The spectacle of sport, the purity of semi-amateur competition, the glorification of graft and corruption, the mockery of Russian culture, and sparkly figure skating outfits: the winter olympics are here, rousing the trivia roundup from a wintry hibernation. Strap on the skates and do a double Salchow, triple axel, bunny hop, waltz jump, ballet jump, mazurka, stag jump, walley jump, flip jump, toe walley, half loop, half flip, falling leaf, delayed axel, toe loop, or toeless lutz…
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1. Olympics often feature “demonstration” sports, that so badly want to be accepted. Some highlights of these forgotten noble pursuits:
- Bandy! Bandy is like a cross between hockey and soccer. The rink is four times the size of a standard hockey rink, players use short, stubby sticks to push a ball around, there are eleven players a side, and goalies have no stick, leaving them defenseless. Dating back around 200 years to a time when it was mysteriously called “hockey on the ice,” bandy is popular in Nordic countries and Russia, where it is considered a national sport. In the US, bandy is bandied almost exclusively in Minnesota.
- Military patrol is the winter triathlon: cross-country ski, rifle shooting, and ski mountaineering. Ski mountaineering should be called reverse skiing, as it requires going up the mountain. Last demonstrated in 1948.
- Skijoring involves a person on skis pulled by dogs or horses, last demonstrated. A related “sport” is yak skiing, which is really more of a tourist gimmick at certain Indian resorts. A yak on top of a hill is connected via pulley to a skiier at the bottom. The skiier taunts the yak with a bucket of delicious nuts, and the yak charges downhill. The skiier is thus expedited to the summit with all the haste and zeal of an ill-tempered yak rolling downhill. There’s also yak polo—exactly what it sounds like—which is a tourist attraction in Mongolia.
- Ski ballet, also called acro-ski, combines the rhythm and acrobatics of figure skating and ice dancing with skis. Its brief moment of fame came at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics. Richard Lewis put on quite a show:
Notable ski balletists include Suzy Chaffee—you might remember her from such films as Ski Lift to Death, Fire and Ice, Alpine Barrens, and Escape from Ski Lift Mountain (the first two are real). A 1968 Olympian in downhill skiing, multiple-time world champion, and National Ski Hall of Famer, Chafee was/is also a social activist who advocated for the passage of Title IX, was the first woman to serve on the USOC, and founded an organization promoting Native American athletes. Unfortunately for a woman of such accomplishment, she took up ski ballet after retiring from downhill racing, endorsed Chapstick, and is now better known across the world as Suzy Chapstick.
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2. Chapstick was invented in the late 1800s by Virginia pharmacist CB Fleet. Having found little purchase on chapped lips, Fleet headed for a very different orifice and began producing laxatives, enemas, and douches—still sold today, and with a mascot no less (“Eneman”). In 1912, Chapstick was sold for the sum of $5. The addition of tube-based packaging turned it into a bestseller, and would later lead to Nixon’s downfall: Watergate “plumbers” hid microphones inside chapstick tubes.
Besides celebrity skier Suzy Chapstick, Chapstick also employed the endorsement services of basketball superstar Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who called himself “Dr. Chapstick.” Actual LipSmackers flavors include: moon rock candy, Ayer’s Rock candy, Aztec punch, puddin’ u on, rantin’ and raisin, espress-yo self, glazed and confused, rhythm and bluesberry, the last strawberry, buttercream, birthday cake, wedding cake, cupcake, and 2000 cookies. I have a lot of questions.
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3. Sonja Henie, born 1912, was a world-famous figure skater, actress, and the youngest person ever to be made a knight first class of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav. The daughter of a Norwegian furrier and cycling champion, Henie was a gifted athlete given the best in training and opportunities by her parents—she was also a skiier and equestrienne. After finishing a disappointing eighth in the 1924 Olympics, probably because she was 11 years old, she went on to win three consecutive gold medals, six consecutive European championships, and ten consecutive world championships. Having conquered sport by 24, she turned to Hollywood and was awarded a handsome contract, starring in “skating pictures” (you might remember her from such movies as Thin Ice, Happy Landing, Iceland, Wintertime, Broken Axels, Shattered Dreams: A Life in Figure Skating, and The Donner Party Musical). She courted controversy with an apparent admiration of Hitler, greeting him with a Nazi salute at the 1936 Olympics and keeping an autographed picture of him. She further courted controversy with a…volatile romantic life, including relationships with such luminaries as Tyrone Power, Van Johnson, Liberace (???), and the boxer Joe Louis. She died young, in 1969, of cancer.
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4. The very first winter olympics was held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. In additions to the medals for sporting events, there was one special prize: an award for alpinism, given to Brigadier General, the Honorable Charles Granville “Bruiser” Bruce. Born in 1866 as the youngest of fourteen children, Bruce was essentially a British version of the mythic hyper-masculinized caricature of Teddy Roosevelt. He spent his teen years being mentored by a renowned Welsh hunter, from whom he learned hunting, survivalism, and alcoholism. Even before entering college, Bruce was famed for running down a roughneck gang of poachers—their names listed in his memoirs as “Bill the Butcher, Shoni Kick-O-Top, Billie Blaen Llechau, Dick Shon Edwards, and Dai Brass-Knocker.” The gang is said to have gotten their revenge by robbing the gun room at Bruce’s family estate.
Bruce joined the army, was stationed in Punjab, and rose to the rank of brigadier general. There, he became a devotee of the local wrestling style and even had a wrestling pit dug near his house. A wrestling pit. He traveled to Switzerland to learn ice-climbing, trained his troops in mountain warfare, was severely wounded in Gallipoli during WWI, and in 1897 equipped his troops with short pants, theretofore a novelty in the British Army.
Military and poacher-bounty-hunting exploits aside, Bruce was also a mountaineer, having undertaken a series of exploratory (for the British) expeditions of Himalayan peaks. As he spoke fluent Nepalese, he was renowned for his ability to bridge the cultural divide between the Brits and Nepalese sherpas. He was subsequently chosen to lead the the 1922 Everest mission—it failed—and the 1924 Everest mission (also failed, probably—the two guys who made for the summit died, but no one’s sure if they died on their way up or down). Bruce never made the second trip, though, because right before the expedition was to leave, he CONTRACTED MALARIA WHILE TIGER HUNTING IN INDIA. He had to get stretchered out and recovered from the malaria, never again to attempt an Everest summit before dying of a stroke in 1939. Wikipedia describes him as a “superb raconteur and a font of bawdy stories,” which is on my short list of things I want on my tombstone, right after “saved 100 puppies from drowning following a tragic yachting accident and created the TV show Small Wonder.”
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5. Bruiser’s prize was awarded by the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, academic, and founder of the International Olympic Committee. Coubertin is largely responsible for the “branding” of the modern olympic games: his romanticization of Greek culture undergirds the promotional olympic message of peace, camaraderie, global participation, and amateur athletes. Most modern scholars, however, think these are misinterpretations of ancient Greek competition—which likely involved professional athletes, prized winning over participation, and did not prevent war so much as prevent athletes from being murdered while traveling to the games. More cynical arguments hold that the “amateur” requirement was only for marketing—to ensure the pro athletes that could afford time and training would not dominate the competition. Then again, what in the history of human culture hasn’t been an attempt to ensure the domination of the upper class?
Coubertin was a medal winner himself, taking home the 1912 olympic gold in literature (for his poem, Ode to Sport). Art competitions occasionally appeared in the Olympics until 1948; medals were awarded in a variety of categories including town planning, statues, reliefs, engravings and etchings, and epic works. In 1948 only, there was an “applied arts and crafts” category that—for some reason—awarded silver and bronze, but not gold medals. Clearly nothing worthy of that gold. Other works winning art medals include:
- Angry with Cider (1948 silver medal in dramatic works)
- Yachting Club Certificate (1936 bronze in commercial graphic art)
- Watersports Centre in Carinthia (1948 silver in architecture)
- Leg Scissors (1932 gold in painting/prints)