15 Of The Most Controversial Sports Moments In History
For some competitive athletes, winning really is everything. Sports history is full of controversial moments in which athletes or coaches can exploit loopholes in the rules, or outright cheat. Rivalries, long-standing grudges, big payouts, or the fierce desire to earn first-place gold or glory at any cost have led to the most controversial scandals and moments from the annals of sporting history.
And pretty much all sports are in contention.
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The Men's Basketball Gold Medal Contest At The 1972 Olympics Might Be The Most Controversial Basketball Game Ever
At the 1972 Summer Olympics, the United States and Soviet Union met in the men's basketball gold medal game. Up to that night, the US was 63-0 all-time in Olympic play. In 1972, professional players were not allowed to participate, so the US team consisted of top college players.
The US was heavily favored, but the game was close throughout. The Soviet Union led 49-48 with three seconds remaining in regulation when US star guard Doug Collins (the future No. 1 pick in the 1973 NBA draft) stole the ball and was fouled to prevent a breakaway layup. He made the first of two free throws, but then the horn went off as he attempted the second - which he made. The referee, Renato Righetto, allowed the free throw to count, giving the US a 50-49 lead.
An assistant coach for the Soviet Union ran onto the floor, protesting that the team had called timeout before Collins's second attempt. The game was stopped with one second remaining because of the coach's disruption. The refs agreed that the Soviets had successfully called timeout and put three seconds back on the clock, despite protests from the US.
During the timeout, the Soviets illegally substituted Ivan Edeshko into the game. He inbounded the ball to Modestas Paulauskas, who then tried to get the ball up the floor to star Alexander Belov, but the clock ran out. The US appeared to win the game and the gold medal.
But Renato William Jones, secretary general of FIBA (the International Basketball Federation), demanded that the Soviets get a third chance to inbound the ball with three seconds to go. He had no jurisdiction to overrule the referees, but was allowed to do so. On the third attempt, Edeshko threw a full-court pass to Sergei Belov, who scored an uncontested layup at the buzzer, giving the Soviet Union a 52-51 victory.
The US Olympic Basketball Committee filed a formal protest heard by a five-member FIBA panel. The panel voted 3-2 in favor of the Soviet Union. The US boycotted the medal ceremony. Bill Simmons, chairman of the US Olympic Basketball Committee, announced:
We do not feel like accepting the silver medal because we feel we are worth the gold.
But Soviet head coach Vladimir Kondrashin said:
We deserve the victory no matter what the circumstances. We had them puzzled from the start since we used a different lineup to confuse them at the beginning.
Since then, the US has made unsuccessful attempts to lobby the International Olympic Committee to overturn the result.
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Thanks To The 1919 'Black Sox' Scandal, People Still Know The Name 'Shoeless Joe Jackson'
The 1919 Chicago White Sox won the American League pennant and faced the National League champion Cincinnati Reds in the 1919 Cincinnati Reds in the World Series (which that year was a best-of-nine series rather than the standard best-of-seven). The White Sox team included stars like pitcher Eddie Cicotte, who led the league with 29 wins that season, and outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, who still owns the fourth-highest career batting average (.356) in MLB history (he hit .351 in 1919).
Many of the White Sox players hated the team owner, Charles Comiskey, who was known for being cheap and failing to pay promised bonuses to his players. For example, Cicotte reportedly had a clause in his contract that he would get a $10,000 bonus if he won 30 games in 1919. According to one legend, Comiskey, instead of risking the need to pay his star pitcher the bonus, ordered White Sox manager Kid Gleason to hold Cicotte out of five scheduled starts at the end of the season (although some sources says this happened in 1917, not 1919).
Because players had few options or rights - there was no union, let alone free agency - some were either targeted or approached by gamblers with the idea of making some extra money by throwing games.
On September 21, several White Sox players - including Cicotte, but not Jackson - met in first baseman Chick Gandil's hotel room to discuss throwing the World Series. Rumors of a fix were so strong that although the White Sox were heavily favored, a bunch of bets came in on the Reds just before the first game. Several reporters covering the World Series also heard the rumors and kept a close eye on the contests.
Although the players attempted to go back on the fix, winning Games 6 and 7 after the gamblers reneged on promised payments, the White Sox lost the series in eight games (threats were reportedly made against some of the players and their families to ensure they'd lose).
In September 1920, a grand jury was convened to investigate rumors that the World Series was fixed. In October, the grand jury indicted eight White Sox players, including Cicotte; Jackson, who played well in the series but reportedly accepted $5,000; and Buck Weaver, who attended the September 21 meeting but didn't take any money and played well in the series. Among the charges leveled against the players was conspiracy to defraud. Before the trial, key evidence, including signed confessions from Cicotte and Jackson (who was illiterate), disappeared. The players recanted their confessions, but testimony from ex-MLB player-turned-gambler Bill Burns implicated the players in the fix.
The jury deliberated for three hours before acquitting the players of all charges on July 28. But Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge who had just been appointed the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, issued a different verdict for the implicated players, issuing this statement:
Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player that throws a ballgame; no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame; no player that sits in a conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
The banned players were dubbed the “Black Sox." Both Weaver and Jackson appealed Landis's decision, but their appeals were repeatedly denied. Jackson, who assuredly would have been a Hall of Famer if not for the scandal, passed in 1951 at age 64.
The “Black Sox” scandal has been recounted in multiple books, documentaries, the 1988 feature film Eight Men Out, and 1989's Field of Dreams.
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Diego Maradona, a national hero in his native Argentina, is widely considered one of the greatest soccer players in history. A member of Argentina's national team for four World Cups (1982, 1986, 1990, and 1994), he is remembered for one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history - the “Hand of God” goal.
This moment occurred during a 1986 quarterfinal match against England in Mexico City on June 22, 1986. The teams played a scoreless first half, but six minutes into the second half, Steve Hodge, one of England's midfielders, wildly kicked the ball into his team's penalty area. Maradona rose up and punched the ball out of the air with his fist, getting it past the charging Peter Shilton (England's goalkeeper) for the goal.
It is illegal for soccer players to use their hands this way. But the referee, Ali Bin Nasser, did not see the play, and the complaints of the English players who did see the illegal goal fell on deaf ears.
After the game, Maradona told reporters that the goal was scored by “un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios” (“a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”).
The Argentine side went on to win the 1986 World Cup.
Maradona passed in 2020 at the age of 60. In November 2022, the ball from the “Hand of God” goal went up for auction as part of a special auction of World Cup items.
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The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan Scandal Redefined Sports Rivalry In 1994
Heading into the 1994 US Figure Skating National Championships in Detroit, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were the Top 2 female skaters in the US, and both were among the favorites to win a medal at that year's Winter Olympics. Kerrigan was seen by many as an insider, a “golden girl" and the heir apparent to 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, while Harding was viewed by some as a rebellious outsider, albeit a very talented skater.
On January 6, 1994, Kerrigan was coming off the ice after her practice when a man hit her in the knee with a metal rod before fleeing. Kerrigan's tearful cries of “Why? Why? Why? Why me” became a familiar refrain as media covered the incident. Although she wasn't seriously injured, Kerrigan was forced to withdraw from the competition; Harding ended up winning the gold medal, securing her spot on the Olympic team. Kerrigan was also awarded a spot on the squad.
On January 11 the FBI began investigating rumors that Harding's bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan. Eckhardt confessed his involvement the next day and implicated Gillooly along with Shane Stant - the man who actually attacked Kerrigan - and Stant's uncle, Derrick Smith. Although she knew all the men, Harding originally denied that she had any knowledge of the planned incident.
Gillooly surrendered on January 27. Four days later he testified against his ex-wife, implicating her in the scheme. Investigators went through the couple's trash (despite being legally divorced, they had gotten back together) and discovered notes, written in Harding's handwriting, that detailed Kerrigan's practice schedule. Despite this evidence, Harding was still allowed to compete at the Winter Olympics.
In the end, neither American won the gold medal. Harding finished in eighth place after restarting her free program when the laces on one of her boots broke. Kerrigan won the silver medal, and 16-year-old Ukrainian skater Oksana Baiul unexpectedly won the gold. Kerrigan, who had received enormous sympathy after the incident, ended up harming her reputation when she was caught on tape complaining about Baiul's behavior.
On March 16, Harding pled guilty to “conspiracy to hinder prosecution” and was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $160,000. Unlike the four men charged in the incident, she was able to avoid jail time. But on June 30, 1984, the US Figure Skating Association stripped Harding of her gold medal from the national championships and gave her a lifetime ban from competing in any sanctioned events. William Hybl, chairman of the panel hearing Harding's case, told the Washington Post:
By a preponderance of the evidence, the five members of the panel concluded that she had prior knowledge and was involved prior to the incident. This is based on civil standards, not criminal standards.
At least two television documentaries, along with the 2017 feature film I, Tonya, have been made about Harding's life and skating career. Kerrigan turned pro after the 1994 Winter Olympics and appeared mainly in ice shows.
- Photo: Bill Mitchell / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 1.0
In the early 1990s, Monica Seles was the dominant female tennis player in the world. She won the first of her nine Grand Slam titles, the French Open, in 1990 when she was 16 years old, making her the youngest champion in the history of that tournament. She was ranked the No. 1 player in the world at the end of both 1991 and 1992.
Seles's biggest rival was Steffi Graf. On April 30, 1993, Seles was playing a match against Magdalena Maleeva in Hamburg, Germany, when a man ran onto the court and stabbed Seles in the back. The incident occurred during a break in the second set of the match in full view of the crowd. One eyewitness told reporters, “He held the knife with both hands as he stabbed her in the back.”
Seles wrote about the incident in her 2009 autobiography Getting a Grip:
I remember sitting there, toweling off, and then I leaned forward to take a sip of water, our time was almost up and my mouth was dry. The cup had barely touched my lips when I felt a horrible pain in my back. My head whipped around towards where it hurt and I saw a man wearing a baseball cap, a sneer across his face. His arms were raised above his head and his hands were clutching a long knife. He started to lunge at me again. I didn't understand what was happening.
The 19-year-old Seles was rushed to the hospital with a half-inch gash in her upper back. Peter Wind, the tournament's doctor, told reporters that Seles “was very lucky. Neither the lungs nor the shoulder blades were affected. Monica is still suffering from shock and will stay overnight for observation.”
Because Seles was Serbian and had received menacing threats in the past in connection with conflict in the then-country of Yugoslavia, there was speculation the incident was politically motivated. But the Hamburg police quickly ruled that out.
The man who hurt Seles, Gunter Parche, was described as an obsessed fan of Graf's who was determined to help her regain the No. 1 ranking. In October 1993 he was convicted of attacking Seles. He received a two-year suspended sentence after an attempted murder charge was dismissed. The light sentence angered some in the tennis world. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova told ESPN she believed the sentence was "insane and so nationality driven. If someone had done that to Steffi [Graf, who is German] so Monica would win, they'd have thrown away the key.”
Seles did not return to competitive tennis for more than two years, at the 1995 Canadian Open, which she won. In 1996 she won the Australian Open, recording the last of her Grand Slam titles. She played her last competitive match in 2003, although she didn't officially retire until 2008. She was later voted into the Tennis Hall of Fame.
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Rosie Ruiz 'Won' The Boston Marathon In 1980 By Running Less Than A Mile
In 1979, Rosie Ruiz, a 26-year-old administrative assistant, and an unknown in the distance-running world, posted a time of 2:56:29 in the New York City Marathon - 11th best among the female entrants. At the time, no one connected to the race thought there was anything suspicious about the result.
Her time was good enough to qualify her to compete in the Boston Marathon. On April 21, 1980, Ruiz supposedly finished first in the women's division of that race with a time of 2:31:56. Not only was this about 25 minutes faster than what she ran in the New York City Marathon, but in 1980 it was also the third-fastest time recorded in history by any female marathoner.
Her huge time improvement raised suspicion, especially when she failed to appear in any photographs of the race until the end. When Bill Rodgers, the winner of the men's division, asked her, "What were your splits?" Ruiz allegedly answered, “What are splits?” (A split is the amount of time it takes to run a certain portion of a race; tracking splits helps runners pace themselves.)
Rodgers reported his suspicions to Will Cloney, the race director, who interviewed Ruiz. In 2000 he told The Eagle-Tribune that Ruiz had been very convincing in her defense: "I told her that our records didn't have her at any of the checkpoints, but she didn't care. She said, 'I ran the race.'''
Eight days after the race Ruiz was stripped of her title and medal when investigators found she had joined the race just 1 mile before the finish line. The women's title was then awarded to Jacqueline Gareau, who had finished the race in a course record time (for female racers) of 2:34:28. Ruiz, who for years consistently maintained that she had won the Boston Marathon fairly and refused to return the winner's medal, ended up losing her job as an administrative assistant.
Although she never explained her reasons for cheating, many believed her boss had been so impressed she qualified for the Boston Marathon that he offered to pay her way to the race. It was thought Ruiz had planned to jump into the race in the middle of a pack of runners, but instead found herself ahead of all the female competitors when she made her way onto the course.
Ruiz had her finish in the New York City Marathon disqualified when it was learned she had later left the course and taken a subway to a spot near the finish line, where she rejoined the race.
Plus, Ruiz should never been allowed to compete in the New York City Marathon in the first place: She turned in her application after the deadline, but was given a special dispensation to compete after claiming she was dying of brain cancer. If she had not allegedly posted a qualifying time in that race, she never would have been able to compete in the Boston Marathon.
Ruiz acquired lasting name recognition for this stunt. “Doing a Rosie” is still runners’ slang for cheating by cutting the course. In the years after this cheating scandal, Ruiz had numerous run-ins with the law, including being sentenced to probation for grand larceny, forgery, and coke-dealing. She passed in 2019 at the age of 66.