Mutaz Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy had been friends for a decade since meeting at the world junior championships in Canada. Their track & field careers had paralleled each other, including potentially devastating ankle injuries. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, they tied for height in the high jump. An Olympic official came over to talk to them about a jump-off, but Barshim asked “Can we have two gold?” My name’s…
So the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics happened the other week, complete with 33 sports and 339 events, including four news sports and two discontinued sports brought back from the dead. That’s the funny thing about the Olympic games — the games themselves change almost every time. In terms of new events, you might have seen the karate, skateboarding, sport climbing, or surfing — you might have, but I didn’t. What I saw of the Olympics was mostly clips on my favorite meme site. The resurrected sports were baseball and softball, which was last seen at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Int’l Olympic Committee has decided to make a commitment to the youth by bringing sports to them in urban environments, which is a pretty new point of view for the IOC, as well as to increase engagement from youth fans that are passionate about different sports from all over the world, or dispassionate about sports as a whole. These sports are also, not coincidentally, popular in Japan.
So who decides what stays and what goes? That would be the aforementioned International Olympic Committee. They oversee all aspects of the Olympic Games –they runnin’ it, in the common parlance. Of the organization’s 99 members, many are former athletes or current leaders in athletics who hail from all over the world. Bonus fact: one of the founders of BWW was a lifelong figure skater who served on the IOC for a time. The IOC’s Executive Board proposes which sports will be included and the rest of the IOC votes on them. The IOC is also in charge of deciding what criteria must be met in order for a sport to be included.
A sport must cut certain muster to sway voters. There are five factors, split into a further 35 criteria. The criteria include how long the sport has existed; how popular the sport is in the host country; how much it would cost to broadcast the events, and how much value the sport would add to the Olympics legacy; that one’s going to come up again in a minute. Sports must also be governed by an international sports federation and must comply with both the Olympic Charter and the World Anti-Doping Code. I’m more in the Tommy Tiernan camp, “Ireland should be for the Olympics and we’ll let them take whatever drug they want. If somebody wants to run the 100m in half a second, let him! I wanna see him slow down before he gets to the bendy bit.” That’s from this special Something Mental, which I recommend heartily. But it’s not just the IOC calling the shots. A host city can also play a role in the decision, and push for a particular sport for the year that they are hosting. I cannot cite a stronger or more surprising example than the next summer games, 2024 in Paris, which will see the debut of breakdancing as an Olympic sport. They’re upwards of 40 years late for that if you ask me.
Before I go any further, a point of clarification. Sport and event are not interchangeable terms. For example, swimming in a sport, whereas the 100m freestyle and 200m breaststroke are events. Events come and go not infrequently, but it’s more rare for an entire sport to be removed. Since the first modern Games in 1896, 10 sports have disappeared completely from the Olympic schedule — croquet, cricket, Jeu de Paume, a kind of tennis, pelota, a sort of ancestral jai alai, polo, roque, another form of croquet, rackets, tug-of-war, lacrosse, and motor boating. Not that kind, with an actual boat. For a complete list of defunct events, check out the show notes or website for the link. Recently, four sports have staged comebacks: golf and rugby were voted back in as official sports for Rio 2016, and baseball and softball returned for Tokyo 2020.
While some events stage a comeback, some are gone seemingly for good and for good riddance. Like solo synchronized swimming, which I first became aware of from a famous comedian’s lazy joke about it. The exclusively-female event sees swimmers, either in pairs or groups of eight, dancing in the water in perfect unison and floating in such ways as you can’t credit. Solo synchronised swimming was deemed worthy of inclusion in the ‘84, ‘88 and ‘92 games. So what are you doing if you’re doing that solo? Who are you synchronized to? It is surprising that it took the organizers three Olympics to realize that a person swimming alone cannot be synchronized with anyone else. Another aquatic event that got the ax was the plunge for distance. Swimmers would dive into the water, but they weren’t judged on that. Neither were they judged for the speed with which they swam. They were only judged on how far their dive took them before they broke the surface of the water or one minute elapsed. The record here is 62.5ft/19m, set at the very first meet, because it was also the *last one. This event was only done once, at the fairly bonkers 1904 games in St Louis, which you can hear more of in the early episode Amazing Races, also linked in the show notes.
There was one event that needs to come back because it sounds like freaking Ninja Warrior, the 200m obstacle race. Swimmers had to climb up a pole, clamber over a row of boats and swim under another row of boats. This event also happened only once, in Paris in 1900, in the Seine, which was appropriate enough for such an insane event. That year was also the only time you could see horse long jump and horse high jump. I’m not a huge fan of equestrian sports as a rule, but at least it beats dressage. Why don’t I like the horsey stuff? Because the horse doesn’t get the medal, when they did all the work.
Animal-based events have a surprising history in the Olympics. Take for instance live pigeon shooting, again in Paris. Was there ergot in the rye or something? No, you know what, it was probably the absinthe. That explains it. 300 pigeons were killed in the event, 21 by the gold medal winner. Thankfully this was the only time in Olympic history when animals were killed on purpose… as opposed to the 1988 games in Seoul, where beautiful white doves of peace were released, many of whom decided to perch on the giant torch cauldron thingie and whoosh! All you can eat wings. Bonus fact: Doves are pigeons and pigeons are doves. Both names refer to the 308 species of the Columbidae family. One long-gone event that *sounds like animal cruelty but wasn’t was the running deer shooting. Once you’ve seen the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting, you’re probably like sure, why not, let’s shoot some deer while one or both of us is running. The deer here were exclusively inanimate deer-shaped targets.
If you’re the kind of person who says “I’ll consider hunting a sport when the animals have guns,” good news! In this next event, everybody’s got a gun, because in Stockholm in 1912, pistol dueling was an Olympic event. It wasn’t quite as exciting as it sounds, as participants weren’t actually firing at each other. More’s the pity, it might have drawn a bigger crowd. Instead, the competitors drew down on a mannequin dressed in a fine coat; duelling was a gentleman’s pursuit, after all. In case you were thinking shooting-based events had been phased out, 15 gold medals were awarded for shooting events at the 2012 games in London.
Perhaps the weirdest, least Olympic-y Olympic event was, in their defense, a trial run, but y’all, it was poodle trimming. Guess which games this happened at. Cough Paris cough. A crowd of 6,000 spectators watched 128 competitors try to clip the fur off as many poodles as they could in two hours. Good friend of mine who worked as a dog groomer told me poodles take twice as long as other breeds, though schnauzers have hairs like needles when it’s time to sweep up. The event raises so many questions. How did they control for the size of the dogs? Or their temperments? And also, why were they even considering this as an event? Were they all equally docile? And, most importantly, why in God’s name were they doing this? Not that winner Avril Lafoule minded, after winning gold with a total of 17 clipped poodles. Beat that, Tokyo. Can you imagine what the grounds, and everyone’s trousers, were like after that? A nod to my lovely listeners in Old Blighty, that I said trousers instead of pants, since pants are underwear in British English.
The event that really makes me make faces like a meme is race-walking. Race walking. It’s power walking, plain and simple, just like old folks do at the mall when it opens and what middle-ages women in my neighborhood do, always carrying a big stick. I’ve lived in this house for 20 years and have never encountered an aggressive dog running loose…oh wait, maybe the stick is for the other neighbors. Nevermind. Carry on with your activities, ladies. Like other events, race walking has strict rules. “Maintain contact with the ground and straighten their front knee when the foot makes contact with the ground, keeping it straightened until the knee passes under the body.” If the judges see both feet off the ground, even by a smidge, that’s a penalty. Still though, race walking. shake my damn head
One thing that’s remained the same throughout the modern Olympics since some folks in 1896 thought it would be a keen idea to do that Greek sport tourney thing, but with Victorian clothes on. That thing is sportsmanship, to be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat. It’s supposed to be the point of the whole multi-billion dollar global affair. This year has had some great examples, lots of the vanquished sincerely celebrating for and with the champions, and I’m a sucker for feel-good news clips on social media. But some athlete’s good character goes well beyond saying ‘good game, good game.’
At the 1988 Games in Seoul, Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux was zipping right along, making good time, even though the seas were exceptionally rough. He had at least the silver on lock, when, about halfway through the race, Lemieux heard cries for help. in the near distance were two Singaporean sailors competing in a different event nearby and had capsized. One sailor was clinging desperately to the boat, the other was being swept away by the current. Instead of staying in his race, Lemieux set course for the sailors, pulled them out of the water, and waited for rescue boats to arrive. By the time rescue came, he’d fallen to 23rd place. Lemieux’s bravery did not go unrewarded; the Olympic committee gave him the Pierre de Coubertin medal, a special award for sportsmanship named for the founder of the modern Olympics. Lemieux wasn’t the only boat-based athlete to stop for someone else’s benefit. In the Amsterdam games, 1928 Australian rower Henry Pearche stopped midway through a quarterfinal race to allow a family of ducks to cross his path, and he still won the gold medal.
The first recipient of the Pierre de Coubertin medal was Italian bobsledder Eugenio Monti and rightfully so. During the 1964 Olympic Winter Games, he helped not one, but two opposing teams in need. His first act of sportsmanship came in the two-man event when British bobsledders suffered a broken axel bolt in their first run. Monti lent them one of his spare bolts. The Brits ended up winning the gold medal, while Monti and his partner came in third. During the four-man event that followed, the Canadian team piloted by Vic Emery suffered damage to their rear axel. Monti offered up his own crew of mechanics to fix it for them. In a similar fate, Canada went on to win gold while the Italian team took home another bronze.
MIDROLL 14:20-17:20ish — reviews Vinyled
The Way Things Used to Be
First book review in three months: laurel millaci
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Full of wonderful facts
Audiobook coming soon
Informative & Delightful
Looking for conversation starters at your next dinner party or wanting to enhance your trivia skills? Welcome to Your Brain on Facts! I adore Moxie and her informative way of delivering insightful truths. She has some funny side commentary too (joking about her height, where she’s from, her family, and other real life issues). I feel like a better person when I listen to her delightful 30 minute episodes. She feels like a friend rather than a lecturer. Also, the music is the definition of easy listening— it won’t deter you from the theme of the episode. Keep making the world a smarter place, Moxie! Thank you from down under!
Excellent for fact lovers. Moxie has just the perfect voice for audio work too!
CTA, ask listeners for VO referrals
Sky of our Ancestors
There are so many Olympic athletes with amazing stories, you could spend a lifetime telling them, but there’s one man in particular I want to spotlight, an amazing natural athlete who could place in sports he’d never practiced, Wa-Tho-Huk, which means “Bright Path,” but you’ve probably heard his legal name, Jim Thorpe, once called the greatest athlete in the world.
Jim Thorpe was born around May 28, 1887, probably (he didn’t have a birth certificate) in a small one-room cabin near the town of Prague, Oklahoma –we’re not really sure because the area was still Indian territory– to parents of the Sac-and-Fox Nation, who were both mixed white and Native. Jim grew up on Native American land fishing, hunting, playing sports, and learning from tribal elders. A poor, but happy childhood lasted about 9 years, until Jim’s twin brother died from pneumonia. You’d be heartless to begrudge young Jim his acting out and running away, which resulted in him being sent to an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas. If you scroll your podcast app all the way back to August 2018, before I even used episode numbers, to the episode Stolen Innocents, you can learn more about Indian schools, as well as other real bummers that are important to know. A few years after losing his twin brother, his mother dies while giving birth. Shortly thereafter, his father died as well.
Now an orphan, Jim fled his hometown and began attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which was founded for the purpose of integrating Native Americans into the American way of life by “eliminating their Indianness.” It was there that a 17-year old, depressed Jim Thorpe walked by the school’s track & field practice on the way back to his dorm. He saw all the boys running and jumping and later said he thought to himself “I can do that better than they can.” That was when the 5’8” Thorpe saw some upperclassmen practicing the high jump with the bar set at 5’9’. Thorpe cleared the bar with ease, despite the fact that he was wearing overalls. The next day, he was approached by Carlisle’s head track and football coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner. Thorpe was worried that he was in trouble for something, but Warner told him “Son, you’ve only broken the school record in the high jump, that’s all.”
Warner helped Thorpe become a multi-sport superstar in high school and later in college. He dominated the high jump, lacrosse, baseball, football, and even ballroom dancing, winning the intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. I wanna make a “Bo knows” reference here, but I feel old enough as it is. Thorpe was unstoppable with a football in his hands, leading his football team to the NCAA championship. While playing running back, defensive back, placekicker, and punter, he scored a record 25 touchdowns that season. He began to get national attention, but his star really started rising with the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.
Thorpe qualified in four different events: high jump, naturalment, long jump, pentathlon, which is 5 events, and the decathlon, which is 10, the 100 meter, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meter, 110 meter hurdle, discus throw, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500 meter. He had a lot on, is all I’m saying. He won gold when he won four of the five events of the pentathlon: long jump, discus throw, sprint, and wrestling. The only reason he didn’t win the javelin was because he’d never competed in it before. Being the preternaturally natural athlete that he was, Thorpe still took third in javelin. That same day, he finished fourth and seventh in the individual events of long jump and high jump, respectively. Why the sudden drop in placings? Some time during the night or early morning, an unknown miscreant stole his shoes. He wasn’t going to not compete, and Thorpe managed to find some more in a garbage bin. Note that I referred to them as ‘some,’ not ‘a pair.’ They were different shoes, of two different sizes, and two different ways of not really fitting. But he made it work! It was in the decathlon that really cemented Jim Thorpe’s legacy. He destroyed the competition, setting a record score that would stand for 15 years and ranks highly to this day. Legend has it that upon receiving the gold medal at the medal stand, King Gustav of Sweden told him “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” Jim, always modest, reportedly replied “Thanks, King.” Whether the story is true or not, this has led to the tradition of dubbing the Olympic decathlon winner the “World’s Greatest Athlete.”
Thorpe arrived home from the Olympics to a hero’s welcome, now one of the world’s most famous athletes. Not one to sit about, Shortly thereafter, he broke the Amateur Athletic Union’s All-Around Championship record by winning seven of the ten events in their competition and placing second in the three he didn’t win. He had the admiration of the masses and the respect of many of his peers, but it was time for another unnecessary dramatic twist. Several months after Thorpe’s gold medal wins in the Olympics, a report uncovered that Thorpe had been paid to play minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910. That salary of $2 a game violated the Olympics strict rule against professional athletes competing and the Olympic committee threw the book at Thorpe and stripped him of his gold medals. This was, in this reporter’s opinion, bullshit, since the book in question stated that protests had to be made “within 30 days from the closing ceremonies of the games and the first newspaper reports did not appear until six months after the Games had ended. On the plus side, it did attract the attention of a shed load of professional sports teams.
Upon being asked why he did it, Thorpe wrote: “I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own name.” A week later, our comeback kid signed with the New York Giants to play pro baseball. He was out of practice with baseball and got off to a rocky start. While the crowds did come to see him, Thorpe felt more like a sideshow than an actual contributing player, but baseball was the only sport at the time one could actually make a living playing. Thorpe chose to continue on with baseball until 1919, playing for the Giants, Reds, and Braves. In 1920, at the age of 33, he went back to playing football, eventually becoming the first president of the American Football League, the predecessor NFL. He even played pro basketball for three years.
Bonus fact: Jim Thorpe was 37 before he became a US citizen. What a minute? you say. I know. The US govt didn’t consider the *Native Americans to be citizens until an act of Congress that year. By the age of 41, Jim Thorpe’s athletic career was over and the time in his day previously occupied by sports was now occupied by alcohol. He took odd jobs and did some acting, living quietly until heart failure shuffled him off at age 65.
Over the years, supporters of Thorpe attempted to have his Olympic titles reinstated, but were repelled from the gates each time. Two prominent names in the effort were author Robert Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon. Wheeler and Ridlon established the Jim Thorpe Foundation and gained support from the U.S. Congress. Armed with that support and evidence of the 30-day objection time having been up, they succeeded in making the case to the IOC. The good news is, In October 1982, the IOC Executive Committee approved Thorpe’s reinstatement. The bad news is, the IOC declared Thorpe *co-champion with the athletes who got the medals, athletes who went on record supporting Thorpe. The following January, the IOC presented two of Thorpe’s adult children with commemorative medals. Not the original medals, sadly, as those had been stolen from the museum where they were being kept. The fight’s not over, though. In July 2020, a petition began circulating calling for the IOC to reinstate Thorpe as the sole winner in his events in the 1912 Olympics. The petition is backed by Pictureworks Entertainment, which is making a film about Thorpe called Bright Path, but in keeping with the tradition of thorns on the rose, it seems to be trapped in pre-production limbo.
And that’s… When Barshim asked about joint gold, he looked at Tamberi, Tamberi looked at him, and they immediately agreed and Tamberi lept into Barshim’s arm. Medal sharing is rare, but it also happened at the 1936 Berlin Games, when Japanese pole vaulters Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Ōe tied for second place. Ōe agreed to the bronze while Nishida took the silver. Upon their return to Japan, they had a jeweler cut their medals in half, swap the halves and fuse them back together, creating half-silver, half-bronze medals, known now as the “Medals of Friendship.” Remember…Thanks…