There’s just something about those chunky gold medals that makes Olympians go a little bit crazy.
Most competitors throughout history would agree, the urge for them to return home with a gold, silver, or bronze disc around their neck is incredibly strong. To achieve it, they’re prepared to work inhumanly hard and sacrifice so much.
However, there is a line that most athletes would never cross. They’ll do whatever is in their power to win, all while remaining within the rules of the game. 99% of true sportspeople can’t be tempted to cheat. 1% can. Yet most of them never dare.
Sometimes, just sometimes, mistakes are made. The rules, morals, and ethics are all abandoned. Only every now and then an Olympian transgresses and bends - or even full-on break - the rules to get ahead. Some even break the law.
Let’s take a dark trip down the Winter Olympics’ snow-covered memory lane and delve into the stories of the Games’ worst ever cheaters. Here is a selection of some of the worst offenders:
Tonya Harding (Lillehammer, 1994)
We’ll begin with the most scandalous and shocking of all the stories we could possibly tell. The story of Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Jeff Gillooly is so incredible it was made into an Oscar-winning movie (2017’s I, Tonya). The tale reads like fiction. Unfortunately for all concerned, it was very, very real.
On 6th January 1994, a month before the Olympics began, America's star figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man with a telescopic baton. That man was Shane Stant. He'd been hired by Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband of Kerrigan's big rival, Tonya Harding. Harding, for her part, knew nothing of the planned attack.
Kerrigan was due to take part in the US Figure Skating Championships the following day but was unsurprisingly forced to pull out. However, her injury wasn't quite as bad as was intended. The aim was to break her knee and force her out of the '94 Winter Olympics, giving Harding a better chance of a medal. Instead, the injury was just bruising. Kerrigan made a full recovery and went on to not only compete but to pick up a silver medal at the Olympics.
Rocked by the controversy, Harding put on a poor showing at Lillehammer and only finished eighth. Although not directly involved, she was found to have conspired to cover up the attack and was soon stripped of all her career wins.
Cross-country skiing drugs scandal (Salt Lake City, 2002)
Three cross-country skiers were disqualified from competing in Salt Lake City after blood tests determined that they had all been using the performance-enhancing drug (PED) darbepoetin.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport got involved in 2003 and the IOC withdrew Russians Larissa Lazutina and Olga Danilova, and Spaniard Johann Mühlegg's medals from the Games.
Karl Schranz and the judges (Grenoble, 1968)
Alpine skier Karl Schranz was a great of the sport, a multiple world champion. There was just something about the Olympic Games that he couldn’t get along with, though.
Schranz won a silver for the giant slalom in 1964, but other than that, had no Olympic luck. Illness, disqualification, poor weather conditions, and controversial judging decisions all conspired to stop him from ever winning gold.
He fancied his chances in ‘68, but - again - it wasn’t to be. Instead, Karl’s great rival, Jean-Claude Killy, ended up winning the first two alpine events. Schranz finished fifth in the downhill and sixth in the giant slalom. His only other chance of gold was in the regular slalom.
Schranz raced and finished slower than Killy yet again. He had a good excuse, though. The Austrian claimed a course patrolman crossed his path during the race, forcing him to stop. Schranz was allowed to race again, beating Killy’s time and finally winning his first ever gold.
Except he hadn’t. The French judges studied the TV footage and declared that Schranz had missed a gate at the start of his first run before he encountered the official. They annulled his second run time, thereby handing the win back to Jean-Claude Killy.
The incident has since been called a disgrace, with many critics alleging that the home judges were deliberately helping Killy to win all three races. The IOC even called it ‘the single greatest controversy in the history of the Winter Olympics’.
Ice dancing judge tries to fix results (Nagano, 1998)
Judging in ice dancing doesn’t have a great reputation. Instead of being well-respected experts in the field, competitors sometimes regard those in the judges’ seats as out of touch, incompetent or even corrupt.
Ice dancing and its judging was plunged further into the icy depths in Japan at the 1998 Games. One judge recorded a colleague attempting to preordain results before anyone had even put their skates on. Such was the furore at the time that high-ranking IOC official Dick Pound said afterwards that ‘ice dancing should be stripped of its status as an Olympic event’.
Since the fixing scandal of ‘98, a new system has been put in place to make the judging much more objective and less open to abuse.
East Germany’s luge team (Grenoble, 1968)
In 1968, East Germany was absolutely flying in the women’s luge. That particular Olympics saw the East German team bag first, second and fourth place. Apparently, they didn’t fancy the bronze medal - Italy helped themselves to that.
No one thought much of their superiority, really (apart from perhaps, ‘wow, they’re really good!’). Not until word got out that there was something a little fishy about their immediate pre-race preparations. It turned out that each and every competitor had been illegally heating their sleds’ runners before heading out onto the ice, making their speed increase significantly. Das war nicht gut.
State-sponsored Russian doping (Sochi, 2014)
As we’ve seen, the promise of Olympic glory can be just a little too much for some folk. They get themselves into a winning mindset and will do anything to leave triumphant, no matter how much it may compromise them morally. It’s extreme but understandable. People are flawed, after all. But what about entire nations?
Two Winter Olympics ago we were treated to possibly the most controversial Games ever: Sochi 2014.
Among the long list of heated discussions that surrounded the Olympics in Russia eight years ago were the following:
● Concerns over LGBTQ+ rights
● Disputes with the North Caucasus’ ethnic group the Circassians
● Worries over deforestation and the Games’ environmental impact
● Freedom of speech worries
● Pussy Riot protests
Plus, there was a load of other smaller issues, protests, concerns, and controversies. All which Vladimir Putin’s Russia handled in exactly the way that you might imagine that Vladimir Putin’s Russia would handle it.
What better way to make the world forget a series of contentious points, though than by distracting them all with a much bigger and more shocking scandal.
After the Games in Sochi, it transpired that not only did many of Russia’s competitors cheat by taking PEDs, but the drugs were also supplied to them by the state. Russian secret services infiltrated the testing laboratories and tampered with hundreds of urine samples to help cover it all up.
Dozens of athletes were implicated, Russia's entire track and field team was suspended by the IAAF and the Games were now completely tarnished.
As for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing? Well, who’s to say there won’t be a little controversy here and there? Let’s just hope it’s all mostly above board though, eh?