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The History of the Olympics, According to Wheaties Boxes

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Life cereal may have cornered the market on cute with Little Mikey, but Wheaties has got serious game. For 80 years, the brand has been backing up its reputation as “The Breakfast of Champions” by featuring more than 500 athletes on its box (not all of them on the front). The tradition has been a cherished one amongst Olympic athletes in particular, whose front-and-center presence on a cardboard box full of wheat and bran flakes seems to be as nearly coveted as the gold medal itself. Here’s a brief history of the Olympics, as told by Wheaties boxes.

1. BABE DIDRIKSON (1935)

In 1935, Babe Didrikson—who gold medaled in hurdles and the javelin throw at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles—became the first female athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties (albeit on the back).

2. JESSE OWENS (1936)

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Track and field star James “Jesse” Owens, who wowed the crowds by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was the first black athlete to appear on the cereal box. He made a second appearance in 2003.

3. BOB RICHARDS (1958)

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In 1958, two-time Olympic pole vaulting champion (he took home the gold in 1952 and 1956) was the first athlete to make the front of a Wheaties box. But Richards was more than just a familiar mug used to generate sales. In 1956, he was chosen from more than 500 other athletes to serve as the cereal’s spokesperson, a role he continued through 1970. “I saw it more as a mission than a job,” Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “What we did was vastly more important than making money … Now guys like [Michael] Jordan go on and say, ‘You'd better eat your Wheaties,’ but we went around the country talking to people.”

4. BRUCE JENNER (1977)

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Before he was an unofficial member of the Kardashian clan, Bruce Jenner actually achieved something: a gold medal in the Decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, which turned him into a pretty major celebrity in the 1980s. So much so that he actually replaced Erik Estrada on CHiPs. (Which was a like totally big deal at the time.)

5. MARY LOU RETTON (1984)

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Thirty years ago, gymnast Mary Lou Retton won five medals at the Summer Olympics, which she followed up with yet another impressive achievement when she became the first female athlete to be featured on the front of a Wheaties box. Her beloved mug showed up again in 1999 and 2012.

6. MICHAEL JORDAN (1988)

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Michael Jordan was already an NBA superstar—and gold medalist (as part of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games)—by the time he made his first Wheaties appearance, in 1988. He would go on to win yet another gold medal in 1992, at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was the only player to start in all eight games. He would also set a record for Wheaties’ favorite cover boy: 18 appearances (and counting).

7. U.S. WOMEN'S OLYMPIC GYMNASTICS TEAM (1996)

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Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Amanda Borden, Dominique Moceanu, and Jaycie Phelps were among the young women who made history in 1996 when they became the first American team to win a gold medal in gymnastics, beating out the heavily favored teams from Russia and Romania. Wheaties paid tribute to their victory.

8. JIM THORPE (2001)

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It took long enough! Eighty-nine years after he won both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm (wearing two different shoes he’d rescued from a garbage can after his own kicks were stolen), Jim Thorpe finally made his way to the front of a Wheaties box. Perhaps the delayed accolade was due to the fact that his medals were revoked in 1913, when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Games (a no-no at the time, as only amateurs were allowed to compete). In 1983, 30 years after his passing, the International Olympic Committee decided to restore his titles. Too bad he wasn’t around to savor it!

9. JUSTIN GATLIN (2004)

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Two years after winning a gold medal (plus two silvers and one bronze) in Athens in 2004, sprinter Justin Gatlin was hit with a four-year ban on competing after testing positive for steroids. In 2010, he re-emerged, and added yet another bronze medal to his collection at the 2012 London Games.

10. MICHAEL PHELPS (2004)

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In 2004, Michael Phelps—the most successful Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals—made his first of two Wheaties box appearances. The second one came in 2012, the same year he retired. He was 27 years old. (Time to start practicing that breaststroke, kids.)

11. LINDSEY VONN (2010)

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America’s most decorated skier won the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She’s in Sochi this year, too, but as a correspondent for NBC News.

12. SHAUN WHITE (2010)

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A key figure in the transition of snowboarding from daredevil spectacle to Olympic sport, Shaun White won his first gold medal at the 2006 Games in Turin and did it again in Vancouver in 2010.

13. MISTY MAY-TREANOR (2012)

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Now retired, Misty May-Treanor is the world’s most successful beach volleyball player, having collected more than 100 championships throughout her career, not to mention the three gold medals she spiked in three consecutive Olympic Games (in 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing, and 2012 in London).

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The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

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If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

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According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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