Olympics 2012: 10 Biggest Controversies from Summer Games

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistAugust 10, 2012

Olympics 2012: 10 Biggest Controversies from Summer Games

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    Controversy is as much a part of the Olympics as the Games themselves. From Fred Lorz famously hitching a cab ride to cut out most of the men's marathon in 1904 to allegations of underage gymnasts at the 2008 Games, there has not been an Olympic year without drama.

    There has been no shortage of controversy at the 2012 Games in London. On the contrary, with the a burgeoning Twitter presence and feverish news cycle, controversy has been difficult to avoid. Would badminton have become a widely discussed because of the expulsion hullabaloo 20 years ago?

    Here are the top 10 Olympic controversies of the London Games.

NBC Frustrates Fans Online and on TV

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    Much has been made about the way NBC has gone about covering these Olympic Games.

    In reality, NBC's coverage is not much different than it has been in the past. The differences come from perception and the widespread ability to complain with the advent of widespread social networking. 

    Twitter was invented in 2006, but the site did not take off until after the 2008 Games in Beijing. As such, the London Olympics were informally dubbed the "Twitter Olympics" because it was the first real opportunity for instant reaction and analysis for the millions of users on the social networking site.

    The time difference is a challenge for NBC at many Olympic Games. If NBC chose to air most events live, would they get the huge draw that they receive in prime time?

    By showing events on tape delay—many heavily edited to favor American competitors—NBC is able to control the audience experience and show the most popular content at the most critical viewing times. They cannot be blamed for trying to maximize revenue, and they could not care less what folks on Twitter or elsewhere think (via Alex Weprin of MediaBistro.com): 

    Every single night so far of NBC Olympics coverage has broken previous Olympics ratings records, this despite the controversy over tape delay. Through the weekend NBC averaged 35.8 million viewers in London, five million more than Beijing, and over a million more than the previous record-holder, Atlanta.

    NBC's coverage has actually been so successful that they will break even on the Games despite heading into London anticipating a $200 million shortfall.

    Of course, complaints of spoiled results are not limited to Twitter. What sense is there in airing tape-delayed events when the NBC national evening news will spill the beans anyway? They even spoiled a much-anticipated Missy Franklin race by showing a commercial announcing she had won gold just before they aired it.

    At any rate, the controversy seems to be overblown by users on Twitter. According to recent research, just 15 percent of online users are registered on Twitter and only eight percent are regularly active. It sounds like a lot of bluster from a vocal, relatively tiny minority.

North Korea Protests Flag Snafu

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    Controversy dogged Olympic competition before the Opening Ceremony even got started.

    The North Korean women's soccer team was set to play its opening group match against Colombia. In a bizarre scene, they left the pitch in a huff after a significant mistake.

    The screens in the stadium displayed the South Korean flag next to the North Korean team.

    It seems to have been an honest mistake, but few flag mixups could be worse than this one considering the history between the two countries. The North Korean team was understandably upset, threatening to boycott the match entirely before returning to the pitch after the error was corrected (via Ewan Murray of The Guardian):

    After the game North Korea's coach, Ui Gun-sin, said that winning their match 2-0 did not compensate for the mix-up. Ui said: "The national flag difference is a big problem. Our team was not going to participate unless the problem was solved properly. Unfortunately it took some time later for the broadcast [on the big screen] to be done again properly and we made the decision to go on with the match."

    Ui added: "We were angry because our players were shown as if they were from South Korea, which affects us very greatly. Our players cannot be shown with other flags, especially the South Korean one. If this matter had not been solved, continuing would have been a nonsense."

    What a way to open up the 2012 Olympic Games.

Gymnastics Rules Cause Tears, Confusion

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    There is something wrong with the rules in your sport when the reigning world champion and fourth-best qualifying scorer cannot participate in the sport's pinnacle event for individual achievement.

    That was just the start of controversy for the International Federation of Gymnastics as Jordyn Wieber was left out of the individual all-around final. In order to avoid a podium sweep by one country, only two members are allowed into the individual final per team.

    Despite being fourth in qualifying, Wieber was third on her own team behind eventual gold medalist Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. The weeping teenager was one of four gymnasts disallowed from participating in the all-around final because of the silly rule that precludes some of the world's best gymnasts from moving on to the final.

    Speaking of Raisman and the individual all-around event, she was left off the medal stand because of a controversial tiebreaker. The American was trailing Russian Aliya Mustafina for the bronze medal when the latter fell off the balance beam, opening the door for Raisman to make a comeback. She did not take full advantage—she nearly fell off the beam herself—but she did enough to catch up to Mustafina in a tie for third place.

    Unfortunately for her, the tiebreaker in gymnastics involved eliminating each gymnast's worst score. That allowed Mustafina to dump her awful beam score and win the bronze as a result, even though Raisman scored better in three of four events.

    An all-around event where a tie rewards the gymnast who was outperformed in 75 percent of the competition seems a bit silly. At the very least, both gymnasts should have been awarded a bronze medal for tying to the thousandth of a point.

    The rules broke in her favor in the individual events, awarding Raisman a bronze medal in the balance beam event after an inquiry netted her a tie with Romania's Catalina Ponor. Why should Ponor be denied a bronze medal at that point when judo, tae kwon do and wrestling each award two bronze medals in each event?

    On the men's side, the Ukrainian team thought they had won an improbable bronze medal after Japanese gymnast and reigning world champion Kohei Uchimura fell off the pommel horse, dropping Team Japan into fourth place. A frenzied appeal that involved a Japanese coach running up the judges with a wad of cash in his hand resulted in a higher score for Uchimura. 

    The judges ruled that Uchimura's fall was indeed a dismount, however awkward, bumping the Japanese up to a silver medal and knocking the Ukrainians off the medal podium.

Athletes Get Booted for Many Reasons

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    Athletes get sent home from the Olympics every time the Games are held. This year was no different, though it seems like reasons have moved away from doping or otherwise cheating.

    Take the Olympics’ first expulsion, Greece’s Paraskevi Papachristou, for a racist tweet. The tweet got the attention of the Greek Olympic mission, which kicked her out at the behest of the Democratic Left party. Her apology seemed genuine, but it was too little and too late for the Greek athlete.

    The same sad song played for Switzerland’s Michel Morganella, who was dismissed from their national soccer team for a tweet that “discriminated against, insulted and violated the dignity of the South Korea football team as well as the South Korean people.” He, too, apologized in vain. 

    Racism was not the only thing getting athletes into trouble in London. Australian Rower Josh Booth went on a drunken rampage, getting him expelled from the team after he vandalized some shops. Gijs Van Hoecke of Belgium was also booted by his country’s Olympic committee after pictures of him being severely drunk surfaced online.

    Of course, no modern Olympics would be complete without a doping incident or two. Albanian weightlifter Hysen Pulaku opened the doping score this year when he was dismissed for testing positive for steroids.

    In perhaps the most amusing doping case in Olympic history, Nicholas Delpopolo was kicked out of the Olympics after finishing seventh in the 73-kg judo event. His reason? According to Dolpopolo, he accidentally ate something baked with marijuana.

    Sure, chief.

Rare Soccer Call Saves U.S., Infuriates Canada

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    Things were chippy from the start of the women's soccer semifinal match between Canada and the United States. The Canadians had lost 27 straight matches to their powerhouse neighbors from below, but you would not know it from their attitude and play.

    Canada led for much of the match thanks to national team star Christine Sinclair, who had a hat trick in the game. Team USA was down 3-2 late in the match, desperation increasing as the clock relentlessly counted the minutes.

    Then Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen made a controversial call.

    Goalkeepers technically have six seconds of possession—including bouncing the ball to themselves—before they must release the ball via throw or punt. The rule is rarely enforced, but this was one of those rare occasions.

    Abby Wambach and the Americans had complained to the referee about Canada's attempts to waste time. Who could blame the Canucks, who held a late, one-goal lead against a dangerous American team. As it turns out, Wambach's veteran savvy saved the day for Team USA.

    In the 77th minute, Megan Rapinoe—heroine for the United Staes with two goals of her own—sent a corner kick sailing toward the goal. Canada's goalkeeper Erin McLeod caught the ball, and the other players bailed out of the box. 

    After holding it for some time, McLeod drop-kicked it to midfield. But the referee's whistle had blown.

    The six-second rule had been violated, and the Americans were awarded a free kick in the box. Rapinoe would take the kick, sending a screamer straight toward Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault. She reflexively raised her arm to protect herself and was whistled for a handball in the box when the ball hit her around the elbow, resulting in a penalty kick.

    Wambach sent it home, the game went into overtime and Alex Morgan won it for Team USA on a last-gasp header just before penalty kicks. 

    The Canadians were understandably frustrated after the game. Some suggested the referee was biased, sparking a reaction from FIFA saying they would look into possible penalties for the insinuation.

    In truth, the referee was merely enforcing rules. McLeod was informally warned to avoid time-wasting, and she actually held the ball for about 11 seconds—each one cleverly counted off by Wambach within earshot of the referee—before she was called it. Rapinoe's kick did ricochet off the hands of Nault.

    Canada's bitterness only grew during the gold medal match as the United States appeared to get some favorable calls—Tobin Heath blocked a shot with her knee and arm in the box, and Hope Solo held the ball a little long at times:

    Hope Solo picked up the ball at 21:35. She released it at 21:43. #CountSolo

    — Cam Charron (@camcharron) August 9, 2012

    Next time, Canada. Or maybe 27 times from now.

Badminton Makes Headlines, for Wrong Reasons

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    For a brief period of time, badminton was in the limelight across the world. Unfortunately, it was for the wrong reasons.

    Eight doubles players were expelled from the event after losing on purpose. They allegedly did so to garner a favorable draw, and the World Badminton Federation was most displeased with that decision.

    Tanking is nothing new to sports, so why the WBF felt compelled to remove these players for trying to use a relatively common strategy is baffling. Furthermore, it seems disingenuous (via Rob Harris of the Huffington Post):

    "We applaud the federation for having taken swift and decisive action," IOC spokesman Mark Adams told The Associated Press. "Such behavior is incompatible with the Olympic values."

    IOC Vice President Craig Reedie, the former head of the international badminton federation, welcomed the decision.

    "Sport is competitive," Reedie told the AP. "If you lose the competitive element, then the whole thing becomes a nonsense.

    "You cannot allow a player to abuse the tournament like that, and not take firm action. So good on them."


    What about the Japanese women's soccer team? In order to stave off travel fatigue, their coach instructed them to avoid scoring a goal during the second half of a 0-0 draw in the qualifying. The tie allowed them to remain in Cardiff. Imagine the furor that would have ensued had the reigning World Cup champions been kicked out of the Olympics for that strategy.

    Algeria's Taoufik Makhloufi got away with a similar tactic as he pulled up in the 800-meter run. Speculation that he did so to conserve energy for the 1500 meters got him temporarily booted from the Olympics. He was able to obtain a "doctor's note" stating he pulled up because of a knee injury.

    He seems to be a fast healer as he won gold in the metric mile after being reinstated.

    Losing was not involved for Philip Hindes and the British track cycling team when he crashed on purpose to help his team win. He was merely taking advantage of the rules that state a team can get a clean restart if a crash occurs soon after the beginning.

    While each sport's governing body retains discretion to rule on circumstances like this, kicking players out of an event for utilizing a common strategy was inconsistent and heavy-handed.

Chinese Swimmer's Success Draws Doping Talk

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    The swimming world was taken aback by a surprisingly dominant showing by Ye Shiwen of China.

    The 16-year-old flew in the water, smashing the world record in the 400-meter individual medley and later winning the 200 IM as well. The blogosphere and media at large were set abuzz by the performance, but for the wrong reasons.

    Speculation swirled that Shiwen might be doping, seemingly sparked by John Leonard—head of the American Swimming Coaches Association—who said her performance was "was reminiscent of some old East German swimmers." Olympic organizers were quick to defend Ye, but the damage was done as the media swam away with the controversy.

    Unfortunately for Ye, China has a history of doping in the sport. Positive drug tests were not uncommon for Chinese swimmers after coming on strong at the 1992 Olympics. The doping scandals culminated with an abysmal swimming performance at the 2000 Games in Sydney, when the Chinese team failed to medal altogether after booting several members off the team just before the Olympics.

    China has made great strides in coming back from that debacle, but the specter of doping still looms over the team. It was evident in Ye's treatment.

    She has not tested positive for any performance enhancing drugs, and she vehemently denies any wrongdoing. Chinese doctor Chen Zhanghou went so far as to cast doubt on Michael Phelps' historic run in 2008 using similarly unsubstantiated speculation Shiwen has had to endure.

    Exacerbating the issue was the apparent bias coming through in this situation. American swimmer Katie Ledecky performed a similar feat in the 800-meter freestyle, winning the race by a wide margin while nearly breaking the world record. She shaved nearly five seconds off her personal best as well, yet she did not have to deal with media scrutiny.

    This is, in part, because the U.S. swimming team has not had a history of doping. But the double standard exists nonetheless, tainting a young gold medalist's historic achievement without merit.

Appearances Stir Trouble for Lolo Jones, Gabby Douglas

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    American gymnast Gabby Douglas was on her way to becoming the first African-American to win an all-around gold medal at the Olympics, but that is not the only thing Twitter was talking about.

    For some reason her hair was the talk of the Internet that night, and the talk was not pretty. It became such a conflagration that Douglas felt the need to address it (via Donna Kauffman of iVillage.com):

    "They have no idea what they're talking about," Douglas told Us Weekly of her critics. "You sweat and all the gel and hairspray comes out. Even if we did fix our hair, our coach would be like, 'This is not a beauty pageant! Leave it alone.'"

    Needless to say, the Olympics don't leave a whole lot of time for a complex beauty regime. 

    "There's no bathroom," Douglas explained. "We rotate from event to event so there's no time for them to say 'Representing the USA, Gabrielle Douglas' and me to say 'Yeah, thanks!' as I'm brushing my hair. It's like, come on."

    It is a shame that an athlete's crowning achievement should be marred by superficial inanities. Douglas made her country proud, but many in her country should be ashamed for their response.

    This is the Olympics. Unless you ar Cristiano Ronaldo, would you worry about how your hair looks during competition?

    In the track and field world, Lolo Jones has been the subject of criticism stemming from her good looks. Jeré Longman of the New York Times eviscerated Jones, saying the U.S. hurdler was taking advantage of her looks to get famous:

    Still, Jones has received far greater publicity than any other American track and field athlete competing in the London Games. This was based not on achievement but on her exotic beauty and on a sad and cynical marketing campaign. Essentially, Jones has decided she will be whatever anyone wants her to be — vixen, virgin, victim — to draw attention to herself and the many products she endorses.

    Even NYT editor Arthur Brisbane thought Longman was being too harsh, but the criticism did not stop there. Media scrutiny grew to the point of exasperating the Olympian, who wound up 0.1 seconds out of a medal in a race in which few expected her to contend.

    The scrutiny got to Jones, who broke down crying after finishing up her 2012 Olympics run.

    Yep and now I'm spending it on depression pills RT @darrenrovell: My Take: Lolo earned every marketing dollarbitly.com/OMQh8A

    — Lolo Jones (@lolojones) August 9, 2012

    These controversies involving athletes' appearance merely highlight a terribly ugly side to media and Twitter coverage of Olympic competition.

Clock Error Leaves Fencer Weeping

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    In one of the more heartbreaking moments at the Olympics, Korean fencer Shin A-Lam was left in a flood of tears on the piste after her semifinal result in the individual epee competition.

    The Asian champion was knocked out of the gold medal match by Germany's Britta Heidermann with just one second left in sudden death after a 5-5 tie. The clock had gotten stuck with one second left, however, which gave Heidermann the opportunity to score when she otherwise would have been out of time.

    Judges ruled it a fair point, infuriating Korean coach Shim Jaesung and devastating A-Lam. Fencing rules stipulate that combatants are considered to have accepted match results once they leave the piste. Coaches immediately lodged an appeal with the judges, leaving A-Lam to sit and cry on the piste while awaiting results of the appeal. 

    Inexplicably, an appeal that should have lasted a few minutes took nearly an hour to complete.

    One hour of public agony and humiliation for A-Lam. One hour to get the call wrong anyway. One hour of waiting for the winner, Heidermann, who was affected enough by the result to lose in the gold medal match. 

    After being escorted off the piste when the appeal was formally denied, A-Lam was forced to return almost immediately to compete for the bronze medal. She had no shot in that mental state, losing the match and falling out of the medals.

    Perhaps the worst part about all this was the patronizing "special medal" they would attempt to give her as a consolation prize. The pathetic attempt to make up for the awful call was met with a proper response by A-Lam, who refused the medal because it was given in false merit.

Bizarre Officiating Tarnishes Boxing

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    Boxing was hit with the most widespread judging controversy at the Olympics.

    It started when a referee was dismissed from the Games for allowing a fight to continue that should have been over. It was downhill from there.

    The Indian boxing team appears to have borne the brunt of officiating ineptitude. Sumit Sangwan lost a bout against Brazil’s Yamaguchi Falcao Florentine despite popular opinion stating otherwise. The Indian Chef-de-mission lodged an appeal that was denied.

    An appeal sunk welterweight Indian Vikas Krishan. He had beaten American Errol Spence 13-11, but the appeal awarded Spence with four penalty points from Krishan. India angrily appealed to the Court for Arbitration in Sport and the AIBA to no avail.

    Trouble continued for India as Manoj Kumar lost a bout he thought he had won to Great Britain’s Thomas Stalker (via Saurabh Duggal of the Hindustan Times):

    “I was clear winner, but the judges didn’t give me points and eventually I lost the bout.

    It seems that everything is already fixed,” said a dejected Manoj. 

    “I told the local press here that this is not an Olympics, it is just a district-level tournament. Nobody expects such blatant cheating at this level of competition,” he said.

    India’s loss was Great Britain’s gain when it came to controversial judgments. Stalker’s win over Kumar was just one in a string of dubious decisions.

    Ukrainian boxer and reigning world champion Evhen Khytrov lost his bout with Bridish boxer Anthony Ogogo despite knocking the Brit down twice, prompting another unsuccessful protest to the AIBA. A similar fate awaited for Canadian boxer Caustio Clayton, who lost to Freddie Evans

    Boxing is rife with controversial decisions, but the rampant inconsistency and apparent inequality marred competition at the Olympics.


    Alessandro is a NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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