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The 10 Most Controversial Sports Events in Recent Memory

Not a good look for these sports.

Sports events are more than just sources of entertainment. They are a medium of diplomacy between nations and a platform to show dissent against local and international affairs. 

Remember when football players took a knee in 2020 and 2021 to protest systemic racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder? Tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the Western and Southern Open in 2021 to draw attention to police brutality and racism after Jacob Blake was shot. The NBA, WNBA, and Major League Baseball also delayed play for a day to show solidarity. 

But personal opinions, cheating scandals, and questionable rules dominate sports coverage. Recently, American basketball player Kyrie Irving was suspended for five games when he shared the link to an anti-semitic film on Instagram. He also made headlines last year when he refused to get vaccinated.

Players, associations, and executives undergo much scrutiny for their actions (and reactions) in the age of social media, and those positive and negative incidents can negatively thrust games and tournaments into the limelight. Here, we discuss some of the sports events and tournaments that have been riddled with controversies, scandals, and debates.

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1 OF 10

FIFA World Cup

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter has said that Qatar, where the World Cup is taking place, is a mistake. The drama has been escalating ever since it was awarded the rights under Blatter (who was banned from FIFA activities in 2015 on corruption charges).

There are multiple issues that have set off alarm bells around the world. For one, Qatar was accused of paying bribes to officials to get the contract, but it was later cleared of charges. 

More recently, the first Arab country to host FIFA has been accused of human rights violations. Thousands of migrant workers have died while working to build infrastructure for the games in intolerant conditions and hot weather. Qatar has underreported these deaths–The Guardian’s estimate was 6,500 in 2021. FIFA has asked teams to focus on the game and not political battles, a move that was criticized by teams and football associations around the world.

Fans and celebrities are boycotting the event for other reasons as well. In Qatar, homosexuality is illegal, and the LGBTQ+ community is brutally persecuted and harassed; punishments can be as severe as the death penalty. The ambassador of the Qatar World Cup said homosexuality is “damage in the mind,” drawing flak from activists and the community and reinforcing concerns about the safety of the community.

Drinking laws are strict, and public drinking can land revelers in jail—though organizers have areas set up to drink before and after games. However, Qatar abruptly announced two days before the first match that alcoholic beverages would not be sold during the games. 

Women’s rights are also curtailed in the conservative nation, where women are discriminated against on a daily basis. They need permission from men to travel abroad, enroll in their universities, or get a job, and there are laws that forbid consensual sex outside of marriage, while sexual assault survivors may also be punished.

One last thing in this slew: David Beckham has become the face of the tournament as the ambassador of culture and tourism. As expected, the football star has received massive backlash, and outraged fans have wanted him to pull out of the tournament to save his reputation as an ally.

2 OF 10

IFSC Climbing Asian Championship

A few weeks ago, Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi was seen competing in the Climbing Asian Championship in South Korea without a hijab. She was hailed a hero as it marked her defiance of the draconian Iranian law that requires women to keep their heads covered. However, reports suggest that she was detained by the Iranian authorities and forced to apologize, saying the headscarf shifted.

In September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s morality police. She was arrested for wearing her headscarf improperly. This sparked nationwide protests, with women burning their hijabs and headscarves bravely in public. Authorities have pelted stones, arrested people, fired bullets, and even given death sentences to protestors in a crackdown against them. But despite the brutality, people continue to fight for their rights and freedom.

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The All England Club, which hosts the prestigious Grand Slam, banned Russian and Belarusian players from participating in Wimbledon this year. The retaliatory move was a consequence of Russia’s war on Ukraine, with Belarus siding with the tyrant nation. 

However, the exclusion was condemned by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association as an act of discrimination. The two associations then decided not to award points to players in the tournament, another highly controversial and widely debated conclusion that turned the oldest Grand Slam into an exhibition tournament. 

Tennis players from Russia and Belarus played in official tournaments—including the French Open and the US Open—all year without a flag next to their names as neutral players.

4 OF 10

2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

In February this year, China hosted the Winter Olympics amidst loud screams of boycotts from activists and citizens around the world. Countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Canada, India, Belgium, and Denmark announced a diplomatic boycott: they sent their athletes but not diplomatic officials or ministers to the games.

The reasons were many. For years, China has arrested, tortured, sterilized, abused, and killed Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Hundreds of thousands of citizens are believed to be in re-education camps, and thousands are in prison, but the Asian nation denies all human rights abuse reports.

In 2019-2020, the anti-government protests in Hong Kong turned violent as the authorities started tamping them down. Several died, and thousands were injured, arrested, and charged.

Athletes were also warned to carry burner phones to the country to fend off surveillance and hacking.

5 OF 10

Australian Open

It was announced in November that Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic will be allowed to play in the 2023 Australia Open after his three-year visa ban was overturned. When the first Grand Slam of the year opened, the former world number one was caught up in a whirlwind battle with the Australian authorities. 

Djokovic is unvaccinated against COVID-19, but he received an exception from the tennis body to compete in the tournament that required players to be fully vaccinated. However, things took a turn when he landed in Melbourne ahead of the tournament and was detained after his visa was canceled. He stayed in the hotel where international refugees are detained—some have lived there locked up for years—as his team challenged the decision. A court judge overturned the visa cancellation, but the federal government stepped in to cancel his visa for a second time. He left the country as fans, players, officials, and governments around the world debated the decision, which was deemed political.

Another incident that marred the tournament was security stopping protestors from standing up for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Security guards at a match confiscated the “Where is Peng Shuai?” banner from fans and asked them to cover their t-shirts with the same slogan, a move that was criticized internationally by tennis associations, human rights activists, and fans.

Peng Shuai is a former Chinese tennis player who posted sexual assault allegations against a Chinese official in November 2021. Soon after, she disappeared from the public eye, and people started asking, “Where is Peng Shuai?” fearing for her safety. She did an interview weeks later to say it was a miscommunication, and she has continued to deny she made sexual assault allegations. She has since retired from the sport. 

Due to a lack of transparency and an investigation, the WTA canceled all tours in China following the incident. 

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6 OF 10

ICC Women’s Championship

Cricket controversies are a dime a dozen, but currently, the hot topic of debate is “Mankading.” It’s a way to run out a non-striking batter if the ball hasn’t been bowled, but the batter moves away from the crease for a run.

Indian bowler Deepti Sharma sparked controversy when, during the third One Day International against England in September, she stopped mid-delivery and ran out Charlie Dean. The cricket universe exploded, with critics, sports experts, players, and fans sharing their two cents. 

Although not an illegal move, Mankading is considered against the spirit of the game. A bowler is supposed to warn the batter if they move too far from the crease (which Sharma said she did, but England denies). Interestingly, “Mankad” comes from the name of an Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad, who employed the same rule to dismiss an Australian player in 1947-48.

There have been relatively few instances of Mankading, and they have always divided people: some believe it’s unsporting and underhanded, while others insist that batters have an unfair advantage if they leave the crease, so it is the right to dismiss them. 

British media called out the Indian cricket team, but the MCC, which maintains the Laws of Cricket, has made a change in the books. Mankading was moved from the unfair play section to the run-out section, making it legitimate.

7 OF 10

Sinquefield Cup

In September, the invite-only chess tournament in St Louis, Missouri, took a dramatic turn when world champion Magnus Carlsen pulled out before his fourth round. The Norwegian grandmaster didn’t offer any explanations, but it is being speculated that this first of his career happened because he suspects his third-round opponent cheated. 

The 19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Niemann defeated Carlsen in the third round of the Sinquefield Cup, a win that would have propelled the young protege’s fast-moving career. In another game, Carlsen was matched with Niemann but resigned the game after one move and later made accusations of cheating. Now the circle of events has led the American to file a defamation lawsuit against Carlsen for $100 million., also a defendant in the case, alleged that the young grandmaster cheated in more than 100 online games, including those with cash prizes, and he was also suspended once. Niemann has admitted to cheating, but when he was 12 and 16, and never in prized events. Over-the-board cheating hasn’t been proven. 

This is a big scandal in the chess world and has led to more anti-cheating measures as distrust of players mounts online and offline.

8 OF 10

Lake Erie Walleye Trail Championship

Another sport that was rocked by a cheating scandal was professional fishing. Two pro fishermen, Jake Runyan and Chase Cominsky, allegedly added weights to their catch and came close to winning the $28,760 prize before they were caught. The video of the director of the tournament cutting open the fish and finding lead weights and fillets in them has gone viral. The duo was asked to leave as the visibly shocked crowd called for their arrest.

The men were indicted on felony charges of cheating, possession of criminal tools, unlawfully owning wild animals, and attempted grand theft. They pleaded not guilty and were released on bail for $2,500 each.

9 OF 10

LIV Golf Tour

Golf is also spotted with controversies and power struggles. The Saudi Arabia-funded LIV Golf Tour is rivaling the PGA tour and enticing players with hefty prize money. This new series hasn’t gone down well with the PGA, players, and human rights activists who insist that this is an attempt by the Saudi regime to improve its image by sportswashing. The kingdom has a laundry list of human rights violations, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Survivors and family members of the 9/11 attacks have condemned the tour, and protests erupted in New Jersey, where former President Trump hosted a tour event. All 17 players who played in the LIV tour have been banned indefinitely by the PGA tour.

10 OF 10

Tokyo Olympics

The last on the list is the delayed Tokyo Olympics 2020, which happened in 2021. This, too, was riddled with controversies. For one, Japanese citizens were not in favor of hosting the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic when the nation was experiencing a rise in infections, and a state of emergency was imposed. It was decided that spectators wouldn’t be allowed to attend the events, and while there was a surge in infections, it didn’t become a superspreader. 

The conditions in Japan were too hot and humid for sports, and athletes suffered heat exhaustion. Many athletes complained about the conditions, exacerbated by climate change, and it was the hottest Olympics in history.

Then there was a particular case of Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya. The athlete criticized Belarusian officials for mismanagement. She was later pulled out of events and was taken to the Tokyo airport to be sent back to the country, where she alleged that she would be punished. However, she dissented, asked for help from Japanese police, and found refuge in the Polish embassy in Tokyo. She and her husband safely made it to Poland and are now Polish citizens.

Amidst all this, Simone Biles was another name popping up everywhere. The seven-time Olympic medalist, considered a legendary gymnast, pulled out of several events to focus on her mental health. An outpouring of support came the American’s way, while some also questioned her decision. Nonetheless, she went on to bring home a bronze in the balance beam event.