With the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse apparently saddled up and riding toward Rio, it’s been claimed that Brazilian organizers are making preparations for the “worst ever” Olympic Games. But despite a war-like atmosphere (police killings, mass protest, and civil disobedience), and pestilence (Zika and raw sewage in the water), Rio 2016 has an incredibly long way to go to make it into the Olympic Games hall of shame.
Fascism, mass murder, racism, state-sanctioned cheating, moral and fiscal bankruptcy, and outright chaos have all marred previous stagings of The Greatest Show on Earth.
So, who was responsible for hosting the worst Games in Olympic history? Here are the worst five, in reverse order:
5. Atlanta, 1996
It could have been far worse. Heroic security guard Richard Jewell spotted an unattended green bag in the Olympic Park early on the morning of July 27. He had no idea that a 40-pound pipe bomb was hidden inside, but he alerted the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and a full evacuation was already underway when the device exploded.
The blast still killed local resident Alice Hawthorne, 44, and injured more than 100 other people. A Turkish cameraman also died of a heart attack in the panicked aftermath of the bombing. An anti-abortion fanatic was later jailed for the terror attack.
Even before the bombing, the Atlanta Games, which were accused of crass commercialization, had been chaotic. Buses that were supposed to shuttle athletes around the city were mired in traffic problems, huge lines, and drivers getting lost. A reigning Olympic judo champion was even disqualified from defending his crown after arriving late for the weigh-in (although it sounds like it was mostly his own fault).
4. Athens, 2004
The Greeks snatched the hotly contested title of most ludicrous financial mismanagement from Montreal 1976. Their budgetary mistakes were all the more foolish since they—like every Games since—had the warnings from Canada ringing in their ears. (When the Athens closing ceremony came to an end almost three decades after Montreal, the Canadian city was still paying off its Olympic debt.)
The Greeks chose to build permanent stadiums and arenas financed purely by a government infrastructure program. The $4.6 billion budget more than tripled, an overspend of $60,000 for each Greek citizen. It’s too simplistic to claim the huge debt helped cause Greece’s financial crisis, which began five years later, but it certainly didn’t help.
What makes the overspend so much more heartbreaking is that financially crippled Greece has been unable to afford the upkeep of the new facilities. The Olympic Park now stands like a ghost town; the venues are empty, overgrown, abandoned, and decayed.
The Games themselves were pulled off successfully, but Dimitris Evangelopoulos, Greece’s national track and field coach, told The Guardian that his team is now forced to travel to Cyprus to train in decent facilities. “It’s as if the lights went out at the closing ceremony and that was it,” he said.
3. Moscow, 1980
Six months before the Games were due to begin, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The U.S. would eventually go on to arm the jihadi fighters rebelling against the communist regime and its Russian supporters, but first Jimmy Carter announced a boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
The most powerful Olympic team withdrawing from the first Games behind the Iron Curtain was damaging enough, but the White House convinced 64 other nations to join the boycott. The smallest number of teams took part since the Melbourne Games, which were held in far-away Australia long before air travel was a common commercial enterprise.
The medal table at the end of the Games was topped by the Soviet Union, followed by East Germany, Bulgaria, and then Cuba in fourth. It was hardly an inspiring celebration of the universality of sports.
It was later confirmed that East Germany had been operating a revolutionary state-sponsored doping program, which pumped its athletes full of steroids, amphetamines, and human growth hormone whether they wanted them or not.
As many had suspected at the time—it is now certain that a huge proportion of the Olympic medals handed out in Moscow went to drug cheats.
2. Berlin, 1936
In 1931, the International Olympic Committee decided it was time to help end Germany’s post-First World War isolation and allow Berlin to host the Games in 1936. Two years later, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor. His viciously racist, anti-Semitic domestic agenda was already well known by 1936. There was much talk of an international boycott, but that never came to pass.
Instead, Hitler was allowed to stage one of the most visually spectacular and impressive Games in sporting history. Many of the Nazis’ flourishes would go on to become regular fixtures at future Olympics.
The Games had been co-opted by a monster, whose goose-stepping brown shirts and fluttering swastikas bolstered the the Nazi propaganda coup, immortalized by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose other most notable work was Triumph of the Will.
What Hitler could not control, however, were the performances on the track.
He had mocked the U.S. team for relying on what he referred to as America’s black auxiliaries.” The first African American to win gold at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium was Cornelius Johnson. Hitler left rather than congratulate Johnson in person as he had done the two previous winners.
The saving grace of these despicable Games was what Jesse Owens did next. The African American Ohio State student proved himself to be the world’s best athlete; winning gold in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the sprint relay, and the long jump.
1. Munich, 1972
Mark Spitz won a record seven gold medals as he dominated the pool in Munich, but the sport at the 1972 Games was largely forgotten.
Eleven Israeli coaches and athletes were taken hostage and murdered by terrorists who scaled the fence of the athletes’ village and broke into two apartments where members of the Israeli Olympic team were sleeping.
It emerged only late last year that Palestinian militants from Black September tortured the captured athletes. One of the victims, weightlifter Yossef Romano, was shot and castrated in front of the others after fighting back.
During a terrifying standoff with German police that was broadcast live around the world, the Palestinians demanded the release of hundreds of prisoners held in Israel. An attempt to ambush the militants and free the hostages ended in disaster.
Jim McKay, the ABC sportscaster, broke the news to millions of people watching in horror back home: “Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were 11 hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”