The Russians' Long History of Benefitting from Olympic Cheating Scandals

A French website alleged that the U.S. and Russian Olympic teams were conspiring to cheat in the Olympics. Which allows us the chance to explore the rich history of Olympic cheating scandals that benefitted the Russians.

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A French sports website alleged over the weekend that the American and Russian Olympic teams were conspiring to help each other win gold medals in different events. The story is almost certainly not true, but it does allow us the chance to explore the rich history of Olympic cheating scandals that happened to benefit the Russians.

The new rumor from L'Equipe centered on some sort of plot where the U.S. and Russia would work together to ensure an ice dancing gold medal for the Americans and a team skating gold for the Russians. Which, as was quickly noted, each team was in pretty solid position to earn even without any conspiracy. (The Russians won the team skating gold on Sunday.)

2002: "Skategate"

It's impossible, though, to not then mention the controversy that erupted during the 2002 Salt Lake City Games around pairs ice skating. Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada were expected to be given the gold medal after their final performance, but it instead went to Russians Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.

The reason the Canadian pair came in second was that a French judge, Marie-Reine Le Gougne, had made precisely the sort of deal described by L'Equipe. Le Gougne's unusual decision during the judging quickly drew attention to her, and, when confronted in a hotel lobby, she broke down and admitted that she'd demoted Sale and Pelletier at the request of the French skating federation. In return, a French team received a boost in its effort to win gold in ice dancing. Eventually, the arrangement was traced back to a Russian mobster, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, who "devised the plot to curry favour with the French authorities so that they would extend his visa."


1976: The cheating fencer

Non-cheating competitors in 1976. (AP)

At the height of the Cold War, one of the more egregious cheating scandals erupted during the Summer Games in Montreal. Boris Onischenko, who'd medalled in modern pentathlon in 1972, was back four years later aiming for gold. During the fencing component of the five-part compeition, athletes duel with electronically modified swords that are triggered to score a point when the tip comes into contact with an opponent.

Onischenko had an advantage, however, one that was revealed when his British opponent noticed that Onischenko was scoring points even when he didn't make contact. As ESPN describes it, the Soviet's sword "turned out to be wired with a clever system that allowed him to score points at will by means of a hidden trigger." In other words, he'd lunge, hit the button, and get a point.

Onischenko was, understandably, disqualified.


1968: The Soviets tie for gold against a rebellious Czech

"Jim, that's a 10 if I've ever seen it," the announcers said excitedly about the floor routine of Czechoslovakian athlete Vera Čáslavská in Mexico City. She seemed poised to win gold — until judges retroactively boosted the preliminary scores of Soviet gymnast Larisa Petrik so that the two would be tied for gold in the floor final.

Čáslavská competed in the Games only after spending months hiding from Soviet authorities, after signing a public statement condemning the superpower's regime. A few months later, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, putting Čáslavská at risk. It was not clear that she would be able to compete at all.

She similarly failed to win gold in balance beam, after the judges — to the surprise of the audience — gave top scores to Soviet gymnast Natalia Kuchinskaya. When the national anthems were played during both medal ceremonies, Čáslavská refused to look at the Soviet flag. 


2013: The rythmic gymnastics cheating scandal

Rhythmic gymnasts compete as individuals or in teams demonstrating agility with objects like balls or hoops. It's not the most popular or highest-profile Olympic sport, but it's big in Russia, Belarus, and other Eastern European countries. As evidence: Last year, a number of countries, including Russia, were implicated in an effort to cheat on tests required of possible rhythmic gymnastics judges.

"A job judging at the Olympics and other elite competitions is a coveted perch," The New York Times wrote in its coverage of the scandal. So the required written test for potential judges at events including the 2016 Olympics in Rio became subject to rampant and obvious copying. "[I]n Bucharest, Romania, test takers clearly copied answers from one anothers’ papers, including the mistakes," the Times reported. "In Moscow, 114 answers were changed on dozens of tests; in Alicante, Spain, 257 answers were changed."

With sympathetic judges in place — as is obvious from the stories above — national federations clearly hoped to see a benefit for their own athletes. We'll note: no one appears to have directly benefitted from this scheme, though the results in the next Summer Games could have been affected. One Czech judge, not implicated in the scandal, said "This sport is very ill. It’s poisoned from head to toe." Who knew.


1972: The USSR wins basketball gold

Speaking of lousy judges. In 1972, the United States took a 50-49 lead over the USSR with only three seconds remaining in the gold medal game. When the USSR got the ball back, a pass was deflected out of bounds, giving the Americans the ball and, essentially, the win.

Except, not. Because the Soviet team was given another chance, thanks to the intervention of the referees and the head of the amateur basketball association, who came from the audience onto the court to advocate for a do-over. The Soviets were given two additional seconds to play. The team made a full-court pass and took a last shot at the basket, which missed. Game over. Except, again, not. The Soviets were given a third chance, because the refs didn't set up the second chance properly. The Soviets scored a lay-up, giving them a one-point win.

The decision was one of the most controversial in Olympics history, with members of the American team refusing — even post mortem — to accept a silver medal for their performances. The Soviets took home gold, appearing to be less concerned about the nuances of the decisions.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.