Embarrassment at the Olympics began as early as 1896, at the revival of the modern Olympics in Athens, where swimming competition was held in such frigid waters in the Bay of Zea that some swimmers were too cold to complete races.
In 1904 the games in St. Louis were drawn out over five months as part of the World's Fair and were so badly put together that some athletes didn't realize they were participating at an Olympics. An entire Games could never be that badly maligned again -- right, Atlanta?
More recent honorable mentions on the Olympic embarrassment chart could include the wacky third ending to the 1972 men's basketball final between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the imitation marathon leader who entered the Olympic Stadium in 1972 in front of Frank Shorter, a botched elementary Stutz handstand that cost Chinese gymnast Li Ning an all-around gold in 1984, defending champion Linford Christie's double false start in the 100 meters in 1996, and the less-than-artful dodging that Greek sprinters Konstantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou used to cover their tracks following pre-Games doping allegations in 2004. Still, we managed to come up with a decidedly North American-flavored list of 10 people/pairs/events/themes that stand out above the rest of the stubbed toes and photographed thumbs in Olympic lore.
1. Boycotts stain the Games
It's true that the tug-of-war was once an Olympic event, and its unfortunate revival -- a contest of geopolitical one-upmanship between two superpowers -- cost many great athletes a chance to perform on the Olympic stage. First U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. Four years later Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev decreed a similar boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics by Eastern bloc nations.
Granted, not every country obliged. Great Britain defied Carter and went to Moscow, enabling legendary miler Sebastian Coe to win his first Olympic gold medal. The Romanians took part in L.A., bringing their traditionally first-rate gymnastics team and setting up a memorable showdown in the all-around final between Mary Lou Retton and Ekaterina Szabo.
Less-publicized boycotts stained the Games in other years, too. In 1956, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt stayed away to protest the Israeli incursion into the Suez Canal. In 1976 a number of African nations demanded the exclusion of New Zealand from the Montreal Games because the Kiwis had sent a rugby team on a pre-Games tour of South Africa, which was then under the shadow of Apartheid. This cost Tanzanian distance runner Filbert Bayi his moment in the Olympic sun. A traditionally strong team of Cuban boxers stayed home from Seoul in 1988, when Fidel Castro announced a boycott in a futile gesture of support for Communist North Korea.
2. Ben comes up dirty: 1988
Steroids had always lived in the late nights and back rooms of the Olympic Games, talked about in hushed voices. Occasionally a no-name was found guilty and the Games went on. That is, until a blown-up Jamaican expatriate running in the colors of Canada ran 9.79 seconds to win the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. Two days later Ben Johnson was found to have metabolites of the easily traced anabolic steroid stanozolol in his system and surrendered his gold medal. Carl Lewis of the U.S. was elevated to first place, his second Olympic 100-meter gold medal, but the legacy of the Seoul 100 was Johnson's and Johnson's alone. No track sprint run since that day has been without suspicion of steroid use. Big Ben unwittingly exposed the underbelly of Olympic sport and changed the Games forever.