Wacky Tales from Olympics Past

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We're big Olympics fans here at mental_floss, and it's killing us that we've got to wait nearly two more years until the London Olympics begin. In the meantime, let's scratch our Olympic itch by looking at some stories you might not know from earlier Games.

Marathon Madness

Before the 1896 Olympic revival in Athens, there was no such thing as a marathon. Organizers wanted to add a long distance run to the Games and pay tribute to their Greek hosts, though, so they decided to create a grueling run that would pay tribute to the legendary Pheidippides' trot from Marathon in 490 B.C. At the time, running the 40,000 meter course sounded absurd, but 17 runners decided to give it a try. In the end, Greek hero Spiridon Louis won the gold with a finish in 2:58, a darn good time for a marathon even by today's standards.

Subsequent marathons didn't go off quite as smoothly. Some bizarre highlights from early adventures in distance running:

1904, St. Louis

Cuban postal worker Felix Carvajal (at left) saved up enough money to make it to the Games, but once he got to New Orleans on his journey, he found himself enjoying a craps game a bit too much. Carvajal managed to hitchhike to St. Louis after blowing all of his cash on a run of cold dice, but he had lost all of his equipment. He showed up for the race wearing dress shoes and long pants. Organizers briefly delayed the start while an American competitor cut the legs off of Carvajal's pants at the knees so he could run. The five-foot-tall Cuban then took off in his street shoes and finished fourth overall.

Carvajal wasn't even the oddest story of that marathon, though. New Yorker Fred Lorz zipped across the finish line at 3:13 to a hero's welcome and even got to meet Teddy Roosevelt's daughter. He then admitted that he had run nine miles before hitching a ride in a car for the next 11 miles and then resuming his run. Of course Lorz received a quick disqualification, but the weird thing is that Lorz probably could have won the race without cheating: The very next year he legitimately won the Boston marathon with a scorching time of 2:38:25.

Then there's the real winner of the 1904 Olympic gold for the marathon, English-born American Thomas Hicks(at left wearing the sash). In the days before Gatorade, Hicks' energy flagged repeatedly throughout the race, and he nearly collapsed several times. His coaches revived him with a decidedly unusual sports drink: a mixture of strychnine and brandy.

1906, Athens

Canadian hopeful William Sherring wanted to make it to Athens from his Ontario home, but he had a bit of a cash flow problem. Even with the help of his local running club, he could only scratch together $75 for the trip. Obviously, even in 1906, $75 wouldn't get him to Athens. Sherring didn't give up, though. In a turn straight out of a sitcom, he gave a bartender buddy his small cash reserve with instructions to be it on a horse. The bartender laid the cash on a horse named Cicely, who won at 6:1 odds. Sherring made it to Athens and won the gold with a 2:51. His Greek hosts gave him a statue of Athena and a live lamb as prizes.

Tardiest Team

Organizers were expecting a Russian entry in the military team rifle event at the 1908 Olympics, but when the competition began, the Russians still hadn't shown up in London. The team eventually rolled into town several days later and discovered their error. It turned out that while Russia was still using the old Julian calendar, the rest of the world had made the switch to the Gregorian calendar. The two versions were 12 days off, so the Russians' medal hopes died due to lack of a good day planner.

Thriftiest Telegram

Canadian George Goulding may have won the gold in the 10,000-meter walk in the 1912 Stockholm Games, but he wasn't about to waste any money on extra words when he wired the news home. The telegram he sent his wife succinctly read, "Won – George."

Muddy Baskets

Basketball made its Olympic debut in 1936 in Berlin, but the Third Reich didn't exactly do a bang-up job of finding venues. Apparently there weren't any indoor basketball courts in Berlin, so the games were played outdoors on clay-and-sand lawn tennis courts. Dribbling a basketball on clay and sand is never easy, but it became even tougher when the gold medal game between Canada and the United States coincided with a thunderstorm. As the court turned into mud, scoring plummeted. The final wasn't quite what you'd call a barnburner; in the end, Team USA took the first gold medal with a 19-8 victory.

The Original Bad Boys

The Uruguayan hoops team at the 1952 Helsinki Games may only have won the bronze medal, but they took home the gold for bad behavior. The team became so foul-happy against France in the medal round that by the end of the game they only had three players left on the court. When France scored a game-winning layup, the Uruguayans graciously accepted the defeat...by attacking the American referee and kicking him in the groin. The following day, the team sent three Soviet players to the first-aid station in the first half of their game, and in the bronze medal game against Argentina they sparked a 25-person melee.

Tipsiest Marksman

In 1968 the Swedish team appeared to have won the bronze in modern pentathlon until Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall failed a drug test...for alcohol. It was common for modern pentathletes to have a tippled to calm their nerves before the shooting competition, but Liljenwall hit the bottle a bit too hard. He became the first person to ever receive a drug disqualification from the Olympics after his blood alcohol content came in above the legal limit. Liljenwall fell back on the classic drunk's excuse: he'd only had two beers.

Least PETA-Friendly Event

The 1900 Olympics in Paris featured lots of shooting events, including one that hasn't appeared in any Games since: live pigeon shooting. Belgian hunter Leon de Lunden won the event after bagging 21 pigeons.

Jumpiest Horses

Pigeon shooting wasn't the only strange event at the 1900 Olympics. The equestrian competition also included both high jump and long jump events. Frenchman Dominique Maximien Garderes atop Canela tied with Italian Gian Giorgio Trissino atop Oreste for the high jump gold; they both hopped up 1.85 meters. Neither event has appeared in the Olympics since.

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September 30, 2010 - 4:47am
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