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Sure, you’ve heard a lot about the truly heroic moments in Olympic history: Bob Beamon’s record-breaking long jump, Abebe Bikili winning the marathon barefoot, Mark Spitz winning seven gold medals with that Tony Orlando mustache in tow. But the Olympics is also about cheating, drug abuse, wooden legs, sex changes, and death threats by dictators. Here is a Games-by-Games time line of classic Olympic moments that won’t make NBC’s heartwarming reel of past highlights.
Athens 1896 The 1500-meter swim in the maiden Olympics is contested in open seas, with 12-foot-high waves and 55-degree water. Says winner Alfred Hajos, “I shivered from the thought of what would happen if I got a cramp in the cold water. My will to live completely overcame my desire to win.”
St. Louis 1904 American gymnast George Eyser wins two golds, a silver, and a bronze in gymnastics, despite competing with a wooden leg.
London 1908 Martin Sheridan, leader of a group of beer-guzzling Irish policemen called the New York Whales, which will dominate the field events, is chosen as the American flag bearer. During the opening ceremonies he begins a U.S. Olympic custom, refusing to dip the American flag as he passes the Royal Box—in protest of the English occupation of Ireland.
Stockholm 1912 Francisco Lazaro of Portugal collapses from sunstroke during the marathon, and dies the following day. He is the first fatality in modern Olympic competition.
Paris 1924 American marksman Sidney Hinds shoots a perfect 50 to win the gold medal in the free-rifle team competition, despite the fact that he is accidentally shot in the foot during the middle of his round when a Belgian competitor drops a rifle while arguing with an official.
Los Angeles 1932 Bertil Handstrom of Sweden finishes second in the individual dressage—an equestrian event in which riders put their horses through a series of movements which display a degree of communication and cooperation between man and animal—but is disqualified and relegated to last place for encouraging his horse by making illegal clicking noises. He claims the noises were made by his saddle.
Berlin 1936 Defending gold medal swimmer Eleanor Holm has her Olympics end before they get started. She is thrown off the U.S. team on the ship to Berlin for shooting craps, getting trashed on champagne, sticking her head out a porthole, shouting obscenities, and passing out into a near coma. But no swimming means more partying. “Goering was fun,” she would recall. “So was the one with the club foot [Goebbels]. Goering gave me a sterling-silver swastika. I had a mold made of it and I put a diamond Star of David in the middle.”
Berlin 1936 When defending 100-meter dash champion Stanislawa Walasiewicz loses her title to Helen Stephens, a Polish journalist accuses Stephens of being a man. Right accusation, wrong runner: When Walasiewicz is killed in a 1980 convenience store robbery, an autopsy reveals that she was a man.
London 1948 Karoly Takacs, a sergeant in the Czech army, wins the first of two Olympic gold medals in the rapid-fire pistol event, shooting left-handed. Ten years earlier, his dominant right hand had been shattered by a hand grenade.
Helsinki 1952 After losing to France, with only three players on the court because of foul trouble, Uruguayan basketball players and spectators attack American referee Vincent Farrell, kicking him in the groin.
Melbourne 1956 After winning his first Olympic rowing gold medal, Russian Vyacheslav Ivanov jumps for joy and promptly drops his medal into Lake Wendouree. He immediately dives to the bottom of the lake but comes up empty-handed.
Rome 1960 Soviet field event star Tamara Press wins her first Olympic gold medal, in the shot put. Press and sister Irina would win five golds and one silver, and set 26 world records in the shot put, discus, and pentathlon, but then mysteriously disappear from international competition as soon as genetic sex testing is instituted.
Tokyo 1964 During an Olympic soccer qualifying game in Lima, a last-minute goal that would have given Peru a tie with Argentina is disallowed because of rough play. Spectators storm the field, throwing rocks and bottles at police, who respond with tear gas. The fighting spills out into the streets, causing “a state of siege” and prompting the Peruvian government to suspend constitutional law. When the dust settles, 328 people have been killed—most trampled to death—and more than 500 injured.
Mexico City 1968 After winning the middleweight gold medal, British boxer Christopher Finnegan develops a bad case of shy pee (“Now if there’s one thing I’ve never been able to do it’s have a piss while someone’s watching me,” he would write later. “I can never stand at those long urinals you get in gents’ bogs, with all the blokes having a quick squint”). Although friends and officials whisper encouragement, hydrate him with water and then four pints of beer, and even turn on a water faucet, he is unable to, um, deliver for a drug test. Officials follow him first to a television interview and then to a victory dinner, where, at 1:40 a.m., he finally announces, “Who wants some piss?”
Munich 1972 Members of the Pakistani men’s field hockey team, upset over officiating after losing a 1-0 final against the West Germans, storm the officials’ table and pour water on the president of the International Hockey Federation. Several players turn their back on the German flag during the medal ceremony.
Montreal 1976 Diuedone Lamothe of Haiti finishes last in his heat in the 5000-meter run, with a time of 18:50:07—the slowest in Olympic history. He earned his slot at the Games by being a political ally of Haitian president Baby Doc Duvalier. Of course, the dictator threatened to kill him if he didn’t finish.
Montreal 1976 Soviet fencer Boris Onyschenko is caught using an illegal épée, which includes a hidden circuit breaker that allows him to score points even when he doesn’t touch his opponent. After his disqualification, he is immediately spirited back to Russia as some observers suggest he was using an illegal weapon for six years.
Moscow 1980 Vladimir Lipitsky of Russia is stabbed through the chest in the team foil competition, his opponent’s blade nicking a blood vessel but missing his heart. Two years later, his teammate Vladimir Smirnov dies when the tip of West German Matthias Behr’s foil snaps off and pierces Smirnov’s mask, eyeball, and brain.
Los Angeles 1984 Italian track star Gabriela Dorio is given a wine bath by her husband, who is merely holding up his end of a pre-race bet after Gabriela wins the women’s 1500 meters.
Seoul 1988 Soviet gymnast Dmitri Bilozerchev wins two gold medals, only three years after a near-fatal car accident. After winning the 1985 European championships, the newly licensed Russian got trashed and drove his father’s car in front of a speeding truck. Following his Olympic victory, he goes on another drinking binge and is thrown off the team for being a corrupting influence on his teammates.
Barcelona 1992 Japanese marksman Rhyohei Kobe declares that to train for the Games, in which he wins a bronze medal, he not only gave up drinking, but also gave up karaoke singing.
Atlanta 1996 Three months before the Games, Brazilian heavyweight judo fighter Edinanci Silva undergoes an operation to remove her vestigial testicles and reduce the size of her clitoris in an effort to pass the IOC’s archaic gender testing.