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5 Winter Sports The Olympics Are Missing

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Winter sports fall into three convenient categories: Hockey, Things That Claim to Not Be Hockey But Aren't Fooling Anyone (bandy, ringette, broomball, etc.) and Things That are Not Hockey. If you're scanning the latter group for a way to stay fit this winter, you may be disappointed by the apparent dearth of options that don't require snowmobile ownership or expensive ski lift tickets. Before giving up entirely or resorting to hockey, consider trying one of these underappreciated snowy-day activities.

1. Skijoring

It only takes one ill-fated ski tour or impulsive NordicTrack purchase to expose the true nature of cross-country skiing. It's hard, grueling work. Although its proponents tout the sport as a wonderful way to experience the sights and sounds of winter, these sights usually involve fogged goggles while the sounds are the skier's own grunting and repeated calls of "Dude, can we take another little break? I just need to catch my breath. Yes, again." The whole endeavor would be so much more enjoyable with some sort of pack animal to drag the skier.

That's where skijoring comes in. Instead of powering themselves along using their own legs like a bunch of common animals, participants hitch themselves to a dog or two and glide through the winter weather. Although this activity sounds like the invention of people who wanted to get into sled dog racing but were too cheap to buy a sled, the sport supposedly originated in Scandinavia several hundred years ago as an easy reindeer-powered way to get around during the winter. Its recreational popularity steadily increased, and the horse-drawn variety earned a featured place as a demonstration sport at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which still holds annual equestrian skijoring races as part of its century-old White Turf series. [Photo courtesy of Canada's Guide to Dogs.]

2. Skibobbing

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"Lousy bike! I could ride you in the winter if your tires were replaced by skis!" Millions of frustrated bikers find themselves muttering these words every snowy day. Little do they know that skibobbing could solve all of their problems, or at least the ones unrelated to cursing inanimate objects. At its core, skibobbing entails riding a bicycle-like frame with skis instead of wheels down a mountain. Really, that's pretty much all it entails.

The sport traces its origins to 1892, when American J. Stevens received a patent for his "ice velocopide." This catchy name somehow failed to trigger widespread use of the device, though, and according the Skibob Association of Great Britain, the sport only gained momentum in the 1940s when patents by German Georg Gfaller and Austrian Engelbert Brenter were combined to form the modern skibob. Enthusiasts competed in the first international race in 1954 and formed the Federation International de Skibob in 1961.

Since the rider's center of gravity remains lower than in regular skiing and the feet and skis combine for four potential points of contact with the ground, skibobbing is relatively safe compared to other downhill sports, and prospective riders can supposedly get the hang of it fairly quickly. Riders shouldn't expect to look cool while doing it, though; the American Skibob Instructors Association recommends wearing a fanny pack of maintenance supplies when skibobbing. [Photo courtesy of Disabled Sports USA.]

3. Snowball Fighting, Military-Style

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History lessons on the American Civil War tend to focus on its depressing aspects: a divided country, rampant gangrene, and Ken Burns appear prominently in most classes. However, despite schedules packed with receiving shoddy medical care and standing still for minutes on end to have their photos taken, some Confederate soldiers found the time to stage what sounds like one of the most strategically sound snowball fights in history.

On January 28, 1863, two feet of snow covered a large contingent of Confederate troops camped in Virginia's Rappahannock Valley. Rather than complaining about the cold weather, the First and Fourth Texas Infantry put their military training to work. On the morning of January 29, they launched a major snowball offensive against their comrades in the Fifth Texas Infantry, who somehow repelled their attackers before deciding to join them in a snow assault on the Third Arkansas Infantry, which surrendered quickly beneath a slushy barrage. The conquered Arkansans joined forces with the victors, and together they set out to pelt the encampment of the nearby Georgia Brigade.

This combined expeditionary force rolled into the Georgian camp armed with bags of snowballs and decorated with battle flags, but the Georgia Brigade had received advance notice and managed to put up a valiant fight for over an hour before eventually falling. The defeated Georgians joined their conquerors and attacking another division. By this point, upwards of 9000 troops were engaged in ice combat that grew increasingly more dangerous as rock-centered snowballs entered the mix.

After hours of this melee, the Texas Brigade apparently won a Pyrrhic victory in which many soldiers sustained slight injuries. In response to the upheaval and the disfigurement of a few troops, General James Longstreet, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, reportedly banned snowball fighting.

4. Wok Racing

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Most people look at a wok and see a cumbersome Chinese cooking vessel they probably shouldn't have put on their wedding gift registry. In 2003 German TV host Stefan Raab looked at one and saw not just a pot in which he could create a delicious stir fry, but also a valid form of downhill conveyance. I don't want to resort to hyperbole and use the word "hero," but, well, the facts speak for themselves. Fans hail Raab as the father of the sport in which single contestants or four-man teams ride reinforced Chinese woks down a bobsled track in timed runs that can exceed 60 mph.

As part of a bet, Raab organized the first wok world championship races at Winterberg in Novbember 2003. Not surprisingly, he also won the first world championship in the sport he'd just made up. Raab's reign at the top was brief, though, as fellow German and three-time Olympic luge gold medalist George Hackl brought his considerable riding-things-down-an-icy-tube prowess to the sport and grabbed the next two world championships. The Jamaican Bobsled Team has also made appearances at the annual championship, thereby igniting speculation that the team probably didn't invest the royalties from Cool Runnings all that wisely. [Photo courtesy of TV Total, via The Sports Pulse.]

5. Shovel Racing

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Unfortunately, there are significant barriers to entering the wild world of wok racing. Not everyone has a spare wok, and even fewer potential racers have access to an Olympic bobsled track. For those who are completely hell-bent on outrunning their friends while riding a household item, shovel racing may be the answer.

Ski slope workers around Angel Fire, New Mexico supposedly began shovel racing in the early 1970s in an effort to get down the slopes quickly after the lifts had closed for the evening. The logic behind why they chose to stick a shovel handle between their legs and slide down the mountains on their rears rather than using skis seems to have been lost to history.

However, it is known that in 1975, Angel Fire Resort began hosting the World Shovel Racing Championships, which offered competitors the chance to square off in two divisions. In the Production group, racers got a regular old hardware-store shovel, waxed it up, and took off down the slopes using only their arms for steering; riders of these stock shovels could hit speeds over 60 mph. In the Modified division, racers turned their shovels into enclosed aerodynamic crafts that bore little resemblance to their cousins used to clear suburban driveways. These 500-pound vehicles could top out over 70 m.p.h. while shooting down the thousand-foot course.

While it may seem difficult to believe, riding a shovel at such high speeds is somewhat dangerous. More specifically, it's incredibly dangerous. In super-modified shovel racing's lone appearance at ESPN's Winter X Games in 1997, leading racers Gail Boles and John Shrader experienced separate horrific crashes in which Boles was knocked unconscious and Shrader broke his back in three places. The sport was not invited back to the games. Even the birthplace of organized shovel racing was forced to abandon the sport; resort administrators eventually cancelled Angel Fire's annual championships in 2005 due to liability concerns. Still, if you've got a shovel, a snowy hill, and no qualms about sticking a shovel handle between your legs, you might want to give it a shot. [Photo courtesy of Enchantment.]

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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