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Memories of the Olympic Village

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Every Olympic city provides separate housing for the world's media and an Olympic Village for the athletes, coaches and team officials.

By most accounts, Vancouver's Olympic housing is a jewel. At the very least, what it clearly is not is a converted mental hospital. So that's an upgrade.

Let me explain.

Sydney, Australia, 2000 Summer Olympics. A few weeks out, my boss informs me a mistake on the housing form means we will not have single rooms as we usually do at the Olympics. He knows three weeks is a long time to share a room with anyone, including Charlize Theron.


What can I say? It's not as if I'm relegated to a double and he has somehow found a single for himself.


The room-sharing turns out to be the good news. My boss tells me he snores. I sleep so lightly I can hear a fly landing on Kleenex. Never one to think the worst, I immediately imagine a jet engine at takeoff with me strapped to the wing for three weeks.

If anyone doubted that Aussies have a ripe sense of humor, here came the clincher. In Sydney, the boss says, the media will be housed in a former mental hospital.

At first glance, it seems to me that could come in handy. If I am driven crazy by long work days and too little sleep, at least it will be a short drive.

Upon inspection, the media "village" -- a quaint term for sure given the circumstances -- was a sterile, antiseptic campus. The buildings were crammed between the hemisphere's largest cemetery and a highway. Near one of the bars was a penned-in area.

What passed for ambiance was inside an electric fence. Kangaroos.

Historical Note

1932-games

The first Olympic Village was constructed for the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was male only and consisted of sleeping quarters, cafeteria, amphitheatre, post office, telegraph office. No women or kangaroos. Women were put up in a hotel. This might have been the last Olympic Village that did not produce legendary stories of hanky panky among athletes. More on that later.

As they should, the athletes usually get the better end of the housing deal at the Olympics. They've worked tremendously hard for it, some suffering great financial hardship for the dream of chasing an Olympic medal, sometimes in a sport that no one much pays attention to except for a few days every four years.

They deserve to spend their days and nights surrounded by amenities and other athletes in the prime of their physical lives while those of us in the media are relegated to looking at other sportswriters in various stages of wardrobe malfunctions and sleep deprivation.

I'll go out on the limb here and say the contrast was never quite so stark as it was in Sydney.

I remember being on a plane for 24 hours, stopping at the Media Village bar for a Fosters, then strapping on my Bose headphones and hoping the sound of lapping surf would somehow jam my roommate's signal. A few hours later, I awoke to the roar of nasal thunder, and that was pretty much the routine for the next 10 days.

Olympic Fever

Long days of work writing about Olympic endeavors (and sleepless nights) took a rising toll until I ended up fainting one night. Chills. Sweat. Shivering. The next morning I went to a makeshift infirmary in the Media Center.

For athletes in Sydney -- and every other Olympic city -- access to medical treatments, massages, whatever, from caring team doctors and athletic trainers in the Olympic Village go with the territory. Day or night.

Outside the Olympic Village, the options for medical treatment aren't quite as varied and, in Sydney, did not hold the promise of a sympathetic bedside manner.

I entered the infirmary with some trepidation. Aussies are a hardy bunch. Unless a shark has bitten off a body part, an Aussie is expected to walk off whatever's hurting.

In fact, the first day in Sydney the newspaper carried what I thought was a remarkable story of a 10 year old boy who fought off a shark attack. I mentioned it to an Aussie reporter.

"Pretty amazing," I said.

He shrugged. "Not really, mate. It was only a six-footer."

I had that in the back of my mind when I went to see the doctor. My hope was that I had contracted some kind of illness -- nothing fatal, just enough to warrant his recommendation that I get my own room. Instead, he felt my forehead, shook my hand and said, "Drink more water. Next."

Maybe that's why I've always thought of the Athlete's Village as Shangri-La.

Village People

My brief visits to the Village over the years never constituted an extensive tour. Security measures did not allow for it. But I did go to the one in Sydney to interview the swimmer Eric "The Eel" Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea. He swam the slowest 100 meters in Olympic history, taking on water from the start and finishing pretty much like the S.S. Minnow washed ashore on Gilligan's Island. [Watch Moussambani's Olympic moment.]

ericeel.jpg

The people who weren't clapping for him were dialing 9-1-1.

The next day, Moussambani met a few of us at the Athlete's Village and talked of how he'd been training for only eight months in a 20-meter hotel pool in his native country. He spoke of never having seen a 50-meter pool.

While we waited for him to arrive, I remember thinking that every athlete who walked by looked happy beyond description. And why not? Each Athlete's Village has international cuisine 24-7. And, of course, McDonald's. Free.

Video games. Discos. Concerts. Movies. Internet access.

Free. Free. Free. Free. Free.

Every delegation's arrival is greeted with fanfare and the playing of that country's national anthem.

It is a city within a city and there is no police force. Alcohol is not served, just occasionally smuggled or more often consumed in the downtown bars after an athlete finishes competing.

The Socially Vigorous Life

If that's not why it constitutes the time of an athlete's life, maybe it's condom giveaways at every Olympics. (Vancouver is no different. One hundred thousand condoms were made available to the 7,000 athletes, coaches and athletic trainers housed in the two Athlete's Villages. Vancouver even introduced the Hurry Hard condom (seriously), marketing a phrase curlers use in their sport to get teammates to sweep the ice more vigorously).

Sydney, by comparison, handed out 70,000 condoms in the Olympic Village in 2000 only to air-lift in 20,000 more a week later. With three days to go, they ran out of those, too.

Olympic organizing committees long ago decided that when thousands of attractive, physically fit people gather in the same place for a few weeks it's socially responsible to supply protection.

vigorousIn 2004, Carrie Sheinberg, an alpine skiing champ (pictured), told The Scotsman, Scotland's national newspaper, that while she wouldn't call what happens in the Athlete's Village an orgy she would term it "socially vigorous."


One Olympian recently called it "an adult Disney World."


Vancouver's waterside downtown Athlete's Village is all that, no doubt, with million dollar views of the city and the snowcapped mountains overlooking it. It will be sold off as condos after the Olympics.


Those who have seen the inside report there is a 45,000-square foot lounge, a post office, cafe. This one even has an art gallery.

And no shortage of perfect human forms walking around.

"It's really a question of which flavour do you like," American swimmer Nelson Diebel told The Scotsman. "The only thing you're deprived of is fat. If you're the rare athlete who likes sedentary bodies, you're out of luck."

Not really. That's what the Media Village is for.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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