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.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

11 Secrets of Hollywood Science Advisors

AMC
AMC

The work of a Hollywood science advisor can be hard to spot. Rather than shoving science in the audience’s faces, it’s their job to make the world of a movie or TV show feel believable, from the physics of fight scenes to the theories that characters scrawl on the blackboard.

Science advisors are usually regular scientists working in fields like physics, astronomy, and chemistry; the main thing that often sets them apart from their peers is a passion for film and TV. Whether they're meeting with actors, checking equations, or shaping plot points, here are some of the ways they contribute to your favorite pieces of pop culture.

1. Science advisors are usually volunteers.

Most of the Hollywood science advisors that Mental Floss spoke to were doing the work pro bono. Donna Nelson, a chemist at the University of Oklahoma, learned that Breaking Bad was looking for a science advisor while reading an interview with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan. According to him, the series was in need of guidance from a real scientist, but there wasn’t enough room in the budget to hire one. So Nelson volunteered to lend her knowledge.

That was in Season 1, and over the next several years Breaking Bad exploded into a massive success. But even as the budget grew, Nelson never once accepted a paycheck for her advising work. “I was a volunteer from beginning to end,” she tells Mental Floss. “I was delighted to do it because my goal was to help the scientific community.”

The same usually holds true even when the advisors contributing their expertise to a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota and science advisor on such films as Watchmen (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), tells Mental Floss, “All the consulting that I've done has been volunteering.”

2. Geeking out gets them noticed.

Before she became advisor on the TV show 12 Monkeys, Sophia Gad-Nasr, an astroparticle physicist at UC Irvine, was just a regular viewer talking about the episodes on social media. "I really liked it and I tweeted about it, so the showrunner reached out to me and let me know they were in need of a science advisor," she says.

Meanwhile, Kakalios was a comic book fan who had literally written the book on the physics of superheroes before he was asked to work on the Watchmen movie. "[Warner Bros.] contacted me and said 'We're making a movie about a comic book. Have you ever heard of this graphic novel called Watchmen?' And if you're into comic books, it's like saying 'Have you ever heard of this movie called Citizen Kane'?" he says. "So when I was done vibrating like a gong, I said 'Yes, I've heard of Watchmen.'"

3. They're sworn to secrecy.

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, did some consulting on the upcoming movie Avengers 4—the entire plot of which has been kept tightly under wraps. He says, “I know things about that I’m not allowed to tell anybody. And they do make sure that you understand that.”

For 12 Monkeys, Gad-Nasr was hired to help introduce the Hartle-Hawking state—physicists Stephen Hawking and James Hartle's theory that prior to the Big Bang there was only space and no time—into the show. Her work ended up being one of the biggest spoilers of the series. “[In 12 Monkeys] you keep getting hints about this 'red forest,' and that red forest was actually the Hartle-Hawking state I worked on. I had to sign an NDA.”

4. They need to be on-call 24/7.

Scientists who sign on to advise a TV show shouldn’t expect normal working hours. The makers of the show might reach out to them whenever a science question comes up during filming, which can be any time of day or night. While working on Breaking Bad, Nelson knew that being able to answer emails quickly was crucial. “I tried to put myself in [the filmmakers’] place and thought of them being on set, and you know they’re not going to hold up filming for a science advisor,” she says. “They’re very busy … so if they don’t get an answer it will be easy for them to write the science out.”

5. They sometimes meet directly with actors.

A science advisor mainly works with writers, producers, and directors, but occasionally they'll meet with members of the cast. While consulting on Watchmen, Kakalios chatted with actor Billy Crudup to help develop his character, Dr. Manhattan, who’s a nuclear physicist. "We were talking about [Dr. Manhattan's] attitudes of being cut-off from humanity and I was talking to him about how as a director of graduate studies I often saw students get overwhelmed by graduate school," he says. "They can kind of shut down but the one thing they focused on exclusively is their work—it's the one thing they have control over. Later on he said he thought that was helpful."

6. They help make fictional scientists feel human.

The makers of Breaking Bad often asked Nelson what a chemist might do in certain situations, from the words they use to the way they interact with their students and peers. One of her insights into the psychology of Walter White became a major plot point in the series. “They asked, ‘If there was a person who was working alongside another person and one man would go on to be a Nobel Prize winner and the other would go on to become a high school teacher, what is something that could happen to make them take different paths?’ And I said, ‘Is there a young woman involved? Have the successful one take the girlfriend away from the other one and that would devastate him.’ And that’s exactly what they did.”

7. If you want to spot a science advisor’s work, check the blackboard.

One of the most common tasks science advisors are given is something most viewers never notice. If a movie or TV show contains a scene with a professor (or scientist, mathematician, etc.) in front of a blackboard, it’s the science advisor's job to make sure that whatever equations are behind him or her make sense.

“I spent three days on the set of the TV show Bones because they had a long set of sequences with writing on blackboards,” Carroll says. The character writing on the chalkboard in that episode was also a theoretical physicist, and Carroll was responsible for making sure the work was accurate.

Gad-Nasr was also called to set to double-check the math she had come up with for 12 Monkeys. “It wasn’t me who wrote it on the blackboard, but I just came by to make sure everything was cool.”

A blackboard full of nonsense can also be a sign of a film or TV show that doesn’t have a science advisor. Before signing onto Breaking Bad, Nelson noticed some bogus equations on the board in Walter White’s classroom in early episodes. “There were parts that weren’t accurate and I would have stepped up and said something,” she says. But she was able to make up for it later on when the makers of the show asked her to draw some alkene structures to feature on a blackboard. “A person who’s not paying attention might not see that, but a student who’s just had alkene as an undergrad in class or as a high school student taking organic chemistry—they may feel great to be able to look at the correct structures and not see something different from what they learned in class.”

8. Their advice can lead to rewrites ...

Much of a science advisor’s work boils down to small changes in the dialogue, but occasionally their input leads to more significant cuts. When working on Thor (2011), Carroll advised against one scene that depicted a character pushing another off a disc-shaped planet. “The problem is there’s no gravitational pull to pull you off the edge of the planet,” he says. “So scientifically that doesn’t quite make sense.” (On a disc-shaped planet, gravity would actually be working to pull you back to the center.)

9. ... But they usually try to keep changes minimal.

A scientist and director may disagree over the intricacies of superhero physics, but at the end of the day, a science advisor trusts that the filmmaker knows what’s best for their movie. When looking over scripts, Nelson says she made it her mission to keep the dialogue as intact as possible. “The [writers] knew how to write a successful script and I didn’t, so the number one thing I did not do was rewrite the page. So if there’s an incorrect word that’s a three-syllable word that starts with P, I would try to correct the sentence by substituting a different three-syllable word that started with P, because they in their writing might have a certain cadence in the sentence or alliteration or something like that that other people might miss, and I would always try not to destroy any of that.”

10. Their suggestions don’t always make it in.

No matter how much a filmmaker appreciates a science advisor’s input, they rarely choose science over story. “Very few movies or TV shows in the science fiction world try to be 100 percent accurate,” Carroll says. "Really they’re trying to tell a good story more than anything else.”

Nelson experienced this first-hand when she was asked for her opinion on one of the most famous examples of inaccurate science in Breaking Bad: Walt’s blue meth. “Vince [Gilligan] came and asked me, ‘What do you think about making the meth blue?’” she recalls. “And I said I wouldn’t do it, because meth is not blue, it’s white. He said ‘Isn’t there any reason why it might be blue under some circumstances?’ I said no, it will always be white. And as you know, they went ahead and made it blue because it was necessary for them to have a trademark for his meth. It was a plot device.”

11. More filmmakers are using them.

When the makers of Breaking Bad first brought Nelson on as a science advisor in 2008, hiring her was a bit of an experiment. "When I first started working, I was told in so many words that there was a rumor in Hollywood that you couldn’t have a hit show with a science advisor," she says. Today, working with a scientist is standard even in movies and TV shows with minimal scientific themes. Part of the job's growing prevalence can be credited to the Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program that connects entertainment industry professionals to scientists.

Another explanation is that today's media consumers hold filmmakers to higher standards. "I think there’s an increasing sophistication among the audience and you can’t just have any old thing happen," Carroll says. "We live in a generation post Cosmos and Brief History of Time where there are a lot of moviegoers who are very smart about what is plausible, and they want their plots to make sense."

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