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Scandals, tragedy mark Olympic Games

india Updated: Aug 10, 2008 16:18 IST
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Planning and staging an Olympics has never been an easy task and the chances are that Beijing 2008 will have its share of problems before it all ends for another four years. However it will have to go some way to surpass several previous Olympics.

From the humiliating spectacle of Canadian Ben Johnson being stripped of his 100m gold medal in the 1988 Games in Seoul after testing positive for anabolic steroids to the tragedy that engulfed the 1972 Games in Munich when 18 people were killed following a Palestinian terrorist attack on the Israeli team, the Olympic movement has had to rebuild the image of the Games.

On a purely sporting front, the Johnson scandal was the biggest public relations disaster - regardless of the fact that the IOC could protest that at least drug cheats couldn't get away with it - as the winner of the 'Blue Riband' event of any Games was packed off back home. The IOC's protestations that they were fighting hard against drugs was not helped when the then head of athletics was captured on camera asking IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch if there was any way Johnson could be spared — not for the sake of the athlete but for the sport. The answer was a firm no.

It's image took a further battering later when several scientists came forward and revealed that the 1984 Games — the first that saw Samaranch take charge and the birth of the commercial Olympics - in Los Angeles had been littered with positive dope tests, but that the samples had mysteriously disappeared.

However, if Samaranch thought he had it bad he should have consulted his two predecessors American Avery Brundage — a former Olympian himself — and Ireland's Lord Killanin.

Munich was Brundage's last Games but if he wanted to go out on a high note he was to be sorely disappointed as the Palestinian terror group Black September broke into the Olympic village killing two Israeli athletes and taking nine hostage.

Brundage, whose approach to the situation contrasted sharply with that of then German Interior Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher who offered to swap places with the hostages, issued a typical patrician statement the next morning as 2000 German police officers surrounded the village aiming to make up for the appalling lapse in security that had allowed the outrage to happen in the first place. "The status quo of the Games has been interrupted by an assassination committed by terrorist criminals," his statement read and the Games were subsequently cancelled for the day for the first time in their history.

However, it was to get worse as, allowed to fly to Munich airport, the police became triggerhappy and in the resulting shootout five terrorists were killed, as well as one policeman, one of the helicopter pilots and eight more athletes.

Although Brundage declared the next day that 'the Games must go on' few had the stomach for the fight. Canadian star high jumper Debbie Brill couldn't believe Brundage's cold statement that it was what the dead athletes would have wanted and said to a fellow athlete 'God we're talking about people who were killed. Don't let them down? They're dead!'.

The very future of the Olympics was called into question.

Killanin managed to keep it going but with an African boycott at Montreal in 1976 over a New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa and the United States boycotting Moscow in 1980 over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan they rapidly started to lose their main function of being a sporting occasion and instead became a political football.

That's not to say that other host cities could smile contentedly at the misadventures that befell Munich, Montreal and Moscow as they too fell prey to the Olympic disaster syndrome — none more so than Paris in 1900.

Just four years after the Olympics had been reborn in Athens, Paris almost killed them off with a disastrous hosting. The swimmers had to compete in the Seine and doing backstroke was probably the most risky as the swimmers had to contend with swimming under or around the boats in the river as their owners stubbornly refused to hold up their trade while the Games were going on. Furthermore, several athletes got stuck in the mud while others saw their discus and hammers disappear into the trees, leading to total confusion. The Paris organisers showed they had learnt little when 24 years. Aside from the knee high thistles and weeds pricking the athletes physique as well as conscience they had to cope with poisonous fumes belching from a local energy plant which left several athletes running the opposite direction and others lying writhing in agony barely able to breathe.

As for the athletes, who flirted with triumph and disaster two stand out among a plethora of candidates.

Athens in 2004 saw the intensely proud Greek nation anticipating glory in the most high profile of sports the athletics through Katerina Thanou and Costas Kenteris in the women's 100m and men's 200m respectively. However, in the space of one manic eve of Games day those hopes were destroyed as the duo were found to have failed to undergo a dope test, one of several they had apparently missed, and were in danger of being thrown out of the Games.

In what must be one of the more bizarre episodes in the colourful history of the Games it was then revealed that on the way to the test at the Olympic Village they had had a motorbike crash. In a country more used to the Greek tragedy it became more of a British farce as they were hospitalised, though, the nature of their injuries was never really revealed and in fact were at one point photographed lying in their hospital beds but with their training shoes on!

Needless to say it was a public relations disaster for the host country and one that the Chinese — whose athletes have a suspect reputation when it comes to dope testing — will sincerely wish is not visited upon them.

However, with the Olympics one just never knows what is around the corner.