The Olympics are a pinnacle of human achievement.
For two weeks every four years we set aside the political, religious, and financial matters that divide us in favor of friendly athletic competition.
Representatives from nations that are at odds run (or swim or bike or ride) side-by-side in contests that result in no lost lives or economic sanctions. Political rivals within a nation can forget about upcoming elections or legislative battles and come together to cheer on their country’s strongest and fastest.
But like all human institutions, the Olympic Games are far from perfect.
There have been plenty of times when participants or organizers have fallen short of Olympic ideals or when ugly politics have imposed themselves on the games.
Here are 11 low points from the history of the Summer Olympics.
Note: This list concerns only the Summer Olympics. Look for a similar list of Winter Olympics lows in 2014.
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1912: The International Olympic Committee strips Jim Thorpe of his gold medals.
By most criteria, Jim Thorpe was the greatest, most accomplished American athlete of the first half of the twentieth century (and possibly the entire century).
He’s a member of the College and Pro Football Hall of Fames, having played running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter for Carlisle Indian Industrial School and several early NFL teams. He played Major League Baseball for the Giants, Reds, and Braves. And he even played on a barnstorming basketball team called the World Famous Indians.
But perhaps the most impressive athletic feat on Thorpe’s résumé is his performance at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. Thorpe won gold medals in both the decathlon and pentathlon, winning four of the five pentathlon events and finishing in the top five of all ten decathlon events.
But 100 years ago Olympic athletes had to adhere to strict amateurism rules. Following the 1912 games the Worcester (MA) Telegram reported that Thorpe had played semi-pro baseball in North Carolina prior to competing in the Olympics. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which back then was a big deal and more than just a haven for shady basketball coaches, recommended that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retroactively void Thorpe’s amateur status.
In 1913, several months after the Stockholm Olympics, the IOC did exactly that, and stripped Thorpe of his gold medals.
Jim Thorpe in 1912 won the discus portion of the pentathlon and finished third in the discuss portion of the decathlon. He won gold in both events, before the IOC took away his medals less than a year later.
Thorpe never denied earning money (albeit very little money) for playing baseball, but he claimed that he was ignorant of the rules. His supporters over the years have noted that Olympic amateurism rules were applied and enforced capriciously and that Olympic rules allowed only 30 days to challenge an athlete’s eligibility. The AAU took much longer to file its complaint.
Advocates working on Thorpe’s behalf tried unsuccessfully for decades to convince the IOC to reverse its decision. Avery Brundage, IOC President from 1952 to 1972 was particularly stubborn. Brundage had competed with Thorpe in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, but he had no sympathy for his late Team USA teammate.
In 1982, 70 years after Thorpe’s dominance in the decathlon and pentathlon and more than 30 years after Thorpe’s death, the IOC reinstated his gold medals.
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1936: Germany doesn’t allow Jewish athletes to compete.
We know the 1936 summer games today as the “Hitler Olympics,” although Berlin actually won its bid to host the games two years before Hitler and the Nazi party came to power. But by 1936 Hitler was running the show in Germany, and he planned to use the Olympics to showcase not only his nation but also his party’s ideology.
In addition to building a new 100,000-seat stadium and several state-of-the-art smaller venues, Hitler wanted to deny black and Jewish athletes the chance to compete in the games. The Nazi regime abandoned this plan when many countries threatened a boycott, but Hitler had no reservations about putting restrictions on German athletes.
With the exception of a single token athlete who had a Jewish father, fencer Helene Mayer, Jews and non-white athletes were barred from competing on the German team.
Among those denied a chance to compete were Lilli Henoch, a Jewish athlete who’d set world records in the shot put and discus and as a member of a record-setting 4 x 100 relay team, and Gretel Bergmann, who held the German national record in the high jump. Henoch died in the Holocaust in 1942.
The Nazi regime didn’t allow Jewish track-and-field star Lilli Henoch to compete for Germany in the 1936 Olympics. She was one of many Jews that Nazis massacred in a ghetto in Riga, Latvia in 1942.
Black American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens famously made a mockery of Nazi notions of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals. But he won one of those medals as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team. Team USA track coach Lawson Robertson added Owens to the relay team after removing Jewish American sprinters Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman. (Owens spoke up on behalf of Stoller and Glickman, but to no avail.)
While Robertson insisted that his only intent was to field the best possible team, Glickman believes that it was a political move, that Team USA leaders—among them Avery Brundage—didn’t want to embarrass their Nazi hosts by putting a half-Jewish relay team on the gold-medal podium.
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