The Olympic Games – for over 120 years, they have served as a showcase of supreme sporting skill and athleticism. They have also seen their fair share of controversy, mainly in the form of doping scandals, and even tragedy. The 1972 games in Munich spring to mind. At the same time, they’ve also been home to plenty of bizarre and unexpected occurrences. Today we take a look at ten of them.
10. Foiled by Fancy Footwear
The early Olympics had all sorts of events that aren’t around anymore, including tug-of-war. At the 1908 Games in London, three of the teams were from Great Britain, and all three consisted solely of members of police forces – one from Liverpool, one from the Met, and one from the City of London. Add to them two national teams from the U.S. and Sweden and you had the entire field for the tug-of-war event.
The Americans took on Liverpool in the quarterfinals and they lost almost immediately. Afterward, they complained to the officials that their opponents were using illegal footwear, described as being “as big as North River ferryboats, with steel-topped heels and steel cleats in the front of the soles, while spikes an inch long stuck out of the soles.”
This certainly sounded like it was against the rules since “prepared boots or shoes with any protruding nails” were banned, but the Liverpool police force insisted that the boots were standard issue that they wore on the job. Because of this, the American protest was dismissed, and the Liverpool team ended up taking the silver medal.
9. The Motorist & The Marathon
Unfortunately, cheating has always been a persistent problem at the Olympics. But while modern cheaters usually try to find new drugs that would fool the tests, at least in the past athletes were a bit more creative with their chicanery.
Take, for example, American long-distance runner Fred Lorz, who competed in the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis. About halfway through the race, Lorz started cramping so his manager picked him up in his car and drove him for the next 11 miles. At the very least, you have to give Lorz credit for his absolute audacity. He wasn’t even trying to hide his deception, as he kept waving at fans while driving towards the finish line.
Lorz won the race, of course, and Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, was just about to place the gold medal around his neck when word of his fraud reached her. Lorz admitted to the deed and claimed that it was all just a joke and he had no intention of accepting the honor. Whether or not this was true we’ll never know, but Lorz did enjoy a redemption story the following year when he competed in the Boston Marathon. He won fair & square this time.
8. Twin Magic
Speaking of creative ways of sidestepping the rules, we have to tip our hats to Madeline de Jesús, who found a unique way to cheat the system when she represented Puerto Rico at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. But to be fair, Madeline did have an unfair advantage – a twin sister.
Now we know what you’re all thinking…and you’re exactly right. Madeline and Margaret did the ol’ switcheroo and hoped that nobody would be able to tell the difference. Here’s what happened: Madeline pulled her hamstring during the long jump competition and, less than a week later, she was due to take part in the 4×400 relay race to qualify for the finals. Normally, this would have meant that the team had to forfeit, but what if Margaret would take part in her place? After all, she was a track and field athlete, as well.
Madeline gave her all of her credentials and, for a few days, Margaret lived and trained at the Olympic village while successfully posing as her sister. Then, when the big day came, the Puerto Rican team qualified for the finals. At first, it seemed like the sisters managed to fool the world, and they might have gotten away with it, if not for one eagle-eyed journalist from Puerto Rico who unmasked the entire plot. He was able to tell the difference between Madeline and Margaret based on a beauty mark on a cheek.
7. Duck Scullery
Bobby Pearce was an Australian rower who won the gold medal in the single sculls event consecutively at the 1928 and 1932 summer Olympics, the first to do so. However, his incredible feat of athleticism is not what has defined his Olympic career, but rather an act of kindness and compassion.
During the 1928 games in Amsterdam, Pearce had a sizable lead in the quarter-final race. Being alone in the boat, he could not see what was going on in front of him. At one point, he started hearing shouts and cries coming from the people on the banks. As he turned around to see what was going on, he saw a mother duck and a procession of tiny, fluffy ducklings crossing the canal right in his path.
Many other athletes would have plowed right through them, unwilling to let some birds stop them from achieving sporting glory. Bobby Pearce, however, brought his boat to a halt and waited for the ducks to safely cross the canal before resuming his race. His compassion cost him the lead, with the French rower Vincent Saurin gaining five lengths on him. But karma was on his side that day and in an amazing display of skill and athleticism, Pearce not only caught up to the Frenchman but left him in the dust, winning the race with an almost 30-second lead.
6. Cuba’s First Olympian
We are returning to the 1904 Olympic Marathon in St. Louis to bring you the unbelievable story of Félix “Andarín” Carvajal, Cuba’s first Olympian. A postman back in his native Havana, Carvajal allegedly convinced the mayor to send him to the Olympics by running laps around City Hall for an entire workday. On his way to America, the athlete ran out of money in New Orleans. Some say Carvajal may have been robbed, but most sources believe that the postman gambled away the money he had for the trip.
He was now left penniless, 670 miles away from where the marathon was being held. With no other options, Carvajal walked and hitchhiked to St. Louis. He arrived in time, but he was dirty, sweaty, starving, and dog-tired from this trek…and he still had a marathon to run.
He didn’t have any racing gear, of course. Carvajal showed up wearing a dirty white shirt, long trousers, and work boots. Someone helped him by cutting his trousers and turning them into shorts, which only made his appearance even more bizarre and comical.
During the race, Carvajal quickly became a fan favorite, as he liked to stop and chat with the people in attendance. At one point, he ran past an apple orchard, and, remembering that he hadn’t eaten in two days, he popped inside for a quick mid-race snack. Unfortunately, the apples were rotten, and this gave him a serious stomach ache, so Carvajal also stopped for a quick mid-race nap. He still came in fourth place.
5. Where Is Ali’s Medal?
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, an 18-year-old Muhammad Ali won the gold medal for light heavyweight boxing. Thirty-six years later, at the Atlanta games, he received a replacement medal because he had lost the first one. What happened during that time to Ali’s original gold medal remains a mystery to this day.
According to Ali’s autobiography, published in 1975, he threw it in the Ohio River in Louisville, in an act of anger and defiance, after getting into a fight for being refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant. This story turned out to be apocryphal, according to several of the boxer’s friends, but, so far, nobody has offered a different explanation, so there is a chance that someone, somewhere has Muhammad Ali’s gold medal.
4. The Most Boring Race in History
If something is boring, then it obviously doesn’t make for a very good story. But if something is the most boring, then it automatically becomes interesting. That’s what we are dealing with today – what has to be the most anticlimactic race in Olympics history: the 18-foot dinghy sailing event at the 1920 Summer Games.
What made this affair so lackluster? It’s simple: only one team took part – the team of Francis Richards and Thomas Hedberg from Great Britain. And if that’s not bad enough, they didn’t even finish the first race. They didn’t compete in the other three races but, since they were the only ones in the competition, they still received points.
It remains a bit of an Olympic mystery if the pair were actually declared winners and medaled at the end of the event, or if the whole thing was scrapped. Some official records make no mention of the 18-foot race even being staged, while others list the two sailors as gold medal winners.
3. Stealing the First Flag
The Olympic flag, with the five interlacing rings of different colors, has become one of the most recognizable symbols in the world. It was designed by the father of the modern Olympics himself, Pierre de Coubertin, and officially adopted at the 1920 Summer games in Antwerp. However, it didn’t last very long. At the end of the games, the original flag went missing, and the Olympics committee had to create a replacement for the next games in Paris.
The fate of the first flag became a mystery, one that lasted for almost eight decades. Fast forward to 1997 at a U.S. Olympic Committee dinner and a journalist brought up the fact that the original flag had never been found. This prompted a former Olympian named Hal Haig Prieste to approach the journalist and casually bring up the fact that he had the missing flag and that he had kept it in a suitcase for the last 80 years.
A hundred years old at the time of the dinner, Prieste had competed at the 1920 games as a diver and took home the bronze. Following a night of enthusiastic celebrations, he was dared by a teammate to climb up the flagpole and steal the flag…which he did, and he absconded from Belgium with the flag safely tucked away in his suitcase. It wasn’t until the dinner 80 years later that he realized the importance of his souvenir, so in 2000 a ceremony was organized for the flag to finally be returned to the Olympics committee.
2. The Case of the Mystery Cox
You might ask yourself who the youngest gold medalist in Olympics history is. That’s a perfectly valid question and certainly a great claim to fame. The answer, however, is not completely straightforward. Officially, diver Marjorie Gestring is recognized as the youngest, at 13 years and 267 days. However, we know for certain that there was someone younger than her. We just have no idea who he was.
This goes all the way back to the 1900 Summer Games in Paris, at the coxed pair rowing event. Each team consisted of three people – two rowers and a cox to guide them. Since the cox didn’t do any kind of physical labor, it was beneficial for the team for him to be as light as possible. Consequently, one of the French teams decided to use a young boy as their cox and the Dutch team decided to emulate them. Before the race, they replaced their regular cox, Hermanus Brockmann, with some random boy they plucked from the crowd, around 7-to-10 years old. And the Dutch team won first place, making that boy the youngest gold medalist in history. He took a photo with the winning team before disappearing into the crowd, never to be seen again, and nobody even knows his name.
1. The Olympic Torch Relay
There are many symbols and traditions associated with the Olympics – the rings, the flag, the mascots. And, of course, who could forget the torch relay? Starting every time from Olympia, in Greece, the torch is carried from city to city, until it reaches the host city where it is used to light the Olympic flame and mark the official start of the games. It is a grand tradition that encapsulates the pageantry and universal appeal of the Olympics. It’s just a shame that it was created by Nazi Germany.
Yes, that’s right. The Olympic torch relay was first used at the 1936 games in Berlin. You might think that it sounds like the kind of thing done in ancient times, but that’s exactly what Germany was looking for – something that created a symbolic link between the modern Nazis and the ancient Greeks.
The man usually credited with inventing the torch relay was Carl Diem, one of the main organizers of the 1936 games. He wasn’t a Nazi himself, but once Hitler and Goebbels realized the propaganda potential of the Olympics, they co-opted the entire event and ensured that every single detail was used to show the superiority of the Third Reich.