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Thinking about the Olympics, we wondered why there were no motorcycling events—races, of course, and maybe something like polo. After all, there were unfamiliar events in earlier years, like tug-of-war. In Paris at the 1900 Olympics, Danish journalist Edgar Aaybe was covering the games. Denmark and Sweden together fielded a team in the tug-of-war event. Short a man, the team asked Aaybe to join them. They won!
At least Bob Garrett was an Olympic athlete—the favorite in shot put—when he decided to enter another event back in 1896. He picked up a discus from the ground at the training center. He threw it just for fun. When it went a long way, he decided to enter the event. His form was so ridiculous that the crowd and the other competitors laughed at him. He joined right in. (Those were different days, for sure.) On some throws he just missed hitting those watching. However, on his last try, the discus landed nineteen centimeters ahead of his best competitor and Garrett won!
Two British students were in Sweden on a fishing trip in 1912, when the Games were in Stockholm. On a whim, they entered the fifteen-hundred meter race as private citizens—can’t do that now, either. Arnold Jackson won the gold and Philip Noel-Baker came in sixth. In 1920, Noel-Baker raced again and won a silver medal. After a career as a statesman, he returned to Stockholm in 1959—as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Billy Mills is another medalist who seems an unlikely winner. The Native American athlete grew up on a South Dakota reservation. Orphaned at age twelve, his running ability earned him a college scholarship, but not until he was in the Marines did he get the coaching he needed. At the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, he was just one of the pack—until that unforgettable sprint at the end of the race earned him the Gold. He’s the only American to win the 10,000 meters. Since then, he’s brought inspiration and hope to thousands of Native Americans, especially children. His work earned the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2012.
In the 1988 games, Canadian sailor Lawrence Lemieux had the silver medal squarely in his sights when he saw a capsized boat. The two men who’d been in it were struggling in heavy seas and dangerous winds. Lemieux left the race, saved the men, handed them off to a rescue boat, and still managed to beat eleven competitors to the finish line. He received a special award for his selfless heroism.
Some Olympians personify courage. Kerri Strug was nineteen and on the American women’s gymnastics team at the 1996 Olympics. The Magnificent Seven, as they were called after a promising start, were down to the wire against the Russian team; the Russians had taken the gold since 1948. Strug had injured her ankle on her first dismount, but now she needed to do well to insure the win. Despite intense pain, she completed her routine and stuck the landing. Then she collapsed and was hospitalized with a serious ankle sprain and tendon damage.
It seems every Games has its own examples of humor and of courage. But no motorcycles. Let’s see: trick riding teams, hill climb, downhill slalom…