“Faster, Higher, Stronger”
The Olympic motto is short and to the point and the Modern Games have survived since 1896.
But political tension, doped athletes, terrorism and gender issues have clouded the Summer Games throughout its history. The competition, the glory, the thrill of victory and the taste of defeat have sometimes been overshadowed by some of the Olympiad’s darkest moments.
It may have started in the very first Olympics held in Athens when women were not allowed to compete. In 1908, American hurdler Forrest Smithson was said to compete in the finals carrying a Bible to protest the event was being held on a Sunday. (The legend was proven false, the race was actually held on a Saturday and Smithson later posed holding a bible while running.)
In Stockholm, the 1912 Olympics were dominated by Native American Jim Thorpe who won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. Thorpe, considered one of the greatest athletes of all time, was later stripped of his medals after it was found he had been paid for playing semi-pro baseball before competition in the Games. Thorpe was ultimately restored his medals in 1983, 30 years after his death.
War prevented the Olympics from being held in 1916 and the clouds of World War II in the 1936 Berlin Olympics were the last to be held until 1948.
An American again dominated the 1936 Games. The Games were held to showcase German athletic prowess and Nazism by Adolph Hitler. But African American Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 100- and 200-meters, long jump and the 4×100-meter relay. Ironically, Owens was a late addition to the relay team after German officials demanded a replacement for a Jewish American runner on the team. Hitler only shook hands with German victors the first day and never returned to attend Olympic awards ceremonies.
The Hungarian revolution broke out in October 1956 and two months later, the Hungarians faced the Soviet Union in water polo. The game was brutal from the beginning when the captains of both teams refused to shake hands. Within the first minute, a Russian player was penalized for putting a hammerlock on a Hungarian. After Hungary scored, the first goal punches were thrown. With a minute left and Hungary leading 4-0, Hungarian Ervin Zador was blindsided with a punch and pandemonium broke out. Fans spilled out of the stands, the game was called and Soviet players needed a police escort to the locker room.
The 1968 Mexico City Olympics were held while America was in the midst of racial tensions. American teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter. In a powerful political gesture, Smith and Carlos each wore a black glove, bowed their heads and raised a fist during the playing of the national anthem. Smith also wore a black scarf and both men wore black socks and no shoes to represent Black poverty in America. Both runners were suspended from the team and banned from the Olympic village. The Australian silver medalist in the race also wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights on his sweat suit during the ceremony.
Never before or since has the World witnessed a blatant act of terrorism and murder than in the early morning hours of September4, 1972. Eight masked members of Palestinian militants called the Black September took members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage in Munich, Germany. After killing two members the Palestinians held nine hostages in a tense scene covered by live television. Twenty hours later at a NATO airport near Munich, eleven Israeli athletes had been murdered. Five terrorists and a German official were also gunned down. The chilling incident would haunt the Olympic Games for years.
Violence also marred the 1996 Games in Atlanta. A forty-pound pipe bomb exploded in downtown Centennial Olympic Park on July 27, killing two people and injuring 111 innocent bystanders. Murder had once again infiltrated the Olympic Games.
Political unrest also intervened in the Moscow Games in 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 66 nations including the US boycotted the Games in reaction. In 1984, the Soviet Union and 13 Eastern European allies boycotted the Los Angeles Games.
In 2008, the International Olympic Committee dropped baseball and softball as events in the Olympic Games, the first total elimination of a sport since 1936. Major League Baseball’s unwillingness to let pro teams allow players to participate for a month during the season, mandatory drug testing and American dominance in softball were cited as reasons. Instead, the IOC added rugby to its list of events.
For all of the lavish opening and closing ceremonies, the spirit of competition, the glory of winning a medal and the disappointment in losing, the Olympic Games will go on. Despite the dark moments, Paul McCartney will still sing in London, thousands of doves will be released in Seoul and Mohammed Ali will always light the flame in Atlanta.
“Faster, Higher, Stronger”