGBTQ athletes, as a response to Russia’s anti-homosexuality laws. These boycotts led to many protests in and around Sochi. Between the need for increased security and the herculean task of converting a summer beach resort into a winter sports facility, Russia spent over 51 billion dollars on the games, making it the most expensive Olympic games of all time.

Vancouver, Canada, 2010Flag of Canada

2010 marked the second time that Canada acted as host to the Olympic Winter games, and the third time hosting the Olympics overall. Vancouver is not a cheap place to live at the best of times, and the Olympics only aggravated the housing crisis further. Prior to the games, the City of Vancouver created new laws and housing policies that many feared would be used to hide the city’s homeless population from the world. While there were no major incidents during the games, CBC later reported that the games, intentionally or not, had pushed much of Vancouver’s homeless population out of the more visible areas of the city.

Deaths at the Olympic games are not unheard of, but they are certainly not something that most athletes are prepared to deal with—and in such a public manner. On the day of the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, athletes, coaches, organizers and fans came together to mourn the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger who lost control of his sled during a practice run. As one would expect, this tragedy set a somber tone for athletes during the remainder of the games.

Turin, Italy, 2006

Flag of Italy
Flag of Italy

The weather during the Turin Olympics was almost perfect, and athletes and fans alike were excited for the games to begin. As host, the city of Turin spared no expense, either. In fact, it ended the games with a deficit of 3.2 million dollars and had to be bailed out by the Italian government. A special national lottery was created as a way to cover the costs of the games without increasing taxes, a plan
which many Italians seemed happy to support.

Though the games were a success, they were not free of doping scandals. A total of eight athletes were disqualified, including six Austrian skiers and biathletes whose quarters were raided by Italian police during the games.

Salt Lake City, United States, 2002Flag of United States of America

America hadn’t hosted the winter Olympics since Lake Placid in 1980 and was excited to once again host, after a 22-year wait. Though experienced, Salt Lake City also became the first Olympic Games to follow the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As such, security was higher than it ever had been at previous games. Thankfully, the games were relatively peaceful. They were not, however, without scandals.

The 2002 Olympics witnessed one of the worst bribery scandals in Olympic history, with officials from Salt Lake City sending lavish gifts to voting members of the IOC in an effort to ensure that their city would be chosen to host the games. Many IOC members lost their jobs, and the scandal led to tighter restrictions regarding contact between IOC voters and potential host cities.

There was also a figure skating controversy that many Canadians probably remember to this day. The Russians were accused of bribing the judges to vote in favour of the Russian team. Canadian duo Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skated a flawless program but received a lower score than their Russian
rivals who had made several obvious mistakes. Salé and Pelletier were eventually awarded a set of gold medals, but the extent of the cheating scandal was never fully uncovered or publically disclosed.

Nagano, Japan, 1998

Flag of Japan
Flag of Japan

While most host cities worry about the weather being too warm, Nagano had the opposite problem. A cold streak coupled with an earthquake delayed many events during the games, but despite a few mini avalanches on the slopes, no events had to be cancelled and no athletes sustained any injuries.

The Nagano Olympics also marked the debut of snowboarding as an official Olympic sport, but the inauguration came with its own doping scandal. Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was stripped of his gold medal after marijuana was found in his system. That medal, however, was later reinstated after the IOC discovered that marijuana was not actually on its banned substances list.

Nobody really knows how much the Nagano Olympics cost, as the financial documents were ordered to be destroyed by Nagano official Sumikazu Yamaguchi, who claimed that he “didn’t want to make the IOC uncomfortable” by what the records said. It has been long suspected, but never proven, that this was done to hide evidence of bribery. The estimated cost of the games is 10 billion in total, including infrastructure development and is generally assumed to have been a net loss for Japan.

Lillehammer, Norway, 1994

Flag of Norway
Flag of Norway

The Lillehammer Olympics were held during the ongoing Bosnian war. Both the IOC and the United Nations asked the combatants to agree to a traditional Olympic ceasefire, evoking the memory of the nearly-destroyed Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, which had hosted the Olympics 10 years earlier. However, while a multi-ethnic Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian bobsled team competed together in the spirit of peace and cooperation, the war itself raged on for another two years.

Despite the Bosnian team being celebrated for its diversity, the IOC limited the overall diversity of the Olympics by raising its qualifying standards to such a high degree that the majority of athletes from warm-weather countries were effectively prohibited from participating in the games.

Lillehammer was also host to perhaps one of the most famous Olympic scandals of all time. American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked in the weeks leading up to the games by a man hired by the ex-husband of her main competitor, Tonya Harding. Despite Kerrigan’s injury and Harding’s suspected role in the attack, both women completed their performances. Harding placed 8th, while Kerrigan won the silver medal. The gold medal was awarded to an unexpectedly brilliant skater, 16-year-old Oksana Baiul of Ukraine. The media continues to be so consumed by the rivalry and scandal that a movie dramatizing the incident was released this past December, 23 years after the event.

Lillehammer was also celebrated as the first “eco-friendly” Olympic games. Sporting structures were built from natural materials, and all infrastructure had to blend in with the natural landscape. Despite their lofty economic and environmental goals, the games put Lillehammer 711 million dollars in debt, and the city had to be bailed out by the Norwegian government using money earned from the country’s vast oil reserves, undoing the environmentalist reputation that organizers had worked to promote.

Albertville, France, 1992

Flag of France
Flag of France

The 1992 Olympic games were the first games to follow the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. This lead to many new nations competing in the games, including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who had not made independent appearances at the games since they were absorbed into the USSR in 1936. Germany also returned to the Olympic stage as a unified nation for the first time since 1964.

As would become the norm, Russian athletes were involved in doping scandal, one of which was almost deadly. The Russian biathlon team performed illegal blood transfusions before their event, and athlete Sergei Tarasov was given the wrong blood. He had to be rushed to the hospital to avoid complete kidney failure that would have resulted in his death.

1992 was also the final year that demonstration sports were allowed at the games. Demonstration sports are not official events, and no medals are awarded to their winners. Their purpose was simply to give the host country a chance to promote their unique national sports. Albertville audiences were treated to events like curling, speed skiing and ski ballet. Some of these demonstration sports would go on to become regular events, while others were forgotten.

Albertville, like many other Olympic hosts before and after, required a major bailout from its federal government in order to recover from the games. The games, while deemed to be culturally successful by France, resulted in a 56.8 million dollar deficit for the city.

Calgary, Canada, 1988Flag of Canada

While Albertville had trouble managing its finances, Calgary made profit a priority during its games, resulting in a net gain of 40 million dollars for the city. However, some within the city’s planning committee took this idea a little too far. While a percentage of tickets are usually held for locals to use, a full half of the tickets for the events were sold off the books, meaning many Calgarians could not even attend their own city’s event. Additionally, some ticket vendors began selling tickets in American prices, skimming the difference off the top.

The 1988 Olympics gave Calgary the now-iconic Saddledome. But this decision was not without controversy. Many low-income homes were demolished to make room for the arena, displacing many long-time residents of Victoria Park East.

While Calgarians are normally proud of the strong Chinook winds that heat up their city in the dead of winter, an inopportune Chinook brought daily temperatures as high as 17 degrees Celsius during the games. This marked the first time that ski events had to be performed on artificial snow, though it certainly wouldn’t be the last. t8n


Did You Know?

Due to a controversial NHL decision, professional Canadian and American hockey players will not be allowed to compete in PyeongChang. This won’t, however, be the first time that Canada sent amateurs to the Olympics. In 1948, Canada sent the Royal Canadian Air Force’s team to compete, and they still brought home the gold.


Fun Fact

There are records of Olympic scandals tracing back as far as ancient Greece. Bribery and sabotage were rampant in the ancient world. One of the myths of the foundation of the games even includes an athlete praying to the gods to sabotage an opponent’s chariot.



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