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.