Original image
Getty Images

8 Underdog Nations and Their Memorable Olympic Performances

Original image
Getty Images

This week, the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada won its first Olympic medal when 19-year-old Kirani James took the gold in the 400-meter dash. With a population of 104,000, Grenada is the 17th-smallest country in the world, and now the smallest nation to win a gold medal. Here's a look back at eight other great Olympic performances from underdog nations.

1. India: 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics

India may be the second-most populated nation in the world, but prior to London 2012, they’d only amassed 20 medals. India is, however, dominant in the sport of field hockey and held a 30-game winning streak from 1928 to 1960, with six gold medals.

India was first introduced to the sport through British officers in the elite sporting clubs of Calcutta as early as the 1880s, and its popularity quickly spread through the ranks. The team had only begun playing international matches in 1926, but when they stepped onto the field in their first Olympics, they showed up the competition by not conceding a single goal. The 1928 tournament run gave birth to hockey’s first international star, 22-year-old Dhyan Chand, whose name has become so synonymous with hockey excellence that Pakistani star Habib-ur-Rehman is known as the “Dhyan Chand of Pakistan," and up-and-coming hockey players are often dubbed  “the modern-day Dhyan Chand.”

2. Kenya: 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics

Today, the distance running world is dominated by East African nations, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia. That wasn't always true.

Kip Keino grew up as a sheepherder in the rural reaches of Kenya. He ran 20 miles to and from the train that took him to his boarding school as an orphaned teenager. Keino was a quick study in running, and qualified for the 1964 Olympic games without a coach. A year later, he became the first African in history to break the 4-minute mile; his time of 3:54.2 was within a second of the world record.

Even so, Keino was not favored to win at the Mexico City Games. But he used the high altitude to his advantage and pushed the pace so brutally that no one could keep up. He took his country’s first gold and would follow it up with another medal in Mexico City and two more in the 1972 games. Perhaps Keino's most impressive Olympic feat was when he arrived at Munich and discovered that a scheduling problem wouldn’t allow him to run the 5K. He decided on the spot to enter the steeplechase instead, and won gold, despite holding the (rather unimpressive) 24th-place seed time in the field.

3. Jamaica: 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics

Getty Images

Immortalized in the movie Cool Runnings, the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation was formed by an American businessman, George Fitch, residing in Jamaica. He and a friend were watching a pushcart derby and theorized that bobsledding might not be such a big stretch. Funded by Fitch and the Jamaican Tourist Board, the bobsled team had a hard time with recruitment and eventually formed their first group of recruits by asking the Jamaican Defence Force to volunteer some soldiers.

Cool Runnings is largely accurate in that the Jamaicans were first greeted with skepticism and treated as a punchline by media outlets, although the other Olympic teams were largely supportive of their efforts and one team even provided a back-up sleigh. Beyond the conclusion of the film — which showed that the Jamaicans succeeded in spirit despite failing in a spectacular crash — the real-life Jamaican bobsled team continued, improved, and eventually became competitive. At the 1994 Olympics, the Jamaican team finished ahead of both U.S. bobsled squads in 14th place. The team is still going strong today.

4. Nigeria: 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics

Getty Images

Pele’s famous prediction that an African soccer team would win the World Cup by the year 2000 didn't pan out, although he wasn’t very far off. Four years before the end of the century, Nigeria fulfilled the dreams of an entire continent by winning an Olympic gold.

Lest anyone think the team had easy competition, they beat World Cup champ Brazil in the semifinals, erasing a 3-1 deficit in the final 12 minutes before winning in extra time. In the final, Nigeria staged another comeback against an even more formidable Argentine squad with a 3-2 victory.

Upon their victory, heads of state from all over Africa telephoned their congratulations to the Nigerian government and a national holiday was declared the following Monday. Four years later, Africa would strike again, when Cameroon defeated Spain to take the gold in Sydney.

5. The Tropical Lugers: 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

Getty Images

In the early 1990s, the number of nations participating in luge was in decline, putting the sport in danger of falling below the IOC-mandated 25-nation participation minimum. To remedy this, the International Federation of Luge implemented an initiative to recruit lugers from tropical countries and support their training endeavors.

Of the athletes invited into the training program, three managed to qualify for the Olympics. On the men’s side, Shiva Keshavan of India finished 28th with a sled made from eight-year-old spare parts, while Patrick Singleton of Bermuda placed 27th out of 34 competitors. (Singleton is perhaps best known for wearing Bermuda shorts in 17-degree weather at the Salt Lake City Opening Ceremonies.) On the women’s side, Venezuela’s Iginia Boccalandro Valentina finished 28th out of 30.

All three have returned to the Olympics and inspired further Olympic participation from the tropics. By 2002, the program qualified participants in the sliding sports from Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Mexico, and the Virgin Islands. Among the new tropical Olympians were 48-year old Venezuelan Warner Hoegger and his 17-year old son (the oldest and youngest competitors in the field), who made history as the first father and son to compete at the same Olympic event.

6. Equatorial Guinea: 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics

Getty Images

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed each nation to send up to two swimmers to the Olympics regardless of qualifying team, Eric Moussambani of Equatorial Guinea volunteered.

Moussambani taught himself how to swim in a 20-meter hotel pool in preparation for the 50-meter freestyle swim—before the Olympics, he'd never been in an Olympic-size pool! When he got to Sydney, however, the coach insisted he be placed in the 100-meter freestyle race. At the start of his heat, the two other swimmers got disqualified — meaning all Moussambani had to do was finish the heat and he’d be through to the next round.

Inexperienced with the longer distance and being in a pool in which he couldn’t stand, Moussambani petered-out 20 meters before the finish. His arms flailed wildly and lifeguards were on standby to rescue him if necessary, but Moussambani eventually leveled himself out and plunged for the wall. At 112 seconds, his was the slowest recorded time in history, but he picked up the nickname “Eric the Eel” and became a media darling.

7. Australia: 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics

Getty Images

Although Australia ranks 8th in all-time Summer Olympic medals and their athletic program is considered at the forefront of modern science, they have been somewhat slow to keep up during the Winter Games. The country has sent a delegation to every Olympic Games since 1936, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Australia won a medal in the short-track speedskating team event.

One of the members of that team, Steven Bradbury, continued to skate in three more Olympics but was beset by two debilitating injuries and knew he didn’t stand a chance of advancing in the 2002 Games. Bradbury adopted a strategy of waiting in the back of the field, just in case another athlete fell down. Amazingly enough, the plan worked to perfection as he made the finals through a series of disqualifications and falls by his competitors. One of Bradbury’s biggest goals was to get the endorsement of superstar Apollo Anton Ohno for his line of in-line skates. Little did he know that Ohno and three other skaters would go down with one massive crash, leaving him the victor and Australia’s first Winter Games gold medalist.

Bradbury was dubbed the “Accidental Gold Medalist” and had conflicting feelings about his medal, but eventually reasoned that he won it through twelve years of hard work. A couple of days after his win, freestyle aerialist Alisa Camplin won another Winter gold for Australia through more legitimate means.

8. Zimbabwe: 2004-2012 Summer Olympics

Getty Images

Kristy Coventry holds seven of Zimbabwe’s eight medals and has defeated some of the biggest names in the Olympics. Despite a lack of government funding for athletics programs — not to mention poor infrastructure, as Zimbabwe has no indoor pools — Coventry earned a scholarship to Auburn, where she won seven NCAA titles and claimed several world records in the backstroke and individual medley. As a result, she’s become a national hero and one of the few white Zimbabweans whose appeal crosses the racial divide of her country. Upon her return from Beijing, the country’s already-controversial president, Robert Mugabe, gave Coventry a suitcase containing $100,000 cash, a move that incited even more controversy because of Zimbabwe’s runaway inflation.

Coventry fell just outside of the medal ranks in her events in London this year, but she has indicated that she doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.

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

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]