Olympic scandals: How the Games were tarnished through personal favours, controversy and corruption

Watch: Bribery and corruption at the Olympics

As long as there has been an Olympic Games, there have been people willing to corrupt it. Here's a look at some of the more unusual moments of personal favours, bribery and downright criminality over the years that have tarnished the Olympic ideal.

Kim fails to get in tune

South Korean Kim Un-Yong was once one of the International Olympic Committee’s top brass and a key figure in securing the 1988 Olympics for Seoul. A former South Korean intelligence operative, he also liked to help out his children - which included piano-playing daughter Hae-Jung Kim, whose concert performances had drawn mixed reviews.

For Melbourne’s bid to host the 1996 Summer Games, an official revealed that Kim’s daughter was invited to play a showcase concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the behest of bidding chiefs. “I think she probably tinkles in the C division, rather than the A, but certainly she's a competent pianist,” noted one Melbourne bid official. “Her father would appreciate the extent to which Melbourne liked the cultural work of his daughter.”

SEOUL, REPUBLIC OF KOREA:  (FILES) This file photo dated 07 July 2003 shows International Olympic Committee (IOC) vice president Kim Un-Yong speaking at a press conference as he denies sabotaging the nation's bid to stage the 2010 Winter Olympics. IOC vice president Kim Un-Yong was sentenced 03 June 2004 to two years and six months in prison on corruption charges and ordered to pay 677,000 USD in part restitution of funds embezzled by the country's sports czar.  (KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Kim Un-Yong was sentenced to two years and six months in prison on corruption charges. (KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Kim’s Melbourne performance was not her only one as a soloist. She also played with symphonies at bidding Olympic cities in Salt Lake City (tainted by a bribery scandal after staging the 2002 Winter Olympics), Nagano and Berlin.

The former IOC vice president was later investigated following bribery and embezzlement allegations, before being sentenced to 2½ years in jail on corruption charges in 2004.

A carnival of scandal

The 2016 Rio Games faced a myriad of corruption scandals, entwined with economic recession and prosecutors unearthing evidence that Olympic infrastructure became a phalanx of payoffs and illegal payments.

President of Brazil's Olympic Committee Sr. Carlos Arthur Nuzman gives a speech during the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Maracana Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for Tokyo 2020)
Carlos Nuzman was arrested amid claims he was the central figure in the bribery scandal which saw Rio awarded the Olympic Games. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images for Tokyo 2020)

There was also political upheaval that saw its president face impeachment and Brazil’s congress probed on corruption allegations. At the opening ceremony in Rio, interim president Michel Temer’s declaration speech was cut to 14 words long to drown out the torrent of boos from the Brazilian public.

In 2017 - with the legacy of several Olympic venues in tatters - Carlos Nuzman, head of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, was arrested amid claims he was the central figure in the bribery scandal which saw Rio awarded South America’s first Olympic Games. It was alleged that among his assets were 16 gold bars stored in a Swiss bank. He denies any wrongdoing and the trial is believed to be ongoing in a Rio de Janeiro court.

Russia's state-sponsored drug scandal

Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev described the ban as ‘hysteria’. (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP via Getty Images)
Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev described the ban as ‘hysteria’. (ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian doping in sport was sensationally blown wide open in 2016 when a report published by Wada, the world anti-doping authority, declared it had operated a state-sponsored doping regime for four years across an array of summer and winter Olympic sports.

Alleged widespread corruption and wrongdoing led to a four-year ban imposed on Russia in 2019. Wada found that Russian authorities had deliberately erased and manipulated doping data stored in a Moscow laboratory in a bid to keep athletes from being punished or banned for taking illegal substances.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, said the ban was part of "chronic anti-Russian hysteria", while there was outrage in December 2020 when Russia's ban was halved.

Callum Skinner, Team GB's Olympic gold medal cyclist, said “the biggest doping scandal in history had gone unpunished” after the ruling by the Court of Arbitration in Sport.

For the Tokyo Olympics, Russian gold medallists were set to hear music by Tchaikovsky as a replacement for their national anthem, which was banned - alongside the Russian flag - for the Tokyo Games.

Ancient Games wrongdoing

Was Emperor Nero a massive cheat? (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)
Was Emperor Nero a massive cheat? (ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s not just the modern Olympic Games that has been tarnished by corruption, bribery and scandal. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, then emperor of Rome, is reported to have changed the year of the Games - from AD 65 to AD 67 - so that he could compete in chariot racing, alongside a 10-horse outfit which far outweighed that of his 'rivals'.

The Greek historian Cassius Dio noted that judges accepted a bribe equating to £3.6 million in today's money to let him win his chosen events. After nearly being killed after his chariot overturned, the Roman emperor was given champion status despite not finishing the race. Nero's successes in Greece were however scratched from the records and the AD 76 Olympics deemed null and void.

Wrestling with the truth

Controversy and wrestling have been consistent bedfellows over the decades, none more so than at the Athens Olympics in 2004. At these Games, Ukranian-born Mikhail Mamiashvili, who won Greco-Roman middleweight gold for Russia at the 1988 Olympics, was accused of giving signs to the referee of a gold medal match involving a Russian and Swedish wrestler.

Sweden's former two-time world champion Pelle Svensson made the allegation after previously describing wrestling's world body as inherently corrupt. After Svensson had cited referee bias, the Swede alleged he was told by the Russian coach: "You should know that this may lead to your death." Undeterred, Svensson - at the time a board member of amateur wrestling’s governing body - later claimed he found evidence alleging that the Romanian referee overseeing the 84kg Greco-Roman finals had been offered one million Swedish Krona (approx £86,000) to make sure the Russian wrestler won gold. It is not thought these claims were ever formally investigated. Mamiashvili went on to become president of the Wrestling Federation of Russia, although he was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2015.

London's Olympic legacy questioned

In 2013, The Sunday Times won an expensive, long-running libel battle brought by a crime boss after the journalist Michael Gillard exposed alleged corruption centring on land near the Olympic Park in east London.

Six years later, Gillard published his acclaimed book 'Legacy: Gangsters, Corruption and the London Olympics' following years of painstaking research on the criminal gang wars which reared its head when cash started to be funnelled in to spruce up the East London area ahead of the Games, as well as stories on "the man the Metropolitan police had said was too dangerous for it to catch."

"Chief among those who planned to cash in," one newspaper reported, "was the untouchable gangster known as the Long Fella - who was very close to being brought down by a dogged squad of local detectives until Scotland Yard decided that protecting the reputation of the Olympic Games mattered more than exposing a powerful crime lord."

Gillard's book exposed evidence of historical "kickbacks-for-contracts" as well as shady deals which could have affected the bidding process for the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. One reviewer described Legacy as "the longest suicide note in history".

Watch: The biggest drug cheats in Olympics history