Jamie Salé and David Pelletier skate in the worn tracks of many athletes whose Olympic dreams have been dashed by iffy— or corrupt— officiating. At the controversial 396 BC Games, two of three judges ruled that Eupolemus of Elis edged out Leon of Ambracia in the finals of the 600-foot dash. Leon charged that the two judges who deprived him of the winner's wreath had been bribed to vote for his rival, their local entrant. The judges were fined by the Olympic Council (forerunner to the International Olympic Committee), but, pity poor Leon, he remains forever second best.
According to sports historians, dubious decisions by Olympic officials, whether influenced by bribery, nationalism. or politics, have long plagued the modern Games as well. For instance, Anglo-American friction during the 1908 London Olympics exploded like a starter's pistol, tainting the finals of the 400-meter running race. Soon after the start, John Carpenter, one of three American runners, bumped Scotsman Wyndham Halswelle, the only other contestant.
"Rather than rerun the race [30 minutes later] as the rules provided, the British judges stopped the race, disqualified Carpenter, and declared Halswelle the winner," recalled John Findling, author of The Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement.
The Americans protested, spurring the Amateur Athletic Association to step in and hold a hearing. The Association ordered the race rerun two days later without Carpenter, but it failed to solicit testimony from the aggrieved Americans. The remaining runners— William Robbins and John Taylor— boycotted the rescheduled race, which Hallswelle won in the only walkover in Olympic history.
The embarrassing episode forever changed the sport, as well as the power structure of the Olympics. Subsequently, the 400-meter track race was run in stringed lanes, and international sports federations, rather than local officials, started supervising Olympic events.
Passing the proverbial puck to international sports federations hardly ensured clean competitions. In the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, the Canadian hockey team thought they had won a bronze medal based on the existing Olympics' tie-breaker rules. But John "Bunny" Ahearne, the Stalin of international ice hockey, arbitrarily changed the rule, giving the Canadians' Bronze to the Swedish team. The Canadian hockey players learned of Ahearne's decree only minutes before the medal ceremony.
In the annals of Olympic loserdom, few athletes suffered a more unfair fate than the 1972 U.S. Men's Basketball team. The Gold Medal game against the Soviet Union was winding down when guard Doug Collins sank two key free throws to put the United States up 50-49 with three seconds left. The Soviets inbounded the ball, but the Brazilian referee stopped the clock with one second left, because the Soviet head coach claimed he had requested a time-out prior to Collins' free throws. The compliant referee, who later worked for the Soviet team during an international tour, put three seconds back on the clock.
Again, the Soviets could not score; one of their players misfired from half-court. The U.S. team celebrated its apparent victory, but the Soviets now argued that the clock had been reset incorrectly. R. William Jones, International Basketball's head honcho, agreed, ordering the clock again reset to 0:03. Finally, the Soviets hit the go-ahead basket, ending the U.S. team's 63-game Olympic winning streak.
The United States lodged an appeal with the international basketball federation, which they lost by a three-two margin. Predictably, judges from Soviet satellites— Hungary, Poland, and Cuba— voted against the U.S. team, which to this day has refused to accept its silver medal.
"They were going to reset the clock until the [Soviets] won," remembered Tom McMillen, a forward on the U.S. team. McMillen thinks individual athletes face a tougher time dealing with a dodgy defeat than members of a team who enjoy a natural support network.
Just ask Roy Jones Jr., arguably the most wronged boxer in Olympic history. By all accounts, Jones hammered South Korean Park Si-Hun in the light-heavyweight finals at the 1988 Games in Seoul. In fact, a company that tracked the bout for NBC found Jones landed nearly three times as many punches as Park. Nevertheless, the judges handed the hometown boxer a split decision. "It was an outrage," recalled boxing historian Herbert G. Goldman. "Jones beat the Korean. There was no question about it. It was a politically influenced, anti-U.S. [decision]."
Though Olympic officials named Jones outstanding boxer of the 1988 Games, and the IOC later apologized to him, the powers that be never overturned his loss— not even after an investigation turned up evidence that the three judges who voted for Park received payoffs from Korean organizers.
After the debacle in Seoul, the international boxing association introduced an electronic scoring system, but Doctor Robert Voy, president of U.S.A. Boxing, believes the sport took a body blow from which it has yet to recover.
"There is still a big question on people's minds that the electronic scoring machine has protected the sport from cheating. ... [The Jones fight] created a distrust in the sport."
The fact that Salé and Pelletier were later awarded the gold doesn’t undo the damage the bribe has done to international figure skating. Whether the sport can win back its credibility following the Salt Lake City scandal remains to be seen. But Doctor Vince Zuaro, who has participated in 12 Olympics as a rules interpreter for amateur wrestling, doubts the IOC can grapple with the age-old problem of shoddy judges.
"Sports are so political. If you think what happened with Enron is political, [try] Olympic officiating. ... Every time there's judging involved, there's going to be a payoff."
This story originally appeared in the National Post.