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Wacky Tales from Olympics Past

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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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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