I told myself that I wouldn’t get into the Olympics this year. Somewhere between the news of Toyota’s ad pull and Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension I was all EFF THIS NOISE, I’m not watching this bullshit spectator-less sporting event. But then there I was on Sunday night, watching skateboarding, of all things.
Since then, it’s basically all I’ve watched. The silence of the empty stadiums makes me feel like I have to pay closer attention or seem rude, and heart-rending human stories like Simone Biles’ withdrawal take over when my thirst for competition wanes.
Given my present obsession, it only seems logical to run down 10 of the most notable true-crime properties with an Olympic link. I know there are many more crimes we could tackle, and I hope you’ll chime in in the comments with those yarns, as well as with any alternate takes on the crimes I’ve chosen. — EB
These are in roughly chronological order, based on the incident date, just FYI. Ranking these types of crimes any other way feels a little gross.
The Blood in the Water match, 1956
Quentin Tarantino called Freedom’s Fury “the best untold story ever,” a documentary he liked so much he ended up producing it. Just a couple months after the USSR shut down the Hungarian Revolution, the countries came together in one of the most brutal water polo matches ever seen. (And if you know water polo, you know that’s really something.) A BBC piece on the match, itself, gives away the ending, so if you don’t recall the 1956 Olympics rankings off the top of your head wait to read it until after you watch the doc. (Link is here.) I hate to encourage you to give more money to cowboy spaceman, but your only option to watch Freedom’s Fury might be on Prime for $2.99.
Munich massacre, 1972
This is a movie about Operation Wrath of God, the real-life operation intended to avenge a brutal and bloody terrorism plot at the Munich Olympics. So it feels weird to talk about how much of an impact a pre-Bond Daniel Craig and his so-so South African accent made on my [redacted]. I mean, that turtleneck. This movie is Spielberg at his most vicious, tossing aside his poppy fun tics for Jaws-level brutality. Eric “Dirty John” Bana is kind of the moral center of the movie, playing a Mossad agent who in real life may or may not be this New York security guy. (Yes, that’s his LinkedIn.) And, hey, Prime just knocked it down to a $1.99 rental.
Boris Onishchenko cheating scandal, 1976
The Curious Case of the Electrified Épée
Soviet pentathlete Boris Onischenko was booted from the 1976 games after it was revealed that he had an electrical device in his glove that allowed him to “score” points he didn’t deserve during matches. Sports Illustrated tracked Onischenko down last year for a gripping longread on the scam and subsequent scandal. Also, fencing is cool!
Seoul’s 100 meter race, 1988
Leave it to Sarah, BE’s resident 30 For 30 historian, to pick this doc on what CNN once called “the dirtiest race in history.” Six of the eight runners in the race ended up flunking drug tests, including Canadian superstar Ben Johnson, who won the race. This won’t be the last doping tale on the list but it might have been the most jarring case at the time — in the pre-BALCO 1980s, I think (maybe?) we still had some illusions when it came to supernaturally speedy athletes. It’s available on ESPN+, the pricing plan for which might be dependent on what other streaming services you use.
The Olympic Centennial park bombing, 1996
Manhunt: Deadly Games
Regular readers of Best Evidence surely knew this was coming: I’ve made no bones about my affection for Cameron Britton, and his portrayal of Richard Jewell is some of his best work. We sometimes forget that a woman was killed and nearly 100 people were injured in the bombing, which disrupted the Atlanta games, and that subsequent explosions targeted abortion clinics and the LGBTQIA+ community. Yes, I know, there’s also a Clint Eastwood movie on Jewell but but it’s misogynistic crap. All 10 episodes of Manhunt: Deadly Games are on Netflix.
Who else is going to curate Olympics crime content for you? Or review properties based on your vote? Or keep you abreast of the latest in murder-house real estate? If you can, please keep us in business via a paid subscription, so we can keep doing stuff like this for you.
The BALCO investigation, 2002
Game of Shadows
The Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) was started in 1984, and wasn’t brought down until 2002, when federal investigators started looking into allegations of steroid use among its multitudes of high-profile Olympians. Eventually besmirched by the investigation were beloved medalist Marion Jones (five at the 2000 Olympics) and many many more (this timeline from USA Today tells the tale). In 2006 SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams dropped a book that included confidential details on the investigation, and almost went to jail over their refusal to reveal their sources. I’ll bet Game of Shadows is available at your local library; it’s also available on Audible or from its publisher.
Marion Jones talks to Oprah, 2008
I know it’s unrealistic to expect there to be a full searchable archive of Oprah Winfrey episodes out there, but I never want it more than when I am looking for the full version of her October 2008 interview with Marion Jones. The disgraced athlete had just been released from federal prison after lying to investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs (tacked onto that were charges around a check-fraud case involving her ex, fellow Olympian Tim Montgomery) when she spoke with the greatest interviewer the world has ever known (aka Oprah) in a conversation ESPN characterized as “squirm-inducing.”
I think a lot about that conversation, how Winfrey knows when the hit the gas and when to ease off. I wonder what’s going on in Oprah’s head as she talks to this once-powerful woman of color, who like Winfrey fought considerable odds to get to the top of her career, only to lose it all. Was Oprah thinking, as I was, that it fucking sucked that an awful lot of white dudes walked while Jones went down? Should steroid use even be a crime? I could keep going but you get the picture.
Oscar Pistorius kills Reeva Steenkamp, 2013
The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius
Yes, it’s another 30 For 30 series, this time on the first amputee runner to compete at an Olympic games, which he did in 2012. Less than a year later, Pistorius shot and killed Steenkamp, allegedly as she cowered and cried in the bathroom of their home. I so vividly recall the feeling of possibility when Pistorius took the track in London, which is maybe one of the reasons his subsequent crime bothers me so profoundly. There have been a lot of podcasts and docs on Pistorius and his fall from grace, but most of them come a little too close to making excuses for the athlete for my taste. The Life and Trials feels the clearest-eyed to me, and anyway, you already got that ESPN+ subscription to watch 9.79*, right?
Why hasn’t anyone adapted this yet?
Not to go Stefon on you, but the story of Ryan Lochte’s bullshit shenanigans during the Brazil Olympics really has it all: A bunch of buff dummies, sexism, a reality star, inappropriate urination, perpetuation of racist stereotypes, poster defacement, and white privilege. AND it has a remarkably comprehensive Wikipedia page which you really should read, as at the time, we just got details in dribs and drabs and seeing it all there at once is really quite the ride.
That Steven Soderbergh hasn’t turned this into the anti-heist dark comedy of the century is a mystery to me; this thing is as gold as Lochte’s many Olympic medals. He might be bad at lying about Brazilian robberies, but he sure was good at swimming.
Larry Nassar sentenced to 175 years in prison, 2018
This Netflix documentary is hard to watch, especially for anyone who has looked forward to every Olympics for the gymnastics competitions. While reading about the 300-plus women who have come forward with horrifying abuse (many who were assaulted by Nassar as children) is one thing, seeing how complicit the entire USA Gymnastics organization was in his crimes is really brought home by this doc. His victims included Biles, who withdrew from the Olympics this week, and gold medalist Gabby Douglas. If you don’t want to burn the entire gymnastics/industrial complex down by the time this film ends, watch it again.
Friday on Best Evidence: You might have to hear more about steroids, sorry!