The Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years


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The Olympics features the best of the best going for the gold — and that can spark some heated rivalries.

Arguably the most infamous Olympic rivalry occurred between professional figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Their feud went so far that Harding’s ex-husband and bodyguard hired a man to take Kerrigan out of the 1994 games by attempting to bust her kneecaps. The pair’s rivalry and the attack were the subject of the biopic I, Tonya, which came out in 2017.

“I did, however, overhear them talking about stuff, where, ‘Well, maybe we should take somebody out so we can make sure she gets on the team.’ And I remember telling them, I go, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I can skate,’” Harding reflected during a 2018 sitdown with ABC News. “This was, like, a month or two months before [the attack] but they were talking about skating and saying, ‘Well, maybe somebody should be taken out so then, you know, she can make it.’”

While Harding denied having any involvement in the attack, she did plead guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution. She was fined $150,000, sentenced to three years probation and 500 hours of community service in addition to being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Keep scrolling to take a look back at some of the biggest feuds at the Olympics throughout the years:

Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years
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Katarina Witt vs. Debi Thomas

The 1988 Winter Olympics saw the birth of the rivalry between Witt and Thomas which was ultimately dubbed The Battle of the Carmens. Both ice skaters used the music from Bizet’s opera Carmen in their respective routines.

Thomas, who was on Team USA, started off in first place while Witt, who represented East Germany, was in second. After both athletes had underwhelming free skates, Witt ended up taking home the gold. Thomas made mistakes on three of her jumps and ultimately came in third place.

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years
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Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan

The figure skaters began competing against each other in the early ‘90s. They faced off in the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in 1991, where Harding took home the win. The following year, both Harding and Kerrigan participated in the 1992 Winter Olympics. While teammate Kristi Yamaguchi took home the gold, Kerrigan got the bronze medal and Harding placed fourth.

Two years later, the duo were expected to be the U.S. figure skating representatives at the 1994 Olympics in Norway. One month before the games, Kerrigan was attacked after practice by hired hitman Shane Stant. Stant hit Kerrigan in her right leg with a baton.

The attack was organized by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt. Harding denied having any involvement after Gillooly confessed to the FBI.

While Kerrigan was out with her injury, Harding went on to win the championship and earned a spot at the Olympics. Although she was unable to compete to earn a spot of her own at the Olympics, her fellow skaters stepped down to offer her the last slot following her recovery. Luckily for Kerrigan, the injury didn’t break any of her bones and she was able to compete at the Olympics. She and Harding faced off in Norway where Kerrigan took home the silver medal and Harding placed eighth.

In March 1994, Harding ultimately pled guilty to the charge of “conspiracy to hinder prosecution” as more evidence came forward connecting her to the crime. She initially received three years probation and a $160,000 fine.Harding was ultimately banned from the USFSA forever and her 1994 national championship title was revoked.

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Related: Biggest Olympics Scandals Ever: Nancy Kerrigan’s Attack and More

All the drama! The Olympics may be an event that is all about the sports activities, but that doesn’t mean that the most shocking things happen during the tournaments. Throughout the years, many controversial incidents have made headlines outside of the event. During the 1994 games, ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a baton […]

Oksana Grishuk and Sasha Platov vs. Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin

Kerrigan and Harding’s feud wasn’t the only drama at the 1994 Olympics. Russian ice dancing partners Maia Usova and Alexander Zhulin, who were married in real life at the time, faced off against rivals Oksana Grishuk and Sasha Platov. Grishuk and Platov won the gold, while Usova and Zhulin received silver.

The drama, however, occurred behind the scenes as Zhulin had an alleged affair with Grishuk. Usova allegedly caught the pair on a date at Spago in Hollywood, per SF Gate. Following the scandal, Usova and Zhulin ultimately divorced. However, they remained ice partners until 1997.

Neither Grishuk, Usova nor Zhulin have spoken out about the affair.

Alexander Popov and Gary Hall Jr Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years
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Gary Hall Jr. vs. Alexander Popov

Long before Hall Jr. appeared in his first Olympics in 1996, the American swimmer already had ignited a rivalry with Popov. The pair first met at the 1994 World Championships — where the Russian swimmer came in first while Hall Jr. finished in second — before facing off in Atlanta.

While the duo exchanged jabs in the press at the games, Popov ultimately won.

“I think this is going to be a rivalry that will last for a long time,” Hall Jr. said at the time, per the Tampa Bay Times. “There is always a Russian opponent who is world-ranked and tough to beat. This Olympics, it was Gary vs. the Russian.”

Hall Jr. was suspended by the International Swimming Federation for marijuana use in 1998. The swimmer released a statement addressing the allegation.

“I am confident that once I am afforded the opportunity to present my position,” he said at the time, “I will be able to prove I did not violate any FINA rule and the provisional suspension will be removed.”

Despite appealing the decision, the suspension remained in place. Hall Jr. returned to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 where he won the gold medal in the individual 50 m freestyle. Popov finished in sixth.

Milorad Cavic and Michael Phelps Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years
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Michael Phelps vs. Milorad Cavic

The swimmers had a healthy rivalry but one day Cavic’s trash-talking went a little too far.

“It would be good for the sport if he lost,” Cavic said of Phelps to ESPN in August 2008 ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics. “I think it would be good for the sport and good for him.”

At the time, Phelps did not address Cavic’s taunts. Much to the Serbian swimmer’s chagrin, Phelps ended up breaking records at that Olympics by winning eight gold medals. Cavic, for his part, came close to beating Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly. Phelps clocked at 49.82 seconds, while Cavic touched in 49.95.

However, there was speculation about who won the race because it was unclear who touched the wall first. Many believed Cavic ultimately grazed the wall first but the initial motion didn’t register on the touchpad. In 2016, Cavic spoke out about the match and how many believed he was cheated out of a gold medal.

“For me, personally, had I been in Phelps’ position, I’m not sure how comfortable I would have felt having the gold medal that everyone else in the world believed was not mine,” he said to Vice at the time. “I’m not taking a shot [at] Michael. I mean, Michael had already won 11 gold medals before that race. Michael Phelps is the one Olympic athlete who just might have possibly lost all sensitivity to the gold medal itself.”

Lillia King and Yulia Efimova Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years
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Lilly King vs. Yulia Efimova

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the rival swimmers sparked a feud during the semifinals of the 100m breaststroke. While King, who repped the U.S., was getting ready for her race, she was hyping herself up. She saw the Russian swimmer on the monitor, and Efimova was waving her finger in celebration after completing her race.

King waved her finger back in response, which was interpreted as taunting by the viewers. After King won her race, she did the finger-waving motion again to celebrate her victory. The American swimmer ultimately won the gold medal.

Years later, the duo faced off at the 2019 World Championships and had a good laugh and congratulated one another.

“I wouldn’t say we have completely moved on, but we are definitely more cordial than we have been,” King said to NBC following the race against Efimova. “Again, that was three years ago. I was 19 and a half . . . I think it was blown out of proportion a little bit, the whole situation, but again, we’ve both grown up since then. We’ve both moved on, and I think we take this rivalry in stride.”

Mack Horton and Yang Sun Biggest Olympic Feuds and Rivalries Over the Years
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Mack Horton vs Sun Yang

Horton and Yang faced off at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 400 m freestyle. Horton brought home the gold for Australia while Yang earned the silver medal. However, tension brewed between the pair after Horton accused the Chinese swimmer of doping and called him a “drug cheat.”

Following Horton’s remarks, Yang had an emotional reaction to his competitor’s allegations during a post-race press conference. Per CNN, Yang said he believed that Horton was deliberately trying to psych him out.

Ahead of the 2020 Olympics, the twosome faced off again at the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in a rematch. However, Yang ultimately took home 1st prize while Horton came in second. At the end of the competition, Horton refused to shake Yang’s hand and did not stand beside him at the podium.

In 2020, Yang was suspended for eight years for refusing to give samples during a surprise doping test.

“This is unfair. I firmly believe in my innocence,” Sun told Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, per the New York Times. “I will definitely appeal to let more people know the truth.”

One year later, Yang’s case was retried and the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld the ban but reduced the suspension time to 4 years.



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