Who are the most controversial Australian Olympians?

A look back in time.

Over the years, there have been many Olympians and Olympic events that have sparked significant controversy and have become a constant topic of conversation.

From ice skater Surya Bonaly’s illegal backflip at the 1998 Winter Olympics, to Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao who lied about her age, to potentially the most famous controversial Olympian Tonya Harding who was banned after her ex-husband planned an attack on her competitor.

However, over the years, there have also been various Australian Olympians who have had their name in the spotlight…

Dawn Fraser, Cathy Freeman, Peter Norman and Ian Thorpe are some of the most controversial Australian Olympians in history – read their stories here.

dawn fraser standing at a poolside
Dawn Fraser. (Credit: Getty)

Dawn Fraser

Dawn Fraser is an Australian freestyle champion, eight-time Olympic medalist, a 15-year world record holder in the 100-meter freestyle, a former politician, and one of the most controversial Australian Olympians in history.

During the 1964 Summer Olympics held in Tokyo, Fraser angered various swimming team sponsors as well as the Australian Swimming Union (ASU) after she marched in the open ceremony (against their wishes), and wore an older swimming costume while she competed. She was also accused of stealing an Olympic flag from Japan’s Imperial Palace.

Fraser was suspended from competitive swimming for 10 years by the ASU. The ban was later reduced to four years.

Cathy Freeman looking very happy after   winning Gold in the 400m Final during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Cathy Freeman. (CreditL Getty)

Cathy Freeman

During the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Cathy Freeman came first in the 400m sprint. As she ran her victory lap, she carried both the Australian and Aboriginal flags – a symbol of reconciliation and pride in her Aboriginal cultural heritage.

The day after, controversy arose in Australia when Arthur Tunstall, the country’s chef de mission, attempted to ban Freeman from carrying the Indigenous standard.

Peter Norman. (Credit: Getty)

Peter Norman

Australian Olympian Peter Norman went down in history after he finished with a silver medal in the 200m men’s final at the 1958 Mexico Olympics. Norman’s amazing achievement split two athletes from the United States, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished with gold and bronze medals.

Following their win, Smith and Carlos each raised a gloved fist in protest at the treatment of African Americans – this later became known as the Black Power Salute. This act alone got them expelled from the Games and sent home. Norman played his own unique part in the controversy as he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and stood in solidarity with the two Americans.

Despite receiving backlash for his actions, Norman never backed away from the support he showed Smith and Carlos. In 2022, more than 50 years after this defining moment and 16 years after his death, Norman was awarded The Dawn Award.

Ian Thorpe of Australia waves to the crowd after competing in the Men's 200 Metre Freestyle trials
Ian Thorpe. (Credit: Getty)

Ian Thorpe

Ian Thorpe is one of the most well-known Australian Olympians after having won five Olympic gold medals, the greatest total of any Aussie. Shortly after Thorpe retired in 2007, a French newspaper was given details of a drug sample he had returned the year prior.

The test results reportedly showed abnormal levels of testosterone and luteinising hormone – both naturally-occurring substances. Despite the Australian doping officials and swimming’s world governing body FINA clearing Thorpe of any wrongdoing, the leak itself is what caused the controversy.

The Aussie champion later said his reputation would be “forever tarnished” by the leak. Over the years, the scandal has been repeatedly thrust back into the spotlight.

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