Top 4 PR Disasters From Olympics Past

By Fraser Gillies Published: 21 July, 2021 Last updated: February 17th, 2022 at 1:05 pm

2020 Olympics

Sporting events are shrouded in controversy more often than not. 

Qatar’s dubious approach towards human rights led many to question their appointment as hosts for the 2022 World Cup. Likewise, when former General Manager of the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey announced his support for the Hong Kong protests on Twitter in 2019, the Chinese basketball association suspended its relationship with the Rockets, costing the club millions of dollars.

So, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon, we thought we’d take a look at four PR mishaps from the Olympics past, and what organizers can do to avoid making similar mistakes.

Rio 2016: The Zika Virus

If your country is selected to host the Olympics, you can’t help but be overwhelmed with pride. This was not truer for a country more than Brazil. 

As an emerging economy that was trying to battle economic disparity, government corruption and a street crime epidemic, hosting the Olympics was a perfect antidote. It had the potential to unite the country and provide a much-needed injection of tourism and wealth. 

Before the Games could galvanise the nation, however, it was immediately marred by threats of the Zika Virus. There had already been several reported outbreaks of the virus reported across Latin America before the Games began. Unfortunately, failure to take the proper measures to control the spread of the virus resulted in several high profile athletes pulling out from the event, a disaster from a coverage and financial perspective. 

Overall, the Olympics gave Brazil and particularly Rio de Janeiro a significant boost to the labour and money markets, most notably the income of the poorest 5% grew by 29.3%. Unfortunately, the mismanagement of the Zika Virus outbreaks meant that there was a ceiling put on the size of this success. 

London 2012: The North Korea – South Korea Mixup 

When publishing media, doing your due diligence on fact-checking is priority one. Typos, wrong names or misapplied quotes can all land you in a world of bother. 

Well, how does misjudging an entire team’s nationality measure up to these hiccups? 

The North Korean Women’s Football Team were pictured next to the South Korean flag before their match against the Colombian Women’s Team in view of a stadium full of fans. The match’s kick-off was postponed by an hour, as the team refused to play until the flag was changed. 

The London Olympic Games Committee (LOCOG) issued an apology to the entire North Korean Olympics camp for the oversight. It wasn’t taken with too much warmth by North Korea and unsurprisingly, never made it to broadcast on North Korean news.

The importance of double-checking work has never been better highlighted than here. 

Beijing 2008: The Racially Insensitive Spanish Basketball Team

When you qualify for the Olympics, there’s a moment of euphoria. It’s the pinnacle for athletes from a range of different abilities, so the sense of excitement is understandable.

It’s crucial, however, to think about how you show this and think carefully before announcing this milestone to the world. The 2012 men’s and women’s Spanish basketball teams did no such thing.

In a display of inexplicable ignorance and offence, the team decided to take a photo of themselves pulling the skin back on their eyes, and publish this across their social media channels. 

While the International Olympics Committee acknowledged that the photos were “clearly inappropriate” and that the team “apologized and absolutely meant no offence whatsoever”, there were no further actions taken. 

Athens 2004: The Drug Scandal

Carrying the Olympic torch is about as good as it gets in terms of honours that can be bestowed upon an athlete. It’s a mark of respect and trust that a country has for an individual, recognition for what they’ve done to advance their particular sport. 

So, being embroiled in a doping scandal on the day prior to the opening ceremony is pretty much the worst thing to happen. And that’s exactly what happened to sprinter Kostas Kederis. 

After failing to turn up for a pre-tournament drugs test on the eve of the Games, Kederis then withdrew from the competition itself, a massive stain on Greek sports and the Games as a whole. Subsequently, Kederis retired altogether from sprinting.

This drug scandal followed the infamous doping issues that occurred in the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, which had the highest number of failed drug tests of any Olympic sporting event for 20 years. This blow was softened somewhat by Greece’s triumph at the Euro 2004 football tournament. 

However, the PR backlash after Kederis let down his country damaged Greek sports reputation and ability to inspire later generations of Greek sportspeople. 

Final Thought

The Olympics is a venue for demonstrating the power of combining grit, determination and ability. This way, it should be the perfect place to win some brilliant media coverage for organizations, sponsors and countries alike. 

There are always chances for things to go wrong with an event of this magnitude. It’s almost unavoidable to have everything run smoothly. It’s how you deal with the negative situations that help define the size of the problem.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics has already been hit with massive challenges: Postponement for a year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the following restrictions that have come from this has made organizing these Games more testing than previous ones. If it goes ahead without incident, perhaps that’d be the best piece of PR for both the Games organizers and Tokyo itself.


Fraser Gillies

Fraser has been working in the digital communications space for four years. Currently the Head of Revenue at Publicize, he is leading a team of talented content creators to build powerful tech narratives that engage, educate and entertain audiences.