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Ten 2012 Olympians to Keep Your Eyes On

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Thousands of athletes from all over the world are in London for the 2012 Olympics. Many of them are already stars, having trained their entire lives for this chance at gold. For some, getting there has been a struggle against poverty, politics, prejudice, and other disadvantages. Here are a few that you'll want to know before you see them compete.

1. South Sudan: Guor Marial

DARRYL WEBB/Reuters /Landov

Twenty-eight-year-old Guor Marial was born in what is now South Sudan, the world's youngest nation. He became a refugee of the Sudanese conflict in 1993 when he was only nine years old, as he fled across border after border seeking asylum from the violence. Marial was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2001, and is a permanent resident here. An All-American cross-country runner and an accomplished marathoner, Marial rejected an offer from the Sudan Olympic Committee to run under its flag at the London Olympics.

"Never," he said of his refusal to run for Sudan. "For me to even consider that is a betrayal. My family lost 28 members in the war with Sudan. Millions of my people were killed by Sudan forces. I can only forgive, but I cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people."

However, South Sudan, the nation that Marial considers his own, does not yet have an official Olympic Committee. The International Olympic Committee has granted Marial the right to participate as an Independent Olympic Athlete, a category reserved for those in such situations.

2. Peru: Gladys Tejeda


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Four years ago, Gladys Tejeda had never heard of the Olympics. In London, she will be running the marathon for Peru. Tejeda comes from a poor farming family, in which the many children began working at around eight years old. The 26-year-old has been an outstanding runner since she was a child, though, and once the idea of an Olympic run was raised by her brother while the family watched the Beijing games on their very first TV set, Tejeda was there. Living at 13,000 feet above sea level helped her become a marathoner, as her endurance level is extremely high. Tejeda qualified for the Olympics on her very first marathon, and the London competition will be only her third.

3. Malaysia: Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi


Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will compete in the London Olympics as the first female shooting sports competitor from Malaysia. She is also eight months pregnant. Therefore, she joins a small and exclusive club of athletes who go for the gold while expecting. However, other competitors were in the early stages of pregnancy. Taibi is a bit concerned that the baby may kick at the exact moment she must aim with world-class accuracy. Malaysian officials were more worried about her ability to travel to London, but with her doctor’s blessing, she was cleared for the long flight.

4. South Africa: Oscar Pistorius


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South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius will compete in the individual 400 meters and the 4×400-meter relay at the London Olympics. He runs on specially-designed carbon-fiber prosthetics called Cheetahs, which sparked an ongoing controversy about the place of prosthetic enhancements in competitive sports. In 2008, Pistorius won a court battle to compete for an Olympic spot. However, he then failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. This year, Pistorius will be the first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics.

5. South Africa: Caster Semenya


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Caster Semenya is a 21-year-old track and field star from South Africa. In 2009, Semenya became known around the world, not for winning the world championship in the 800 meter event, but for suspicions that she is not fully female. The International Association of Athletics Federations ordered gender-verification testing, which humiliated the then 18-year-old, who had never questioned her own sex. She was banned from racing for 11 months, during which she underwent a barrage of tests. Semenya was finally cleared to compete as female, and will not only run, but will carry the flag for the South African team.

6. Iran: Behdad Salimi


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Weightlifter Behdad Salimi is the world's strongest man, designated so after he lifted 472 pounds at the world weight-lifting championships in Paris in 2011. Salimi began his athletic career as a gymnast, but found his niche when a friend suggested he try weightlifting instead. Of the 54 Olympic athletes from Iran, Salimi is the country's best hope for a gold medal.

7. Japan: Hiroshi Hoketsu


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Hiroshi Hoketsu is representing Japan in Olympic dressage competition for the third time: he competed in Beijing in 2008 and in Tokyo in 1964. Yes, 1964. Hoketsu was born in 1941 and is 71 years old. He has spent the past five years grooming his horse Whisper for the event. Whisper is only 15. Surprisingly, Hoketsu is not the oldest Olympian ever. In 1920, Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn won his sixth medal at age 72.

8. Saudi Arabia: Sarah Attar

Saudi Arabia has never sent women to the Olympics before, but pressure from the IOC led them to place two women on the 2012 team. One is Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo despite never competing in a national event (Saudi Arabia has none for women). The other female competitor is track runner Sarah Attar, who grew up in the United States and is a current student at Pepperdine University. Attar holds dual U.S./Saudi citizenship, and will run the 800 meter event. When Attar was invited to represent Saudi Arabia, her parents requested all photos of her be removed from Pepperdine's website, and she changed her usual American dress to long sleeves and head coverings. She says she hopes her participation in the Olympics will open doors for women athletes in that country.

9. Afghanistan: Tahmina Kohistani

Sprinter Tahmina Kohistani is one of only two track runners who will compete for Afghanistan in the London Olympics -and the only female. She faces some long odds because of the lack of support from her country -- which loves sports but only in those events they expect to win -- and because of the air pollution in Kabul. However, Kohistani has the freedom to run, which would not have been tolerated under the Taliban, and the support of her family, which many Afghan female athletes do not have. Like other Muslim athletes, she runs fully covered, including practicing in a baseball cap in place of a hijab -although she will wear a headscarf at the games. Kohistani is a national champion in her events, the 100 and 200 meters, but her times would place her in high school competition in most countries. Kohistani is proud just to participate in the Olympics. See her in a video interview.

10. United States: Kayla Harrison

Judoka Kayla Harrison started her Olympic journey farther behind than most U.S. athletes. As a teenager, she was sexually abused by her judo coach for three years. Harrison finally stood up and testified against her attacker in court, and he was convicted. But the small-town publicity of the trial forced her to move to Boston and start over. Harrison's new trainer got her into therapy so she could put the past behind her and look forward to victory. Five years later, she has graduated from high school, earned her EMT certification, is engaged to a firefighter, won a world championship, and is favored to win a gold medal in London.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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