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11 of the Craziest Events in Olympic History

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Olympic history books are filled with stories of amazing individual performances and team achievements. But from poorly conceived competitions to spectators attacking the judges, a lot of crazy stuff has happened in the Summer Olympics.

1. Killing Animals Causes Horror, Fainting
Live Pigeon Shooting, 1900 Paris Olympics

Live Pigeon Shooting was the only time in Olympic history when animals were deliberately killed in the name of sport. Even at the turn of the 20th century, the outrage was strong enough that they cancelled it after one Olympics:

"The idea to use live birds for the pigeon shooting turned out to be a rather unpleasant choice," American sports historian Andrew Strunk wrote dryly in a 1988 article on the 1900 Paris Olympics. "Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping in the chairs set up nearby."

2. Cheating, Stealing, and Strychnine
Marathon, 1904 St. Louis Olympics

The 1904 marathon was one of the most bizarre Olympic events ever staged, as the organizers knew almost nothing about staging a race. It was run in afternoon heat that reached 90 degrees over dusty roads made dustier by automobiles that were permitted to drive alongside the athletes. To top it off, there was only one usable water station: a well at the 12-mile mark.

No one noticed that American Fred Lorz hitched a ride at mile 12. Not until he was being awarded his medal by Alice Roosevelt did he confess that it was all a practical joke.

Winner Thomas Hicks (pictured) wasn’t entirely legitimate either, as he was given preferential treatment by his handlers who bathed him head to toe in warm water and administered a concoction of eggs, brandy, and strychnine when he insisted on quitting at mile 19.

Perhaps the most colorful participant in the race was a Cuban mail carrier with no race experience. Felix Carvajal de Soto hitchhiked his way up the Mississippi River from his initial port of entry in New Orleans. The race was delayed because his long trousers and street shoes were deemed unsuitable for running. Carvajal stopped regularly to chat with bystanders about the progress of the race and practice his English, raided an apple orchard (which caused him to cramp up and lie on the side of the road for a few minutes) and playfully stole some peaches from race officials.

Amazingly, Carvajal finished fourth.

3. Swimming in Cold, Deadly Waters
1500-meter swimming, 1896 Athens Olympics

The organizers of the Athens Olympics held the swimming events in the open waters of the Bay of Zea on a morning in which the waters dropped to a temperature of 55 degrees and the waves reached as high as 12 feet. The winner was 15-year old Hungarian Alfred Hajos, who had felt compelled to learn to swim after witnessing his father drown in the Danube two years prior. Hajos recounted that he was scared for his life, and his will to live completely overcame any desire to win the race.

4. Crowd Attacks Ref
Boxing, 1988 Seoul Olympics

When referee Keith Walker docked Korean bantamweight boxer Byun Jong-Li two points for headbutting his Bulgarian opponent at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the hometown crowd was not amused. Korean head coach Lee Houng-Soo punched the ref. Security officials, at least one other Korean coach, and members of the audience poured into the ring and started to riot. They directed their violence not just at Walker, but the Bulgarian president of the refereeing committee. Walker was eventually rescued by a somewhat slow-to-respond police force and immediately left Seoul. Walker may have been mistaken by the fans and coaches for a Greek referee who'd told the Korean delegation to “shut up” earlier when they questioned a controversial decision.

5. Political Tensions Lead to Bloodbath in the Water
Water Polo, 1956 Melbourne Olympics

The water polo teams from Hungary and the Soviet Union met in the pool just three weeks after the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary. Although the Hungarians were sheltered from the worst of the news while training in Czechoslovakia, there was clear tension at the start of the match; the two captains refused to shake hands, as is customary in the sport.

Throughout the match, the Hungarians verbally harassed their opponents, hoping to throw them off. Things finally reached a tipping point when a Soviet player hit Hungarian captain Ervin Zador in the eye. The image of Zador and his bloody eye is one of the most indelible images from the games.

6. Running Through Traffic
Marathon, 1900 Paris Olympics

The 1900 marathon involved a confusing, poorly marked course that went straight through the streets of Paris. Many runners took wrong turns and in some places, the course overlapped with the commutes of automobiles, animals, bicycles, pedestrians, and runners joining in for fun.

Amid the course confusion, fifth-place finisher Arthur Newton claimed that he had finished first because he never saw anyone pass him. Even worse, the race was run at 2:30 in the afternoon in July heat that reached 102 degrees. The local favorite, Georges Touquet-Daunis, ducked into a café to escape the heat, had a couple beers, and decided it was too hot to continue.

7. Poisonous Fumes Add a Degree of Difficulty
Cross-Country Run, 1924 Paris Olympics

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, the cross-country course included an unfairly difficult obstacle—an energy plant giving off poisonous fumes. The winner, nine-time gold medalist Paavo Nurmi, got by unscathed, but nearly everyone else staggered onto the track dizzy and disoriented. On the roads, the carnage was significantly worse, as runners were vomiting and overcome by sunstroke. The Red Cross took hours searching for all the runners on the side of the road.

8. 2 AM Race Leads to Two Casualties
Cycling Road Race, 1912 Stockholm Olympics

Sweden was unable to build a velodrome for the 1912 Olympics and wanted to cancel cycling all together. At the deliberations leading up to the games, the British protested the cancellation and demanded a road race despite warnings by the Swedish delegation that their roads were in no shape for such an event. The Swedish eventually capitulated and opted to stage a race on the same circuit as their annual road race the Malaren Rundt.

At 315 kilometers, this course was over 6 times the length of the average Olympic road race. The real problem, however, was that this 10-hour race began at 2 AM, which made conditions rather dangerous. Fortunately, there were only two major casualties but neither was pretty: one Russian rider plunged into a ditch and lay unconscious until discovered by a local farmer while another, Sweden's Karl Landsberg, was hit by a car shortly after the start and dragged along the road for some distance.

9. Protesting Divers Get Out of Hand
Springboard Diving, 1980 Moscow Olympics

Upon belly flopping, Aleksandr Portnov of the USSR complained that the crowd noise in men's butterfly competition in another part of the aquatic facility was distracting. The officials allowed Portnov's complaint and the finals were redone. In the second go around, Portnov won, but fourth-place finisher Falk Hoffman caused further disorder with an even more erroneous complaint: the flash from a photographer distracted him on his way down. After a two-day deliberation, Hoffman's protest was denied, as was a complaint by Mexican silver medalist Carlos Giron. In response, protests were held outside the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City.

10. Judges Override Clock
Freestyle Swimming, 1960 Rome Olympics

The 100-meter freestyle at the Rome games in 1960 remains perhaps the only instance in which a swimmer with a slower time than the first-place finisher was awarded the gold medal. At the time, close calls in the pool were determined by a panel of judges, although electronic timers were available for consultation. When the judges met to discuss the close finish between Australian swimmer John Devitt and American Lance Larson, they ruled 2-1 in favor of Devitt.

Unfortunately, the three-judge panel assigned to award the silver also voted 2-1 in favor of Devitt. As a result, the electronic timers were examined more closely. Larson clocked in at 55.1 in comparison to Devitt's 55.2. The chief judge had already decided to award the medal in favor of Devitt and ordered Larson's time changed to 55.2. The decision was protested for the next four years to no avail.

11. Milwaukee Takes Gold
Tug of War, 1904 St. Louis Olympics

At the beginning of the last century, tug of war was more than just a groan-inducing part of company picnics. From 1900 to 1920, it was an Olympic event. Traditionally, the best teams came from Scandinavia and Great Britain, where the sport still enjoys a strong niche following. But one American squad managed to grab gold in the 1904 St. Louis games—the pullers of the Milwaukee Athletic Club.

The triumph of the club’s iron grips and sturdy ankles led to much rejoicing across Milwaukee. There was a slight snag, though. No one on the team was actually from Milwaukee, and they certainly weren’t members of the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Instead, the athletes were ringers that the club’s head, Walter Liginger, supposedly recruited from Chicago. Although the defeated teams filed a grievance, Olympic officials rejected the protests, and the so-called men from Milwaukee got to walk away with both their medals and their honor intact.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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