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The most notable good and bad sports in Olympic history
Adam Gibson
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Image: Getty
Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson


When the world's best athletes come together for the Olympic Games you can be certain that feats of sporting greatness will ensue. What also ensues is a very public display of sportsmanship — sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes shocking.

Imagine an athlete graciously congratulating another who beat him, an unfavoured team joyously celebrating an unexpected bronze medal as if it were gold, or a competitor taking their questionable disqualification on the chin and not lashing out at officials.

On the other hand, every now and then, things go awry and the darker aspects of the human condition can come to the fore. When bad sportsmanship rears its head, cheats are revealed, questionable tactics exposed and hearts and dreams are shattered.

Good sportsmanship

Jane Saville's disqualification

When thinking of good sportsmanship, it's hard to go past the image of Aussie walking race competitor Jane Saville. Competing at her home Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Saville could probably already feel the gold medal around her neck as she began to enter the Olympic Stadium well ahead of her rivals. But in the technically exact world of race walking, a judge stepped in and stopped her progress with a red card, Saville having been judged to have broken into an "illegal gait" at one point and thus been disqualified.

The devastated Saville screamed "No!", but the ruling stood, and her stunned Chinese rival, Wang Liping, went on to take gold. But in a victory for good sportsmanship, Saville never once lashed out at officials, instead being philosophical about the loss and congratulating Liping on her victory. In a nice postscript, Saville would go on to win bronze in the same event at the 2004 Athens Games, and whilst that medal wasn't gold, she was typically positive about the whole affair. "Nothing will make up for a gold medal in your home town, but you know this is [Athens] where the Olympics began and any medal here, you know, I'm absolutely ecstatic with it," she said.

Peter Norman and the Black Panther salute in Mexico, 1968

Another Aussie who deserves a place on any list of athletes who demonstrated great sportsmanship is Peter Norman. He was the 200m runner who famously supported US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos when the pair made their Black Panther salutes at the Mexico City Games in 1968. While Norman won silver in the race, it was his backing of the black American athletes and their human rights cause that saw him elevated to sporting hero status around the world.

Tellingly, when the 64-year-old Norman died of a heart attack in Melbourne in 2006, the US Track and Field Federation proclaimed October 9, 2006, the date of his funeral, as "Peter Norman Day". It is a measure of the power of his gesture that 28 years after that historic podium moment, both Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at his funeral.

Nigerian women's relay team’s unexpected success

At the Barcelona Games in 1992 the Nigerian women's 4 x 100m relay team was expected to just make up the numbers in the final. However, the unfancied team surpassed expectations and snatched the bronze medal.

The performance itself was surpassed by the footage of what became a famous celebration. The team's joyous reaction to winning bronze is a heart-warming affirmation of all that is good about sport, the fact that they didn't win gold not mattering one iota as the team danced around the arena.

Shawn Crawford’s medal giveaway

Still on the athletics track, US sprinter Shawn Crawford won gold in the 200m race at the Athens Games in 2004. Backing up at the following 2008 Beijing Games, he could only reach fourth place in the final, but was awarded silver after the second and third place finishers were disqualified for stepping into other lanes.

Crawford felt bad about taking the medal in such circumstances, and said he "didn't deserve it". He found out where the original second placed athlete, Netherlands Antilles sprinter Churandy Martina, was staying and visited the hotel. Martina was called to the hotel's front desk, where he found a package waiting for him – a package that contained the silver medal.

Bad sportsmanship

Turning to those who displayed poor sportsmanship, it's hard to go past those who have attempted to gain advantage through the usage of violence or performance-enhancing drugs.

Ben Johnson's steroid scandal

One of the most notorious incidents of poor sportmanship would have to be Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (pictured above). The shy and quiet Johnson let the world believe he could beat the unbeatable American Carl Lewis at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The brash Lewis had openly said he felt that drugs were being used by other sprinters and after beating Johnson in the World Championships in Switzerland in 1987 said, "I will never again lose to Johnson".

But so it came to the final of the men's 100m in Seoul. Johnson roared out of the blocks and won the event in a world record time of 9.79 seconds, Lewis coming in second. Of course, all was not as it seemed. Three days later it was revealed that Johnson had tested positive to steroids, he was stripped of his medals and his name became a byword for bad sportsmanship.

Tonya Harding assault

Another notorious example of dreadful sportsmanship came in 1994. US ice skater Tonya Harding's ex-husband hired an associate to attack Harding's arch-rival Nancy Kerrigan in an event prior to the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer, hitting her knee with an iron bar after a practice session. Thankfully Kerrigan wasn't seriously injured and went on to win silver at the Olympics. Harding, meanwhile, came in eighth, with both she and her ex-husband later being convicted in relation to the assault.

Spain's Paralympics basketball team fakery

But a gold medal for bad sports has to go to Spain's men's basketball team from the 2000 Paralympics. The athletic Spaniards won their event in the category for those with learning difficulties but it was revealed that 10 members of the team had no disabilities whatsoever – they were intellectually sound and able-bodied. The team was promptly stripped of its medals.

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