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5 Unbelievable Stories From The Summer Olympics

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The strange, the ugly, the crazy, the amazing, and the incredible, from over a century of Summer Olympic competition.

Zátopek in his prime (Helsinki Games 1952)

The Opening Ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics took place on Friday night from Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. More than 11,000 athletes from 205 nations have arrived to compete in 308 events spread throughout 28 sports. These sporting events will take place at 33 venues around Brazil from the 5th until the 21st of August.

The games of the XXXI Olympiad are being held in a South American country for the first time in history. Remarkably, the Rio games are running during the host countries winter season, also a first. Other newsworthy items include the return of Golf and the introduction of Rugby 7’s to the competition menu.

Rio Olympics

Before we dive into this week’s work, it would be crazy not to mention that Canada is the defending Olympic champion in Golf thanks to George Lyon’s performance at the 1904 games in St. Louis. Amazingly, Lyon didn’t start playing Golf until he was 38.

The summer Olympics have provided so many remarkable stories over the years that it was increasingly difficult to select only five to shine a literary spotlight on. These upcoming factual tales are of personal preference and aren’t in any particular order or ranking. They represent the strange, the ugly, the crazy, the amazing, and the incredible, from over a century of summer competition.

Without further ado, I present to you, 5 unbelievable stories from the Summer Olympics…

SWEDEN’S HANS-GUNNAR LILJENWALL TESTS POSITIVE FOR BEER

Wait… what?!

Exactly.

This is one of the all-time ‘double take headlines’ to surface from past summer Olympiads. In 1968, newly-introduced anti-doping laws meant that Mexico City was the first Games at which athletes were tested for performance-enhancing substances.

Swedish Modern Pentathlete, Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, was participating in the pistol shooting requirement of the event and apparently liked to steady his nerves with a drink. After being found with “excessive quantities” of alcohol in his system, Liljenwall confessed to competing under the influence of “two beers” and had to return his bronze medal.

The booze driven affair gave the Swede the dubious honour of being the first-ever Olympian to be disqualified from a Games for drug abuse. After a lengthy inquiry, it also saw his teammates forced to return their medals.

Having a beer for breakfast before competing in the Olympics… What could go wrong?!

With the rise of athletes doping to gain an advantage, leading to Ben Johnson being famously stripped of his gold medal in 1988 and then the eventual creation of WADA, it’s stranger than fiction that the first recorded instance of performance deviance from a “banned substance” (resulting in the disqualification of a medal at the Olympics), was deemed to be a couple of beers.

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How a brewery hasn’t taken to manufacturing a ‘Liljenwall’s Brew’ is somewhat surprising… I won’t even ask for royalties, just float me a free case every four years.

300 BEAUTIFUL BIRDS SHOT FROM THE SKY

The Games of 1900 in Paris was the one and only time in Olympic history when animals were deliberately killed in the name of sport.

They called it… Pigeon shooting. (Apparently, there was no “deal with the pigeons” in ’00).

The birds were released in front of a participant, much in the way clay targets are fired out of traps these days, and the object of the exercise was to kill as many as possible . A participant was eliminated as soon as he had failed to down two pigeons. In Paris, nearly 300 were shot from the sky, the event leaving something of a gory battlefield of blood and feathers in its wake.

Top shot was a Monsieur Leon de Lunden of Belgium who “sniped” 21 pigeons to edge out local favourite Maurice Faure who finished on 20.

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“The idea to use live birds for the pigeon shooting turned out to be a rather unpleasant choice,” American sports historian Andrew Strunk wrote dryly in a 1988 article on the 1900 Paris Olympics. “Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping in the chairs set up nearby.”

Even at the turn of the 20th century, the outrage was strong enough that they cancelled the gruesome sport after one Olympics.

3 SECONDS OF VANISHING GOLD

The 1972 Olympic Games in Munich had a shadow cast much more darker and sinister than the 300 pigeons who gave their ultimate sacrifice in Paris.

On September 5th, 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists killed two members of the Israeli Olympic team and then took nine others hostage. The situation was ended by a huge gunfight that left five of the terrorists and all of the nine hostages dead.

A horrific scene that shattered the peace and spirit of the Olympic games in the name of madness.

The games were nearly cancelled due to the massacre, but the flame stayed lit as competitors attempted to return to their events. I can’t even imagine how heavy and sad that vibe must have been as the Olympic show tried to continue.

The United States Men’s basketball team attempted to play in the wake of this unsettling evil. They came in having won SEVEN straight gold medals and they were yet to lose in Olympic competition… EVER. (62-0 using primarily amateurs from the NCAA ranks). The Americans would face the Soviet Union in the ’72 gold medal game.

What transpired was a close game highlighted by some straight up fuckery terrible officiating in favour of the Soviets. The US rallied to take the lead late and appeared to win the gold when time expired. Long story short, there was some bizarre bending of the official rules to award the Soviets a time-out and an extra 3 seconds. Then, after the time was played and the score remained unchanged, the Americans celebrated the apparent gold.

Not so fast.

More fuckery questionable officiating. The clock for some unknown reason read 50 seconds after the game finished and had to be RESET TO 3 ONCE AGAIN and the play repeated?! Seriously. That actually happened. The Soviets promptly in-bounded the ball with a quasi-miracle pass to a player down the court, who cashed the basket for the win.

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The ball dropped through the hoop to give the USSR a controversial 51-50 victory. (Photograph: Rich Clarkson/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)

The subsequent protests were in vain, and the Americans were handed their first loss ever at the Olympic games.

For the first time in history, the US athletes refused to accept their medals and boycotted the ceremony.

The infamous ’72 silver medals have never been claimed to this day.

Some players have famously written in their wills, that these silver medals are never to be obtained by their heirs.

In a newsworthy twist of fate, the Americans would avenge this devastating loss eight years later on the ice, at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

THE BAREFOOT WONDER

“With the English Kiley, there’s the Irishman Messipy [Messitt], the Belgian Van der Blicher, the Morrocans Rhadi and Saudy, and there’s that unknown Ethiopian we saw earlier,” announced the commentator. “He’s called Abebe Bikila. He’s barefoot.”

When an unknown, last-minute replacement, stepped up to run the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome, many only took notice initially because he raced without shoes. That’s right… He started a 42.195 km race barefoot, through the streets of Italy.

In what is clearly one of the most amazing stories in 20th Century sports lore, Adebe Bikila won the race. Not only did he win while running barefoot, he ran a time that was 7 minutes and 47 seconds better than Emil Zátopek’s Olympic record. Bikila absolutely smashed it like the barefoot wonder that he was.

Poetically, it was the first commercially broadcast Olympics that saw an athlete flex the first ever sneaker sponsorship. Madison Avenue was licking their greedy little chops at the possibilities of future sneaker sales, when this unknown legend comes along and obliterates the Olympic record in the 1960 marathon without wearing any shoes.

Are you truly understanding and absorbing this story properly?

Abebe, a 28-year-old member of Emperor Haile Selassie’s bodyguard, won the marathon gold medal while running barefoot.

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24 years after his country’s capital was conquered by Italy, Ethiopia’s Bikila became the first black African to win gold by spinning the universe on it’s head, and capturing the hearts of true competitors for all of eternity.

This remarkable victory marked the rise and future dominance of East African middle, and long-distance runners, against the vastly better funded and better equipped Soviet, US and European athletes… Bikila ran his name and that of his country into history.

THE LOCOMOTIVE

Before there was Bikila, there was Zátopek.

Diving into the Emil Zátopek story is nothing short of amazing for any sports fan, regardless of your fabric.

Of all the stories I researched, this one is incredibly mesmerizing. It captures your imagination and pushes you to the point of irrelevance when it comes to athletic preparation, training, and execution.

Emil Zátopek was the absolute business in distance running. Zátopek is the only runner to win the 5,000m, the 10,000m and the marathon at the same Olympic Games. He went undefeated in his first 38 races over 10,000m from 1948 through to 1954, and is recognized as one the greatest runners of all time.

The Czechoslovakian born legend essentially invented interval training. He would famously train in terrible conditions (while wearing his army boots), so that the race would be a much more pleasant experience. Zátopek dropped this little pearl of wisdom on the world, “It’s at the borders of pain and suffering that the men are separated from the boys.”

Zátopek had never officially competed in a marathon when he rocked up to the event in Helsinki at the 1952 Olympic games. Mind you, this was after he had already won the 5,000 and 10,000m races earlier that week. Like a cartoon character, Zátopek introduces himself to the pre-race favourite Jim Peters (British world record holder), and then races along side him for a gruelling first 15 km. As legend would have it, Zátopek asked Peters what he thought of the pace? Peters notoriously responded that it was “Too Slow” in an attempt to burn the Czech out, at which point Zátopek simply accelerated. Peters did not finish, while Zátopek won the race and set an Olympic record.

His legendary training sessions were rumoured to once have included 100 – 400m intervals in the same day. Later in his career, after marrying a fellow Czech Olympian, he would train by running with his wife on his back. Inevitably, that led to a hernia, but it definitely wasn’t for a lack of trying. Zátopek encapsulated everything about heart and desire when it came to his passion for training. He was truly one for the ages.

A legend in his time, the Zátopek household was full of life, and hosted many over the years. He embodied the true spirit of competition and was melded into the image of what the Olympics should represent. The Czech Locomotive was all heart. He was rumoured to have given one of his gold medals to a fellow competitor in later years who had never won one.

Zátopek’s training methods were slightly extreme, but to this day, nobody has accomplished the heroics of the ’52 Helsinki Zátopek hat-trick, and nobody [probably] ever will.

In February 2013, the editors of Runner’s World Magazine selected him as the ‘Greatest Runner of All Time.’

Eventually, everyone sells out and needs some shoes, except for maybe Adebe Bikila.

I’ll leave you with an Adidas spot featuring the late, great Emil Zátopek, who left this world on the 22nd of November in 2000, to go and run daily Sub-2 marathons in the afterlife.

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For more on the 2016 Summer Olympics, check out Episode 6 of our weekly podcast:

 

Follow author:  Phil_Jones2020

 

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