14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Olympic Athletes

Getty
Getty

For every Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt—athletes who make history and sign lucrative endorsement deals—there are thousands of men and women who work every bit as hard for just a fraction of the recognition. The goal: to go down in history as having reached the pinnacle of physical performance in the Olympics, that universally recognized standard of excellence. Held every four years in both winter and summer iterations, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cap off years of training and join the world’s athletic elite.

Mental Floss spoke with several medalists about the realities of competing, from the surreal perks of Olympic Village (like all-you-can-eat McNuggets) to getting a tax bill for reaching the podium.

1. IT COSTS A SMALL FORTUNE TO GET READY.

While some teams or individuals in high-profile sports benefit from sponsorships or subsidized costs at the Olympics, the expense of training over a period of a decade or more to prepare for competition often falls on their own shoulders. Kyle Tress, a skeleton racer who rockets down a course face-first on a sled at 90 mph, estimates he spent well over $100,000 on the road to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. “It’s astronomical,” he says. “A competition sled alone costs well over $10,000, and you have to buy new runners at $1000 each. Then there’s travel. Some of these places, like a ski resort in France, aren’t easy to get to.”

2. THEIR FAMILIES SWAP OR SELL TICKETS.

Athletes are usually given a set number of tickets to their events, which may not match the number of friends, family, or members of their support team they’d like to attend. As a result, families often trade tickets for certain days with the families of other athletes. “My dad is in charge of tickets this year,” says Henrik Rummel, a rower who took bronze in the 2012 Games and is set to compete in Rio. “He’ll trade off days with other [athletes'] family members to fill the tickets we need. It’s crappy to only have so many tickets. I don’t even want to be involved in the process.”

3. QUALIFYING CAN BE MORE NERVE-WRACKING THAN THE ACTUAL GAMES.

Marti Malloy, a 2012 bronze medalist in judo, knew early in 2016 that she had racked up enough wins to qualify for the Rio Games. But those kinds of preliminary competitions can sometimes be more of a pressure cooker than competing in front of a billion television viewers. “There can be more nerves in a small tournament when you feel like you can’t lose,” she says. “In the Olympics, it’s like, you lost, but you lost among the best people on the planet.”

4. THEY GORGE ON MCDONALD’S.

As a longtime Olympic sponsor, McDonald’s has guaranteed itself a permanent residence in the dining hall of Olympic Village, the mini-town erected in the host city for every event. Like all the food there, it’s absolutely free. “Some athletes don’t go before their event, but after, you can walk up and ask for six cheeseburgers and they just ring it up,” Rummel says. If an athlete doesn’t need to burn fuel over a long duration, they might decide to indulge early: Sprinter Usain Bolt wrote that he devoured 1000 Chicken McNuggets in the 10-day span before and after winning three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games.

5. THEY LIVE IN A WEIRDLY UNFINISHED TOWN.

Built fresh for every Games, Olympic Village is a multimillion dollar landscape that resembles a college campus, with housing, dining, and open recreational areas. Often times the paint and grass will still smell fresh, and little details can get lost in the rush to finish it on time. “Our apartment door had a 2.5-inch gap on the bottom,” Tress says, which let in the cold Sochi air. One of his friends, a bobsledder, had a malfunctioning lock on his bathroom door. “He had to punch his way out.” At least he could finish his business: in some Sochi rooms, the toilets wouldn't flush.

6. THEY GET THEIR OWN TRAFFIC LANE.

Host cities have to put up with a huge influx of traffic. As a result, Olympic athletes and staff typically have an express shortcut to and from the venues. “There were dedicated traffic lanes, which made it much easier getting around,” Rummel says.

7. THEY SOMETIMES SKIP THE OPENING CEREMONIES.

The pageantry that accompanies the opening ceremonies for the Summer and Winter Games is an Olympic tradition, with athletes expected to participate—but many don’t, fearing that being on their feet for up to six or eight hours might impact their performance if their event is one of the first scheduled. Malloy, who participated in the 2012 ceremonies, is an exception. “I thought about [not doing] it, but I did and won a medal anyway,” she says. “It wasn’t detrimental, so I’ll probably go again in Rio. I’m kind of superstitious.”

8. THEY CAN GET A BUNCH OF DENTAL WORK DONE FOR FREE.

Because so many athletes work just part-time in order to be able to train, medical and dental benefits can be hard to come by, and their athletic training can be hard on the teeth. At the 2014 Games, Tress was surprised to see a dental office in Olympic Village where the care was totally free. “Most everyone on my team went and saw the dentist,” he says. “The U.S. Olympic Committee [itself] doesn’t provide dental for us. For a sport where we’re required to wear a mouth guard, that’s pretty crazy.”

9. THEY GET A LITTLE OBSESSIVE ABOUT BEING CLEAN.

After devoting their lives to training, Olympic athletes have just a narrow window of opportunity to perform at the highest level—and getting sick can be devastating. As a result, some coaches mandate that athletes not share water bottles in case of cross-contamination. They also get pretty particular about personal hygiene. “You take care to wash your hands a lot more,” Rummel says. “I also carry hand sanitizer. You get sick and it’s four years undone. That’s it.”

10. BRONZE MEDALISTS MIGHT BE HAPPIER THAN SILVER MEDALISTS.

At least, that’s according to a 1995 study of photos and interviews featuring medal winners. Psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey, and Thomas Gilovich looked at photographs and listened to audio interviews of competitors taken after the 1992 Olympics and found that bronze winners seemed subjectively more pleased than the more sullen silver-medal winners. They theorized that silver medalists were disappointed when comparing themselves to gold medal winners, while bronze athletes were happy to have placed at all.

Does Rummel—who won bronze in 2012—think it holds water? “I was a little disappointed as a first reaction, but then you realize it’s special and allow yourself to celebrate. Now, I’m really proud of it. [But] it depends on the sport. A basketball team in a semifinal match might be happy to get bronze when it’s that or nothing.”

11. THEY SWAP CLOTHES.

When the U.S. teams go in for processing before departing for Olympic Village, they’re entering into the world’s highest-end rummage sale: apparel from sponsors like Nike and Ralph Lauren are laid out and athletes are free to take as much as they like. “You get duffel bags full of the stuff,” Malloy says. “You have to wear it all the time so there’s enough to wear for two weeks, and we wind up trading amongst ourselves.”

12. THEY GET TAXED FOR WINNING.

Some countries provide significant perks for bringing home gold medals: Russian athletes can get cars and six-figure cash prizes. The U.S. Olympic Committee has a tiered reward structure, with $10,000 awarded to bronze medalists, $15,000 for silver, and $25,000 for gold. While the medal itself isn’t assigned any monetary value, the cash is considered income. “You do pay taxes on it,” Rummel says.

13. THEY NEED TO TIPTOE AROUND.

Because so many events take place over a two-week period, athletes who have wrapped up competitions and can celebrate need to be mindful of everyone who is still on deck. “When people are finished competing, it turns into more of a party atmosphere,” Tress says. “But you have to be respectful.” There’s no official noise ordinance, and no booze is allowed inside the Village, but victory parties are still low-key when sleeping athletes are around.

14. THEY WIND UP WATCHING A LOT OF EVENTS ON TELEVISION.

Even though they can sign up for tickets to different events and see them live, some athletes are just too tired from the experience to get up from the couch. “I remember sitting in a common room watching something on television,” Malloy says. “My teammate turned to me and said, ‘I guess we could have just gone to this.’”

All images courtesy of Getty.

14 Secrets of Cruise Ship Workers

iStock/Remus Kotsell
iStock/Remus Kotsell

From an outsider’s perspective, working on a cruise ship might seem like a dream job. What could be more glamorous than getting paid to travel the world by sea, without having to pay for housing or food? But as with many “dream” jobs, there are a few significant downsides to consider before you fill out an application. We spoke to a few cruise ship employees about what it’s like to live and work on a floating hotel.

1. Americans are the worst cruise workers.

On most large cruise liners, the majority of staff and crew are not American. “On any given contract, you’re working with about 64 nationalities,” says Kat, who spent three years working for a major cruise line. There are a number of possible drivers behind this statistic, but one is that cruise ship employees work really long hours and almost never get a day off, which isn’t particularly appealing to Americans used to a 40-hour workweek and relaxing on weekends. “On my worst contract, I was working close to 300 hours a month,” Kat says. “Yeah, you might be in beautiful places, but you’re so tired sometimes you don’t even want to go out and explore. A lot of times they won’t even hire Americans because the rate of people quitting is so high.”

Americans are also more expensive to employ, even if they do the same work as their counterparts from developing countries. Sam, who worked on Princess Cruises for two years, says her monthly salary of $1100 was higher than that of her Filipino boss. According to Sam, the official reason the ship gave was that the dollar is worth more to people from developing countries than it is to Americans.

2. Cruise ship workers are trained for pirate attacks.

It’s rare for pirates to take on a massive cruise ship, but it can happen, and if it does, the crew is prepared. Nolan, who worked for both Princess Cruises and Oceania Cruises, says he was trained to get all guests away from windows and spray the intruders with giant water cannons.

“Our ship can totally outrun their little dinghies,” he says. “We could spray them with water and they’d be helpless.” Other ships may be equipped with Long Range Acoustic Devices that emit loud, painful noises to deter attacks. That’s how a luxury cruise liner escaped a pirate attack off the coast of Africa in 2005.

3. Want to lose weight? Work on a cruise liner.

While passengers are feasting on steak and scrumptious seafood, the staff and crew aren’t so lucky. “Imagine eating at your high-school cafeteria three meals a day, seven days a week for a year,” writes one former cruise ship worker on Reddit. Kat recalls strange offerings like goat foot stew. The unappetizing food, combined with the many hours spent running the length of the ship, often mean crew members lose a significant amount of weight during their time at sea. “I would lose about 10 to 12 pounds per contract,” Kat says.

Gavin, who worked as a waiter for a major cruise line, said the crew would occasionally get treated to whatever leftovers remained from the passenger buffet, but “it would disappear so fast.”

4. Crew members sometimes mess with passengers.

Life at sea can get a bit monotonous. “It got mundane really fast,” writes one former worker on Reddit. “It was basically the same comedy of errors each day of the week, with a different ‘cast’ of passengers each week.”

Some crew members shake things up by getting a rise out of passengers in the form of good old practical jokes. According to another former crew member, “a favorite was while in a passenger area say to another crew member, loud enough to be heard by passengers, ‘Meet you in the bowling alley tonight!’” Of course, there wasn’t actually a bowling alley on board. “Then we'd wait for the comment cards to come in: ‘Why do crew get a bowling alley when we don't?’”

5. … and chance are the workers might be drunk.

When they’re not working, employees are probably drinking and partying. “We partied our asses off,” Gavin says. “We joked about how it makes a frat house look like a monastery.” The staff get their own designated watering holes on board, referred to as the crew bars, where the drinks are dirt cheap. “At the passenger bars they were charging like $15 for a drink and we’d go down into the crew bar and you could get a beer or mixed drinks for $1.25,” Sam says.

And what happens when you give copious amounts of cheap alcohol to people who are cooped up together for months at a time? “It seems like a cliche, but everyone was hooking up with each other,” Sam says. “In a lot of the crew areas there were these huge posters about STD prevention.”

The crew is regularly threatened with the possibility of random breathalyzer tests (and drug testing), but even this isn’t always enforced. “There was a strict limit on our ship of no more than .04 blood alcohol content at any time,” Gavin says, “but as long as you didn’t make a fool of yourself, you wouldn’t get randomly breathalyzed, so people would break that rule all the time.”

6. For the crew, hooking up with guests on the cruise is strictly forbidden.

So you spotted a cute crew member on your ship and are thinking of chatting them up? Good luck with that. Having sexual relations with a guest is one of the fastest ways for a crew member to get fired. This is mainly to protect the cruise line from reputation-damaging accusations of abuse. Ship security keeps a close eye on crew members day and night. That doesn’t mean hookups never happen, but if a crew member is caught in the act with a guest, they’re kicked off the ship at the next port.

7. Crew passengers are almost always being watched.

“It is safe to assume if you are outside of your cabin you are probably on camera,” Gavin says. “In the event of any kind of emergency, they could pull security footage at any time.”

8. Passengers have a lot of power over how much the crew gets paid.

At the end of a journey, you might be asked to rate your experience and share any praise or complaints on a comment card. These reviews are taken very seriously and often translate directly into salaries and bonuses for workers. “For most people, their salaries are quite low and they rely on those bonuses,” Kat says. So if you leave a bad review and mention someone by name, you can be sure they’ll feel the impact on their paycheck.

“The very best thing you can do for a crew member is to write a glowing review, mentioning them specifically on your comment card,” says a former cruise worker on Reddit. “Their superior’s superiors take note of that.”

9. Some cruise workers have double lives.

“You get a lot of married people that have their own separate lives on the cruise ship,” Kat says. “I’ve worked with couples that have wives at home and a whole different relationship while they’re on the cruise ship. It’s kind of like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy.”

Gavin says one of his fellow employees lived as an out-of-the-closet gay man while on board, but was still closeted on land.

10. They have no idea what’s going on in the world.

“You stop following news and sports and pop culture,” Gavin says. “You’re really kind of isolated out there.” It can be difficult (and expensive) to find an internet connection while at sea, so many ship workers completely lose track of current events while on contract.

11. They speak in code.

Crew members have shorthand codes for everything from fires to medical emergencies, which they can announce over the loudspeaker without alarming passengers.

Code Adam: a child is missing
Code Alpha: there’s a medical emergency
Code Oscar: man overboard
Code Bravo: fire on the ship

12. The cruise ship has many mafias.

But not the kind that will make you an offer you can’t refuse. According to Sam, the crew members on her ship were split into “mafias” based on their country of origin, and each mafia dealt in specific goods. For example, the Indian mafia was in charge of getting good food for the crew parties, she says. Because Sam worked in the youth center, she was tasked with providing art supplies for crew costume parties. “That’s just one of the economies of the ship,” Sam says. “Everyone is always trying to figure out what they can get from another person.”

One former cruise ship worker says the Filipino mafia was known for getting good booze at all hours. “If you wanted anything after hours, they would get it for you! The crew bar would close around 1 or 2. If you wanted to keep drinking, but were out of booze, you would just go to the Filipino mafia and get what you needed. You paid a huge markup obviously, but it was still pretty cool!”

13. There’s a morgue on board.

Roughly 200 people die on cruise ships every year, and cruise lines need some place to store the bodies safely until they get back to shore. As a result, many ships have small morgues on board that can hold five or six bodies. “We definitely had a morgue on board,” one former ship employee told me. “Because the line was for older demographics, we had people die on the ship pretty regularly.”

14. They will leave you behind.

If you leave the ship for an on-land excursion, make sure you get back before departure time. Cruise lines pay massive fines if they overstay their port time, so chances are high the ship will leave without you if you’re running behind. “You’re on your own,” Kat says. “They won’t wait.”

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

14 Things You Might Not Know About Sephora

iStock/RiverNorthPhotography
iStock/RiverNorthPhotography

It’s the store that’s all about that face … and nails, and skin. Makeup mecca Sephora was first born as a perfumery in 1969. French business owner Dominique Mandonnaud wanted to remove fragrances from behind the counter and allow customers to touch, smell, and spritz on the scents. Three-plus decades later, the cosmetics juggernaut—which is currently in the news for shutting down its stores for an hour today (June 5) to host diversity and inclusivity workshops for all of its 16,000 employees—employs the same client-first philosophy. (Did you know you could get a free 15-minute makeup service at any location?) Try on these other facts.

1. BEAUTY IS (SORT OF) IN THE NAME.

The official line is that Sephora originates from the Greek word sephos (which the company claims means "beauty") and the name Zipporah—she was Moses’ exceptionally pretty wife in the Book of Exodus. Not everyone buys this explanation, however, noting that "sephos" is nothing like the ancient Greek word for "beauty" or "beautiful."

2. IT'S A TOURIST DESTINATION.

The exterior of Sephora's Paris flagship
iStock/serts

Approximately 6 million cosmetics-seekers stroll through the company’s Parisian flagship store on the Champs-Élysées every year. That’s almost as many annual visitors as the Eiffel Tower receives.

3. CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT A PRODUCT? THAT'S COOL!

Stores will take back makeup—even opened products!—within 60 days of purchase. Employees admit it’s often heartbreaking for them to have to trash barely-used makeup.

4. SHOPPERS CAN SCORE TONS OF PERKS …

Along with complimentary mini makeovers, stores offer a 45-minute session when customers spend $50, and a 90-minute consultation (it includes a makeover and personal shopping session) when they shell out $125. The company’s (free) Beauty Insider program also has its benefits. Signing up means you can attend any beauty class gratis and each dollar you spend nets you a point that you can use towards fun gifts. (In some cases, they’ll even let you go into a negative points balance to score the product.)

The company also tracks your purchases to give you recommendations for other products. (Bridget Dolan, VP of Interactive Media, told Forbes that 80 percent of their transactions “run through our loyalty program.”)  Spending $350 a year catapults you to VIB (Very Important Beauty Insider) status and gains you access to private shopping events and first dibs on new products. Shell out $1,000 annually and you get Rouge Status—that means free two-day shipping on all orders, unlimited in-store makeovers, and invites to chic store events. At one, VIBs got the chance to meet Jennifer Aniston!

5. … AND MORE SAMPLES THAN THEY KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH.

Sephora employees are told that customers shouldn’t leave without new products to try. That means you can get a trial size of just about every product they carry. (Most makeup products can be tested in-store and they’ll pour any liquid product, such as a night cream or fragrance, into a sample-size vial.) The general rule, say employees, is that customers are entitled to three samples each trip. Shopping online? Each purchase comes with a choice of three freebies. And while the store rarely has sales, you can score big at the site’s Beauty Deals section.

6. GETTING A SPECIFIC PRODUCT RECOMMENDATION CAN BE TRICKY.

Employees aren’t allowed to refer shoppers to particular brands. So instead of asking for their favorite lip shade, it’s smarter to ask which lip products perform the best. (Translation: What are other shoppers buying and not returning?)

7. NEED THE PERFECT FOUNDATION? THEY HAVE AN APP FOR THAT.

Okay, well, it’s a device. The handheld Color IQ scans the surface of your skin and then finds the scientifically precise foundation—there are 1,500 options—for your visage. To create the library, the Pantone Color Institute researched and mapped out 110 different skin tones.  

8. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN LANGUAGE.

Women shop for makeup at Sephora
iStock/wdstock

Each store is divided into three distinct “worlds”: fragrance, skincare and color. In a 2008 interview with Jezebel, one employee spilled on the lingo. The sales floor is known as the “stage” (which makes everything else “backstage”), employees are called “cast members,” and managers are dubbed “directors.” As for the required all-black outfits, they’re not uniforms, they’re “costumes.”

9. EMPLOYEES REALLY ARE BEAUTY EXPERTS …

Some cast members undergo a month of intensive, all-day training at the company’s beauty school, Science of Sephora. There, according to the company’s website, they learn about “skin physiology, the history of makeup, application techniques, the science of creating fragrances, and most importantly, how to interact with Sephora’s diverse clientele.”

10. … AND THEIR MEDICINE CABINETS ARE STOCKED.

A woman stands in front of a makeup display in Sephora
iStock/arinahabich

Employees have said working at Sephora means constantly receiving new products from companies to try out. A particularly good sales day can also net a salesperson a “gratis ticket” from their manager. Plus, there’s the 20 percent employee discount that jumps up to 30 percent during the holiday season.

11. LOOKING GOOD IS A REQUIREMENT.

Part of the employee handbook: thou shall embrace eyeliner. Cast members are told to wear a certain amount of makeup while working.

12. THEY'RE WARY OF RESALE.

One cast member says they limit people from buying more than six identical items (unless they offer a good reason, such as bridal party gifts). Explains the employee, “This is to discourage people reselling our products at their own establishments.”

13. UNPOPULAR PRODUCTS USUALLY GET THE BOOT.

Stores keep lists of the products that get returned most often, and the products that don’t work are phased out over time. While it's hard to nail down an official list of frequently-returned goods, individual employees will occasionally open up about the company's most loathed and/or most misunderstood makeup.

14. SEPHORA'S APPEAL IS WIDE.

Susan Sontag at an event in Weimar, Germany in 2002
Susan Sontag
JENS-ULRICH KOCH/AFP/Getty Images

In 2014, the L.A. Review of Books dug through the contents of a Power Mac G4 once owned by Susan Sontag and discovered the famed author was on Sephora’s Beauty Insider mailing list.

A version of this article first ran in 2015. It was updated in 2019.

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