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13 Hard-Hitting Facts About American Gladiators

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When a sitting president endorses your syndicated program featuring hypertrophied men and women in spandex clobbering mere mortals with giant Q-tips, you’ve hit the big time. Bill Clinton once publicly proclaimed his love for American Gladiators, the series where regular Joes and Janes could test their mettle in athletic contests.

While the series, which ran for eight seasons beginning in 1989, has eased its grip on the world’s collective throat, the sight of adults in giant hamster wheels will always be a fond memory. Check out these 13 facts about hooded referees, Gladiator dinner theater, and the infamous walkout.

1. IT WAS CO-CREATED BY AN ELVIS IMPERSONATOR.

In the 1970s, professional arm wrestler Dann Carr organized a series of athletic events for iron worker picnics in Erie, Pennsylvania, which he dubbed a “workingman’s Olympics.” He happened to know a promoter and former Elvis impersonator named Johnny Ferraro, who was impressed by the turnout he had helped organize at a youth center fundraiser. It took years, but Ferraro finally sold the David vs. Goliath concept to the Samuel Goldwyn Company.   

2. FOX WANTED TO FAKE IT.

When Goldwyn’s president of television distribution, Dick Askin, was shopping the series to potential markets, he found himself in a meeting with a Fox affiliate representative who had come armed with a very attractive offer. Instead of selling market to market, he offered Askin a 26-episode deal and a commitment from all of the company’s stations. All Askin had to do was agree to script the show—outcomes, trash talk, and all. Askin, who felt strongly that the show should be organic and the results legitimate, turned him down.

3. THE ORIGINAL GLADIATOR NAMES WEREN’T SO COOL.

While most viewers remember the gigantic Gladiators as having toy-ready names like Laser, Nitro, and Zap, some of the earlier nicknames weren’t so memorable. Prior to the show’s premiere in the fall of 1989, the press got word that the athletes had names like Dominoes, Willie, Cattalus, and Evander.   

4. PULL-UPS ELIMINATED 90 PERCENT OF TRYOUT HOPEFULS.

Gladiators was constantly on the move, holding open auditions for contestant hopefuls. In an estimate given by Time at the start of its third season, it was determined that 90 percent of the 25,000 who had tried out for the show couldn’t make it past the pull-up portion. (Men were expected to do 25 in 30 seconds; women, eight.)

5. THE AUDIENCE WAS MADE OUT OF PLYWOOD.  

Early on, Goldwyn had arranged for a barter deal with Universal Studios Hollywood: In exchange for advertising the attraction on television, the show would get tourists deposited into the studio during tapings. Unfortunately, visitors riding the tram had traveled to see E.T., not Nitro: They often left, leaving empty seats. In order to make the arena look full, the crew would dim the lights and the production would prop up plywood cutouts with hand-drawn faces in the darker sections of the bleachers.

6. THE REF WORE AN EXECUTIONER’S HOOD.

Before settling into its neon-color aesthetic, Gladiators tried taking on a Roman Coliseum vibe. The most jarring component was a sinister-looking referee who wore a robe and hood and made calls with a thumbs up or thumbs down gesture. Sensing the medieval approach wasn’t working, refs switched to striped shirts by season two.

7. NOT ALL OF THE GLADIATORS WERE ATHLETES.

While behemoths like Danny “Nitro” Clark had played professional football before joining the show, producers weren’t necessarily looking for athletic ability. They originally sent out a casting call to bodybuilders, which proved to be a poor idea. Among one of the early washouts was Deron “Malibu” McBee, who later garnered YouTube infamy for getting knocked off a raised podium and collapsing in a heap of feathered hair and tanning lotion. Suffering a concussion, the ‘Bu lasted just 13 episodes.

8. THE SCORE WAS COMPOSED BY ROCKY’S BILL CONTI.

Every slow-motion shot of dorsiflexion needs some rousing orchestral music to accompany it, which is why the show hired composer Bill Conti to produce its title theme. Conti is best known for “Gonna Fly Now,” the signature track to the Rocky franchise, and won an Oscar for his work on 1983’s The Right Stuff.

9. THE EVENTS WERE DESIGNED TO FAVOR CONTESTANTS.

Courses like Joust, Assault, and others set a striking visual image: men and women of average size being dwarfed by the attitudinal, beefy Gladiators. But according to Askin, the games were actually designed to minimize their size and strength advantages so the contestants had a realistic shot at winning. “We tried to get events that gave the guy who was five-eight and 170 pounds an equal chance to either meet or beat the Gladiator,” he said.

10. THE GLADIATORS WENT ON STRIKE.

According to "Nitro" Clark's 2009 autobiography, Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage, and Redemption, he and several of the original Gladiators weren’t seeing a nickel from the 75 licensed items like toys, Nintendo games, and apparel that were making the Goldwyn Company millions of dollars. Happy to get the work, they had signed away their likeness rights when they were hired. Goldwyn, however, was unwilling to renegotiate, and largely recast the show in its fourth season. Though it ran several more years, ratings never recovered.

11. RYAN SEACREST HOSTED A KID’S VERSION.

With a massive soundstage and multiple sets, producers wanted to monetize their investment even further by introducing a kid component to the franchise. Gladiators 2000 ran in 1994 and was co-hosted by Ryan Seacrest. In addition to competitors being substantially smaller, it also introduced a cerebral component: They were quizzed on knowledge of everything from history to hygiene. By introducing an educational element, stations would be able to fulfill their necessary quota of informational programming. The show ran for two years before viewers cried uncle.

12. IT EVOLVED INTO DINNER THEATER.

After the success of a 150-city tour that pit Gladiators from the series against local athletes in the early 1990s, investors decided to tweak the franchise for the dinner theater crowd. American Gladiators Orlando Live! debuted in 1995 in front of a crowd of roughly 1300 at a Kissimmee auditorium down the road from Disney World. As contestants got pummeled with tennis balls, spectators could enjoy a sweat-splattered meal for $39.95.

13. A REVIVAL MAY STILL HAPPEN.

In July 2014, producer Arthur Smith announced he was working on a “darker, more intense, more serious” revival of the series following a failed 2007-2008 attempt co-hosted by Hulk Hogan. Smith planned on taking a post-apocalyptic approach reminiscent of The Hunger Games. “And no spandex,” he told TV Guide. “Spandex has left the building.”

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9 Wild Moments from Winter Olympics History
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With the Pyeongchang Olympics nearing their final weekend in South Korea, we thought we'd take a look back at some of the wildest and most unpredictable moments of Winter Games past.

1. AUSTRALIA WINS ITS FIRST WINTER GOLD MEDAL WHEN SPEED SKATER WAITS FOR HIS COMPETITORS TO FALL DOWN

Knowing he was overmatched by his fellow athletes during the 1000 Meter Short Track Speed Skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, 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. ALPINE SKIER HERMANN MAIER FLIES OFF THE COURSE AT 70 MPH, GETS UP AND WALKS AWAY

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


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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 an impossibility. Just ask Ortrun 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

English plasterer Michael Edwards traveled to Lake Placid, New York two years before the 1988 Calgary Olympics to fulfill his dream 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 total points 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.

In 2016, Eddie the Eagle, a biopic about Edwards’s life featuring Hugh Jackman (not playing Edwards), was released in theaters.

5. GOLD MEDALIST IN OLYMPICS' INAUGURAL SNOWBOARDING COMPETITION GETS BUSTED FOR MARIJUANA

At the 1998 Nagano Games, snowboarding was introduced in an effort to make the Olympics more appealing 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.

Today, 20 years after the controversy, Rebagliati has moved on from his snowboarding past and is trying his hand at entrepreneurism: he’s the founder of Ross’ Gold, a cannabis business.

6. NANCY KERRIGAN VS. TONYA HARDING


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Tonya Harding was an ice skating 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 lucrative 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, disgraced, finished in eighth place. Harding's life, and the scandal surrounding her competition with Kerrigan, has been turned into the Oscar-nominated film, I, Tonya.

According to Olympic Historian David Wallechinsky, when CBS executives thanked their staff in Norway for the great ratings (the figure skating finals were the one of the most watched events in television history at the time), a CBS employee wrote back: "Don't thank us. Thank Tonya."

7. TWO AMERICAN HOCKEY TEAMS ARE SENT TO THE OLYMPICS, BOTH ARE DISQUALIFIED


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Controversy erupted before the 1948 Olympic Games in St. Moritz 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


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Luge racers regularly hit speeds of over 95 miles per hour, meaning that even the smallest 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 the Olympic Games. Two weeks before the Innsbruck Games in 1964, Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, 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


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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 Salé 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.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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