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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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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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