Remembering A Few Famous Sports Controversies

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There are a great many moments in sports history that cause impassioned arguments about what really happened or what should have happened. When emotions run high, it is easy for some to slide over the line into improper behavior. Any attempt to list sports controversies will immediately hit the issue of definition. Is the O.J. Simpson trial a sports controversy because Simpson was a famous athlete? Should we restrict our list to events that directly impacted sports, such as the Pete Rose blackball, or should we be even more restrictive and stick to events that occurred specifically on the playing field, like Joe Horn’s cell phone call?

It would be easy to let any such list, no matter how restrictive, grow like a weed. However, here are a few of the more interesting controversies.

In the synchronized swimming event in the 1992 Olympics, Sylvie Frechette of Canada and Kristin Babb-Sprague of the US were favored. Over a series of events, scoring was close, but Ana Maria da Silviera of Brazil pushed the wrong button during one event, giving Frechette an 8.7 for a spin. Despite attempts to get this corrected, the score was displayed as it was, and under Olympic rules could not be changed. This was enough to ensure that Babb-Sprague won the gold medal. Later, a ruling gave both women the rights to wear a gold medal from this event. It is hard to beat an event where the judge herself says she was wrong.

Another interesting controversy was the 1960 Olympics 100M freestyle. Lance Larsen of the US appeared to beat John Devitt of Australia to viewers, but the time said Devitt won by a tenth of a second. Six judges for the event split, three each picking Devitt and Lance as the winner. The chief judge selected Devitt and four years of appeals had no effect.

The 1908 Olympic marathon is high on the poignancy list, as Dorando Pietri was the first runner to reach the stadium. He was dazed, and ran in the wrong direction. Officials corrected him, but he collapsed. He rose and fell many times before worried officials, fearing a death in front of the Queen, helped him cross the line. For receiving help to cross the line, he was disqualified.

Stella Walsh, a runner competing for Poland, wins a special note for the bizarre. She ran the 100m sprint and broke three world records. In 1936, an American, Helen Stephens, won the race. Despite allegations that Stephens was a man, examination showed she was female and she was allowed to keep the gold. In 1980, Walsh, who had moved to the US, was shot to death in a robbery. An autopsy showed that Stella Walsh was a man.

However, when shorn of the glow of the immediate events, and searching for the greatest sports controversies of the modern age, the winner must be the 1972 Olympic Basketball scandal. The US dominated Olympic basketball with a string of 62 straight victories, until the 1972 game. The seasoned Soviet team was ahead until three seconds were left on the clock, and the US team was able to take the 50-49 lead. The Soviet coach called for a time out, but the clock was allowed to run to one second and the US players celebrated victory. The clock was stopped at one second because the Soviet coach had called for a time out, and with one second left, the Soviet team was allowed the ball and play continued until the time ran out. The US team again celebrated, but R. William Jones, a British sports official, ruled that play would again resume with three seconds on the clock. This time the Soviet team was able to score, and play was stopped. The US appealed the odd refereeing, but the five judge panel had three communist judges, who all voted to keep the Soviet win.

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