Olympics Winter

1972 Sapporo, Japan

Scandal and controversy gripped the 1972 Games months before competition began. Two debates arose, each surrounding the ever-evolving definition of an amateur athlete. This time the huffing and puffing was about what constitutes an amateur athlete.

An Olympics marred by scandal and controversy

The Japanese delegation marches in during the opening ceremony of the 1972 Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo, Japan. ((Staff/AFP/Getty Images))

The Numbers

  • Number of nations: 35
  • Number of competitors: 1232 (1015 men, 217 women)
  • Number of sports: 10
  • Number of events: 35
  • New events: 0
  • Canada's flag bearer: Karen Magnusen (figure skating)

Scandal and controversy gripped the 1972 Games months before competition began. Two debates arose, each surrounding the ever-evolving definition of an amateur athlete. This time the huffing and puffing was about what constitutes an amateur athlete.

One of the debated sports was hockey. In 1969, Canada had lobbied the International Ice Hockey Federation to allow National Hockey League players to compete internationally. Hockey Canada based its petition on the belief that state-sponsored Soviet athletes were de facto professionals, paid by the state to play hockey. It argued Canadian NHLers should be allowed in international competitions since other countries were using their own "professionals."

International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage disagreed. He ruled that any players who competed with a pro team would forfeit their amateur status, thus banning them from Olympic competition.

Hockey Canada was outraged with the decision and continued to fight for the inclusion of NHL players at the Olympics. When the IOC and IIHF didn’t budge, Canada shocked the hockey world by boycotting the 1972 Olympic tournament. That decision smoothed the way for the dominant Soviets to skate to a third consecutive gold medal in Sapporo.

However, Canada would get a taste of high-calibre international hockey when it faced the USSR in the1972 Summit Series.

The Schranz case

Brundage found himself at the centre of another controversy days before the Olympic flame was lit. The 84-year-old retiring Olympic chief threatened to disqualify 40 alpine skiers whom he also labelled professionals.

Brundage opposed the increasing commercialism of amateur sports. He adamantly disapproved of skiers displaying sponsor names on their equipment or receiving money and gifts from companies. The Olympic boss felt this turned an amateur into a professional.

The IOC executive committee disagreed with Brundage’s idea to ban 40 skiers and made a compromise with the Olympic boss. The committee voted 28-14 to make an example of Austria’s Karl Schranz, the sport’s most commercial star. The World Cup champion was singled out by the IOC and banned from competing in Sapporo, even though most of the world’s top skiers breached Brundage’s sponsorship regulations.

The affair made international headlines and Schranz returned to Austria a national hero. About 100,000 people came out to celebrate at a ticker-tape parade in his honour.

In 1988, more than a decade after the scandal, the IOC tried to make amends by awarding Schranz a diploma of participation in Sapporo.

Ard Schenk

Dutch speed skater Ard Schenk smiles while displaying his three gold medals won at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. ((STAFF/AFP/Getty Images))
A silver medallist at the 1968 Grenoble Games, Dutch speed skater Adrianus (Ard) Schenk arrived in Sapporo as the world record holder in three of the four Olympic distances - the 1,500, 5,000, and 10,000m. "The Flying Dutchman," as he was known, did not disappoint at the Games, winning gold in all three of those events to match a then-record for most individual gold medals at a single Olympic Games.

Schenk missed out on a fourth gold medal, and a clean sweep of the men’s speed skating events, when he fell at the start of the 500 race and finished 34th. However, he made up for the gaffe two weeks later at the world championships in Oslo, where he became the first skater in 60 years to win all four events.

By the time Schenk retired, he had set 18 world records and become a folk hero in his native Holland. In fact, he enjoyed such great popularity with the Dutch that a flower was named in his honour – the Crocus chrysanthus Ard Schenk.

Competition begins

The third time was a charm for Sapporo, which had bid twice to host the Winter Games (for the 1940 Games, which were cancelled due to the Second World War, and the 1968 Games, which went to Grenoble). The Sapporo Games were the first Winter Olympics to be held outside Europe and the United States.

The Japanese government viewed the Games as a prestige event on the world stage and invested millions of dollars in new sports facilities, an airport and underground railway. Organizers recouped some of these costs by raking in more revenue from television rights than ever before, as the medium’s popularity continued to grow. The cost of acquiring broadcast rights for the 1972 Games increased more than 300 per cent from four years earlier in Grenoble.

It didn’t take long for the hometown fans to have something to get excited about as Japanese ski jumpers won all three medals on the 70-metre hill. The sweep by Yukio Kasaya, Akitsugu Konno and Seiji Aochi marked the first time a non-European country won gold, silver and bronze in a single event.

A pair of non-traditional winter sports countries also climbed to the top of the Winter Olympic podium for the first time, proving the Games’ growing global appeal. Poland’s Wojciech Fortuna claimed his nation’s first gold medal by winning the 90m ski jump and Spain earned its first Winter Olympics victory when Francisco Fernandez Ochoa won the men’s slalom.

A surprise champion also made headlines in women’s alpine skiing. Unheralded 17 year-old Marie-Theres Nadig of Switzerland captured gold medals in the downhill and giant slalom, edging out favourite Annemarie Proll of Austria. Nadig later revealed that, while hurtling down the slopes, she imagined herself as Herbie, the underdog racecar in the film The Love Bug. "In my whole life I never skied in such a low crouch. I could easily have fallen," Nadig said. "But inside me, I always heard [a] voice crying out, ‘Go, Herbie, go.’"

Canadian Medallists

  • Karen Magnussen silver - figure skating

Canada's performance

Figure skater Karen Magnussen of Vancouver, B.C. stepped onto the ice in Sapporo three years after suffering hairline fractures in both her legs – an injury that forced her to watch the 1969 Canadian championships from a wheelchair.

Technical specialist Beatrix Schuba of Austria built such an insurmountable lead after her six compulsory figures that she managed to capture Olympic gold even with a seventh place finish in the free skate. But with second place still up for grabs, Magnussen skated a flawless program to win the silver.

Magnussen’s medal was Canada’s only podium result of the Games, making the Sapporo Games the country's poorest medal showing at a Winter Olympics since 1928 in St. Moritz.

 Country  Gold  Silver  Bronze  Total
 1. Soviet Union  8  5  3  16
 2. Germany  4  3  7  14
 3. Switzerland  4  3  3  10
 4. Netherlands  4  3  2  9
 5. USA  3  2  3  8
 17. Canada  0  1  0  1