American gymnast Aly Raisman competes at the 2012 Olympics in London. Credit: Corbis Images

There’s an old saying: Rules were made to be broken. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) might not be all too familiar with this expression given the number of seemingly strict or arbitrary rules across different sporting disciplines and even off the field.

Last week, as reported by the New York Times, the IOC prohibited Larissa Latynina, a former gymnast who is now second most decorated Olympian, from presenting Michael Phelps with the gold that put him over the top in the medal count. Olympic rules simply would not permit it.

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Take a look at some of the strangest rules and regulations of the Olympics below:


The scoring system in gymnastics is complicated enough for most casual observers of the sport. But Olympic rules for gymnastics can seem outright unfair for the athletes affected by them.

American gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman both missed out on the Olympic dream as a result of strange rules within the sport.

During the qualifying round for the women’s all-around, Wieber finished in fourth place, which would have guaranteed her a spot in the finals had two other American gymnasts not already qualified. As a result, Wieber was excluded, even though gymnasts finishing as low as 28th place in the qualifiers would go on to compete.

During the all-around finals, Raisman tied Russian competitor Aliya Mustafina for third place, an amazing improbability given that scores go to the thousandth decimal place. To settle the difference, a tie-breaker rule meant that the lowest score in the competition from both gymnasts was dropped, giving Mustafina the higher number and the bronze medal.


The rules of fencing might seem simple enough: Two opponents, wielding a foil, épée or sabre, duel. The first one to make contact with the blade scores a point. The first fencer to 15 wins, unless time expires, in which case the athlete with the highest total wins.

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Disputes can arise, however, and appeals are permitted. During an appeal, a fencer must stay on the piste, essentially the court on which fencers compete. This rule might not seem so strange, except that it took an unusual turn at this year’s Olympics.

Shin A-lam of South Korea was dueling against Germany’s Britta Heidemann, and seemingly had won the match when a timekeeper mistakenly reset the clock to 0:00 when in fact there still had been a fraction of a second left in the match. When a full second was restored and the match resumed, Heidemann made contact and appeared to have won.

The South Korean team issued an appeal, which the judges took nearly an hour to consider and ultimately reject. During that hour, Shin remained on the piste, crying before a crowd of 8,000 as she awaited the decision. Shin would later go on to win a silver in team fencing.

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If there’s one sport that has always had a problem with the rules, it’s boxing. This year’s games is no different.

After criticism of the previous scoring system, in which a hard punch and a glancing nudge could be counted equally, the boxing scoring system underwent another overhaul ahead of this year’s Olympics. The last time the mechanics of the sport were tweaked followed the 1988 Olympics in Seoul in which American Roy Jones, Jr., was robbed of a gold medal despite dominating the match.

For the long version of the latest scoring system, check out this explainer at National Public Radio. Here’s the short version of this year’s system: Five judges on a panel all score the fight. The outlier scores are removed and the average of the most similar scores is taken to determine what the boxer should be awarded in a given round.


The complexity of the scoring system offers opportunities for cheating in a sport already suffering a lost history of black eyes. In a fight between Magomed Abdulhamidov of Azerbaijan and Japan’s Satoshi Shimizu, Shimizu dominated the match, even knocking the Azerbaiji down six times. After judges awarded the match to Abdulhamidov, cries of a “fix” immediately followed.

After an hour, the decision was reversed, but the scandal will undoubtedly draw renewed scrutiny to the sport.


You’d think that any athlete to show up to the games would give it their all to win Olympic glory. Some competitors, however, employ a different strategy on their path to gold.

During the group stage of the women’s badminton event this year, four teams were disqualified for throwing matches in order to be paired up against weaker opponents in the knockout phase of the competition. Their tactics were so obvious that crowds at the events howled and booed with disapproval as they watched these athletes throw their matches, according to a report by the New York Times.

Although the athletes are to blame for their own conduct, the rules of the sport in fact provided them the incentive to throw matches. The preliminary round was only introduced to this year’s Olympics so that teams that lose their first match wouldn’t be immediately eliminated.

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Non-Olympic Sponsors

One of the most bizarre rules governing athletes’ behavior has nothing to do with their performance within their respective competitions at all. Rather, it is meant to exclude non-Olympic companies from even a mention at the games.

Rule 40 (PDF), issued by the London Organising Committee of theOlympic Games and Paralympic Games Limited, restricts athletes from advertising on behalf of non-Olympic brands. Social media, however, complicates the implementation of the bylaw because athletes can get into hot water with a simple tweet.

Several members of the U.S. national Olympic team openly criticized the policy, even using the hashtag #Rule40 on Twitter. In its defense, the IOC stated that the rules were necessary to protect sponsors, “without whose investment the Games could not happen.”