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9 Crazy Moments from Winter Olympics History

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With the Sochi Olympics underway in Russia, we thought we'd take a look back at some of the Winter Games' wildest and most unpredictable moments. Each of these wins gold for insanity.

1. Speed skater wins country's first Gold Medal by waiting for everyone else to fall // 1000 meter Short Track Speed Skating, 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics

Knowing he was overmatched by his fellow Olympic speedskaters, Australian Steven Bradbury devised a strategy of waiting in the back of the pack on the off chance that his competitors might trip up. Amazingly, the strategy worked when a disqualification in the quarterfinals got him through to the semis and a crash sent him to the finals.

In the final, favorite Apollo Anton Ohno and the three other competing skaters collided in an epic crash; the trailing Bradbury was close enough to the pack to cross the finish line before any of the fallen skaters, becoming Australia's first gold medalist in the Winter Olympics.

2. Hermann Maier flies off the course at 70 mph, gets up and walks away // Downhill, 1998 Nagano Olympics

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In downhill alpine skiing, skiers travel at extremely high velocities (typically 60 to 85 miles per hour) down courses that closely follow the mountain's fall line.

In 1998, Nagano Olympics race officials were worried about the downhill course—specifically a steep angle between the 6th and 7th gates. They altered this portion but the section still posed a danger.

Austrian Hermann Maier finished first in the World Cup standings before the Olympics but had a reputation for recklessness within the skiing circuit—in fact, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, "caution was not a word in Maier's vocabulary." Maier didn't slow down before the aforementioned dangerous turn in Nagano and went flying off the course at 70 miles per hour, tumbling to a halt some 50 meters away. In a sport where injuries—and even deaths—aren't unheard of, Maier shocked TV audiences by getting up and walking away with nothing more than a bruised shoulder.

Benefiting from a 24-hour weather delay on his next event, the Super-G, Maier used the extra rest to get back in full form and took home the gold. He also came in first in the Giant Slalom three days later.

3. Women cheat by heating up their sleds // Women's Luge, 1968 Grenoble Olympics

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There have been a limited number of cases of cheating in the Winter Olympics (far fewer than in the Summer Olympics), but that doesn't mean it's totally eradicated. Just ask Ortun Enderlein.

Enderlein, the defending luge champion, and her two East German teammates aroused suspicion by showing up just before their runs and leaving the scene hastily after. Enderlein won gold and her teammates placed 3rd and 4th, but upon closer inspection, it was discovered that their sleds had been heated immediately before the races, which reduced friction with the ice and resulted in faster times. The three were disqualified and the East German Olympic Committee blamed the affair on a "capitalist revanchist plot." 

4. Ski Jumper Rallies National Pride by Finishing Last // Men's Normal Hill Ski Jumping, 1988 Calgary Olympics

English plasterer Michael Edwards traveled to Lake Placid, New York two years before the Calgary Olympics to fulfill his dreams of making the event as a downhill skier. When money ran short, he decided to switch to ski jumping because it was significantly cheaper and there would be no competition at the national trials. Edwards became the first Olympic ski jumper in British history but was far below the standards of the rest of the field.

Edwards crashed at the World Championships the year before the '88 Games and was ridiculed by the international press, who dubbed him "Mr. Magoo" due to his thick-rimmed glasses and heavy frame.

To the British, however, Edwards became a great source of fascination, which turned into a full-fledged national craze as he became the first Olympic ski jumper in the country's history and successfully landed his attempt at the Calgary Games. Although he didn't even score half the points total of any other competitor, he earned admiration worldwide and was given the nickname "Eddie the Eagle" by the President of the International Olympic Committee during the closing ceremony.

Sadly, many others in the Olympic community did not take him seriously, and they raised the qualifying standards to prevent Edwards from participating in the future. This didn't stop him from trying, but he failed to qualify on three successive occasions. Today, Edwards still plasters for a living and estimates that 70 percent of his income comes from speaking engagements. 

5. Gold medalist in Olympics' inaugural snowboarding competition gets busted for marijuana // Snowboarding Parallel Giant Slalom, 1998 Nagano Olympics

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At the 1998 Nagano Games, snowboarding was introduced in an effort to make the Olympics appeal to a younger audience. Still, there was some trepidation about the perceived rambunctious lifestyle of the snowboarding community and how it would fit in with the formality of the Olympics.

Nothing better illustrated this clash of values than when Canadian Ross Rebagliati became the inaugural winner in the Parallel Giant Slalom and was promptly stripped of his medal three days after the event for testing positive for marijuana. 

Rebagliati claimed to have ingested it second-hand at a party and the Canadian Olympic delegation successfully appealed the IOC's decision on the basis that marijuana isn't a performance-enhancing drug. He got his medal back before the Games ended.

6. Nancy Kerrigan vs Tonya Harding // Women's Figure Skating, 1994 Lillehammer Olympics

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Tonya Harding was a former child prodigy from a broken home who ascended to the world stage in the early '90s. As her financial security and world ranking started to decline in the months leading up to the Olympics, Harding became frustrated and directed her anger at fellow American Nancy Kerrigan, who was ascending in the world standings and landing lucerative commercial endorsements.

Harding's on-again-off-again husband Jeff Gillooly conspired with two other men to attack and injure Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics. They carried out the hit after Kerrigan's practice skate before the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. Shane Stant, Gillooly's hired man, hit Kerrigan on the knee with a police baton as she was talking to a reporter in a stadium hallway. He escaped by diving through a plexiglass door before running to a getaway car.

The attack resulted in a bruise, but because there was no bone or ligament damage, Kerrigan was able to perform and was selected (along with Harding, who was under investigation for the attack) for the U.S. Olympic team. At the Lillehammer Games, Kerrigan famously skated to a silver medal after terrific back-to-back performances while Harding finished disgraced and in 8th.

According to Olympic Historian David Wallechinsky, when CBS executives thanked their staff in Norway for the great ratings (the figure skating finals were the 6th most watched event in television history), a CBS employee wrote back, "Don't thank us—thank Tonya."

7. Two American Hockey Teams are sent to the Olympics, both are disqualified // Men's Hockey, 1948 St. Moritz Olympics

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Controversy erupted before the 1948 Olympic Games over whether the American Hockey Association or the Amateur Athletic Union was the chief governing authority for hockey in the United States. American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage refused to sanction the AHA because of their commercial sponsorships, but the International Ice Hockey Federation officially ruled that the AAU was to be replaced by the AHA.

Amid the confusion, both teams made their way to St. Moritz to compete. Before they were set to march in the Opening Ceremony, the Swiss Olympic Organizing Committee banned the AAU. Because they were favored by Brundage, though, the AAU team got the honor of representing the U.S. in the opening ceremony, while the AHA team—which was actually allowed to compete by the organizing committee—had to sit in the stands.

8. Luge Track with a History of Fatal Accidents Selected as Site of Inaugural Luge Competition // Men's and Women's Luge 1964 Innsbruck Olympics

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Luge racers regularly hit speeds over 95 miles per hour—so a small shift in body position can easily result in catastrophe. This was evident before the 2010 Vancouver Games, when Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili careened off the track during a training run and died of his injuries. 

It was an eerie replay of the luge's first-ever appearance at an Olympics. Two weeks before the Innsbruck Games in 1964, Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski, a British RAF pilot who was inexperienced in the sport, flew off the track and died during a training run. Additionally, a German doubles luge team was injured on the track in a separate accident. The track had had several fatal accidents when it opened decades before, and although it was modified thereafter, Olympic participants had to lobby for further safety precautions to reduce some of the danger.

9. French Judge confesses to throwing the competition // 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Pairs Figure Skating

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The pairs figure skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics resulted in a massive scandal that gave wind to the long-standing notion that figure skating judges can be swayed. Russian competitors Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze made noticeable errors in their long program, while Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier performed a flawless routine that had the crowd chanting "Six! Six! Six!"

When the judges ruled 5-4 in favor of the Russians and loud boos rang from the arena, the Canadian Olympic officials filed a protest. Protests filed by the losing party have become relatively common in the Olympics and the exercise is often a symbolic and ultimately fruitless gesture. But in this case, some dirt actually turned up.

In the subsequent investigation, it was revealed that the swing vote, French judge Marie-Rene Le Gougne, was up for a seat on the International Skating Union's powerful technical committee, and reports surfaced that she confided to a British referee a few days earlier that she had been pressured by her own national committee to throw her vote for the Russian pairs.

Le Gougne changed her story a few days later in an effort to save face, but her contradictory statements only exacerbated the coverage into a full-blown media frenzy dubbed "skate-gate." In the end, Le Gougne was suspended for three years, the Canadians were awarded a second pair of gold medals, and the sport underwent reform with judges' scores being kept secret and chosen at random.

See Also:

11 of the Craziest Moments in Summer Olympics History

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Smart Shopping
This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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Hiware 12-piece Good Stainless Steel Dinner Forks Cutlery Set, 8 Inches for $15.59 (list price $22.00)

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12 Air Plant Variety Pack - Bulk Assorted Species of Live Tillandsia House Plants for Sale - Wholesale Indoor Terrarium Air Plants by Aquatic Arts for $22.99 (list price $25.08)

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VicTsing 300ml Cool Mist Humidifier Ultrasonic Aroma Essential Oil Diffuser for Office Home Bedroom Living Room Study Yoga Spa - Wood Grain for $49.99 (list price $29.99)

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Redken Short Sculpt 19 Touchable Texturizing Gel, 3.4 Ounce for $12.46 (list price $20.00)

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BraceUP Stabilizing Lumbar Lower Back Brace and Support Belt with Dual Adjustable Straps and Breathable Mesh Panels (S/M) for $23.99 (list price $45.98)

Brightdeal Replacement Brush Heads for Philips Sonicare Toothbrush E Series HX7022/66, Essence, Xtreme, Elite and Advance (6-pack) for $19.99 (list price $25.99)

Philips Sonicare Essence Sonic Electric Rechargeable Toothbrush, White for $24.95 (list price $49.99)

Swiffer Duster Refills, Unscented Dusters Refill, 20 count for $13.97 (list price $15.99)

Braun Series 9-9095cc Wet and Dry Foil Shaver for Men with Cleaning Center, Electric Men's Razor, Razors, Shavers, Cordless Shaving System for $299.99 (list price $499.99)

Johnson's 24 Hr Moisturizing Wash Soft Body Lotion 12 fl oz (6 pack) for $26.99 (list price $29.99)

Germ-X 1000042965 Moisturizing Hand Sanitizer Lotion 4 oz. (Pack of 12) for $38.53 (list price $55.28)

Radha Beauty Natural Therapeutic Frankincense Essential Oil, 4 oz. for $16.95 (list price $49.99)

FHI Brands Stylus Thermal Styling Brush, Black for $79.99 (list price $99.99)

Thayers Alcohol-free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera, 12 oz for $10.51 (list price $19.95)

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AmazonBasics Wireless Presenter for $21.00 (list price $24.99)

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Clipboards (Set of 10) by Office Solutions Direct! Low Profile Clip Standard A4 Letter Size clipboard for $12.88 (list price $29.95)

VANRA Metal Mesh Desktop File Sorter Organizer Desk Tray Organize with 3 Letter Trays and 2 Vertical Upright Sections, Black for $33.98 (list price $68.80)

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EXPO Low-Odor Dry Erase Markers, Chisel Tip, Fashion Colors, 8-Count for $4.94 (list price $8.92)

Board Dudes 18" x 22" Magnetic Dry Erase/Cork Combo Board (CYH10) for $13.19 (list price $20.23)

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OUTDOORS, GARDEN, AND SPORTS

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Polar Bottle Insulated Water Bottle (24-Ounce) (Starburst) for $8.92 (list price $11.99)

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Polar H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Sensor & Fitness Tracker (Black, Medium/XX-Large) for $41.12 (list price $58.49)

TaylorMade 2016 Tour Preferred Golf Balls (1 Dozen) for $24.99 (list price $39.00)

JOOLA Conversion Table Tennis Top with Foam Backing and Net Set for $308.39 (list price $374.99)

Homitt 2 Way Y Hose Connector, Garden Hose Splitter with Comfortable Rubberized Grip for Easy Garden Life for $11.99 (list price $29.99)

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Etekcity 3 Pack Portable Outdoor LED Lantern with 9 AA Batteries - Camping Friendly (Black, Collapsible) for $17.99 (list price $50.99)

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Campbell Hausfeld 17-Piece Air Tool and Accessory Kit (MP284701AV) for $11.78 (list price $17.07)

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