Every time the Summer or Winter Olympics roll around, the whole world’s attention turns to the Games and supporting the top athletes on the planet. The Olympics have highlighted some of the greatest moments of human achievement — but over the years, the event has also brought us some awkward, cringe-worthy, and otherwise hard-to-watch moments. Sure, there have been plenty of the embarrassing fails and shocking losses that we all know have to come along with a competition on the scale of the Olympic Games, but there have also been more jaw-dropping moments — moments that made viewers gasp in horror (fair warning: you’ll never be able to unsee the dove incident of 1988) or fear for an athlete’s safety.
Since the Olympics were first broadcast worldwide in 1964, there have been moments that left viewers talking in good and not-so-good ways. While some Olympians have dealt with unpleasant on-air interviews and others saw their Olympic dreams destroyed at the Games, here are some of the most uncomfortable Olympics moments that have aired on live TV.
A flock of doves were accidentally incinerated during an Olympics opening ceremony
In 1988, the Olympics were held in Seoul, and, as a show of peace in the midst of the Cold War, the host city decided embrace some symbolism and release a group of doves during the opening ceremony. A big, memorable display that would transcend language barriers and bring people around the world together in a moment of good vibes and happy feelings — the plan had "Olympics opening ceremony perfection" written all over it. Unfortunately, the big moment didn’t make viewers say "aww" so much as "…omg."
The organizers had decided to time the release of the doves to the lighting of the Olympic torch — a.k.a. the grand finale of the opening ceremony — but tragedy struck when a group of the birds were caught in the flames and burned to a crisp on live television as the entire world watched … and no doubt gaped in horror and disbelief. The Guardian listed it as one of "the worst opening ceremonies ever to grace a major sporting event."
The time a little girl was caught lip syncing at the Olympics
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony, an adorable nine-year-old girl named Lin Miaoke stepped out onto the world stage to sing "Ode to the Motherland." It was a beautiful moment, but as the song went on, some viewers — including the girl’s dad — noticed that something seemed, well, off about the performance. As The New York Times reported, Miaoke’s father, Lin Hui, realized during the performance "that the voice was a little different from hers," but said he assumed "the difference might be caused by the acoustics." It was not the acoustics.
Turns out, the voice sounded different than Miaoke’s because it wasn’t Miaoke’s voice at all. It soon came out that she was actually lip syncing to pre-recorded vocals by another girl, seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was apparently judged by the production team to be the better singer, but not cute enough for the broadcast. (Geez.)
Chinese officials defended the move, with Chen Qigang, the ceremony’s musical director, saying the decision was "for the national interest" in a state radio interview (per CNN). He added that the decision was made at the highest levels of government after people watching the rehearsals apparently decided that Yang Peiyi didn’t have the right look. "We had to do it," he said. "We’d been through several inspections. They’re all very strict. When we rehearsed at the spot, there were several spectators from various divisions … who gave the opinion it must change."
When a priest tackled a runner in a marathon race and cost him the gold
It’s always hard to watch the moment when an athlete is thrown off their game and that happened in a big — and uniquely weird — way at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. During the final event at the Games, Brazilian runner Vanderlei de Lima had a nearly 30-second lead in the marathon race as he approached the 22-mile mark, but his dreams of Olympic gold were dashed when he was unexpectedly tackled by someone from the crowd.
"I was not expecting it at all," Lima, who ultimately placed third, said after the race, according to The New York Times. "I couldn’t defend myself. I was totally concentrated on my race. I had to get back into my competitive rhythm, and I really lost a lot of it. It’s extremely difficult to find that rhythm again."
The person who tackled Lima was Irish priest Neil Horan, who later admitted to regretting the interruption. "I want people to know that I do regret what happened," he told USA TODAY Sports in 2016. "It was an awful thing to do, and I should not have put my hands on him at all." As for why he decided to tackle an Olympic runner mid-race in the first place, Horan insists it wasn’t a prank. "I was doing it to spread the gospel and to prepare people for the second coming," he explained in the interview.
An event had to be delayed after the Olympics displayed the wrong country’s flag
Sometimes, an Olympic moment becomes awkward before the athlete even makes it to the field to compete at all. That’s what happened during the 2012 Olympics in London, when the North Korean women’s soccer team walked off the field before a match against Columbia, when a technical error led to the South Korean flag being displayed next to players’ pictures on the big screen in the stadium by mistake.
The game was ultimately delayed for an hour, and the Olympic committee issued a formal apology with a spokesperson, saying (via BBC News), "The South Korean flag was shown in the video package on the screen before the kick-off and the North Koreans were naturally very upset about that. … A genuine mistake was made for which we apologize." According to the BBC report, a spectator who was in the crowd that day said the snafu was described in an announcement as a "technical problem behind the scenes."
After the match, North Korea’s coach, Sin Ui Gun, addressed the incident and the team’s decision to walk off until it was corrected. "Our team was not going to participate unless the problem was solved properly," he said, according to another BBC News article. "Our players cannot be shown especially with other flags, especially the South Korean one. If this matter had not been solved, continuing would have been a nonsense."
That time a martial artist kicked a judge in the face after he lost a match
At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Cuban martial artist Ángel Matos made headlines when he perfectly illustrated being a poor loser in the bronze-medal taekwondo match. After being disqualified from the match, Matos purposefully kicked a referee in the face, leading to both him and his coach, Leudis Gonzalez, being banned for life by the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF).
"We didn’t expect anything like what you have witnessed to occur. I am at a loss for words," WTF secretary general Yang Jin-suk said (via ESPN) after the incident. "This is an insult to the Olympic vision, an insult to the spirit of taekwondo and, in my opinion, an insult to mankind."
A decade later, Matos said he regretted the move, telling the Havana Times, "It’s something I still regret until this very day because I didn’t want my sports career to end this way." In the in-depth interview, Matos detailed his side of the story and what led to the infamous kick, noting that it was hard to see his career end prematurely, since he was blacklisted from future competitions as a result of the outburst. "I felt really bad because of all the sacrifice I had made and because I even wanted to go on and fight another year to reach the World Championships, but I was banned."
When a diver flopped when he tried to flip
German diver Stephan Feck became the subject of worldwide sympathy and secondhand cringes during the 2012 London Olympics, when he spectacularly blew his dive in the preliminary round of the men’s 3-meter springboard competition. Feck lost form mid-dive and landed in a backwards flop in the pool. Not only was the error devastating and, no doubt, embarrassing, but the dive also earned Feck a score of zero from every judge at the event.
The internet exploded with headlines poking fun at the diver’s "Feck up" and declarations that he had put up the "worst Olympic dive ever." Although he’s stayed (understandably) silent about the moment, Feck did grant a rare interview to Italian site Tuffi Blog in 2015, and stressed the importance of embracing "funny moments" as a diver. "Funny moments are essential," he said, according to an English translation available on the blog. "Diving is a job for us and if your job isn’t fun then you will never be successful at what you do. I like what I do … obviously, there are bad days when you think ‘why am I doing this?’"
A weight-lifter dropped a huge weight on his neck
Some Olympic moments are hard to watch because you feel embarrassed or bad for the athletes involved. Others are hard to watch because you feel deep, overwhelming concern for the athletes involved. In 2012, German weight-lifter Matthias Steiner fell into the latter category when he lifted 196 kg. (432 lbs.) in the snatch section of the men’s weightlifting competition, only to drop the heavy weight on his own neck. Thankfully, he was okay enough to walk off the mat himself, but he didn’t return for his third attempt. Steiner luckily did recover from the injury and went on to compete again.
"It took 5 months for me to fully recover from that accident," he explained in a 2017 interview with BarBend. "After that, I jumped back into training 100 percent and started preparing for the European Championship."
Not long after, however, Steiner retired from weightlifting and shifted his focus to entrepreneurship and STEINERtainment, the business he runs with his wife, journalist Inge Steiner. In an Olympics.com interview in 2020, Steiner made it clear that his infamous Olympics moment didn’t mar how he feels about his career as an athlete. "Looking back at my 20 years of weightlifting I am very happy with what I have accomplished," he said. "There was a lot of pain and sacrifice and that lets me looks back at it very contentedly."
The time a pole vaulter’s pole snapped when he was in the air
Another shocking moment at the 2012 Olympics involved Cuban pole vaulter Lázaro Borges, whose pole snapped when he was 18 feet in the air, mid-jump, during the pole vault qualifications round in London, per the Bleacher Report. The Daily Mail reported that the shocking moment, during which Borges’ pole snapped into three separate pieces, spraying shards of fiberglass in all directions, left the 80,000 spectators in the crowd holding their breath and fearing for his safety. Luckily, Borges wasn’t hurt during the incident, but unfortunately, the fall left him unable to qualify for the final.
As the Daily Mail pointed out, Borges wasn’t the first Olympic pole vaulter to suffer a snap during the Games. In 1988, Daley Thompson’s pole broke during the pole vault event in the decathlon at the Seoul Olympics, a setback that led to him placing fourth in the event overall.
When a boxer thought he won his match and awkwardly celebrated on TV
The 2016 Rio Olympics had plenty of memorable moments, but the secondhand embarrassment people felt for Chinese boxer Lü Bin went unmatched. Bin thought he was going to win his match against Kenyan boxer Peter Warui when the fight came down to a judge’s decision. When the result was announced, Bin mistakenly thought he had won and began to celebrate only to awkwardly (and devastatingly) realize his mistake on camera. But Bin wasn’t alone in thinking he had won, per Business Insider — it was a close match that he ultimately lost in the 2-1 decision.
Per Shanghaiist, Bin later shared his feelings about the loss in a post on his Weibo account, which was captioned, "The judges stole my dream." He didn’t let the heartbreak deter him from continuing his career, however, and went pro in 2017, winning his first professional fight with a knockout.