Olympic Urban Legends Revealed #2

This is the second in a series of examinations of legends related to the Olympics and whether they are true or false.

This installment is a re-format edition, so these legends have already been posted on this site, just not in this format.

Let’s begin!

OLYMPIC LEGEND: The Olympic Torch Relay was started by the Nazis.

STATUS: True

The Olympic Flame has long been associated with the Olympics. During the Ancient Greek Olympics, flames would be kept lit all throughout the Games.

The practice of the Olympic Flame did not originally return with the return of the (now World) Olympic Games in 1896.

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The 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam returned the practice of lighting an Olympic Torch, but the torch was simply lit in Amsterdam.

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The modern Olympic Torch relay is NOT something that occurred in Ancient Greece.

Rather, the current relay is an invention of Dr. Carl Diem, the Minister of German Sports for the Nazis and the Head of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin (note that Diem was the head of German Sports BEFORE the Nazis, as well – and had actually been named in charge of the Olympic Games before Hitler even came to power).

He thought it would be a dramatic opening to the Games and Adolf Hitler heartily agreed. Hitler felt that the Ancient Greeks were forebears to the Aryans, and thought that having the Flame transported from Olympia to Berlin would demonstrate that quite nicely.

Filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl filmed the relay.

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Really, it’s amazing that something that feels like such an ancient tradition was started as recently as 1936, and started as Nazi propaganda!

OLYMPIC LEGEND: Olympic skiier Picabo Street was named after the game “Peek-a-boo.”

STATUS: I’m Going With False

Picabo Street (born in 1971) is one of, if not the, most famous female skiiers in United States history.

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Besides her successes in the Skiing World Championships (which include a Gold Medal in 1996 in the Downhill), Street is most famous for her successes at the Winter Olympics. She first burst on to the national scene in the 1994 Winter Olympics, where the 23-year-old won the Silver Medal in the Downhill. Personable and pretty, Street was the kind of athlete with tremendous “crossover” potential, potential she capitalized on in 1998, when she won the Gold Medal on the Super G (a sort of combination of downhill and slalom skiing). The 27-year-old soon was making appearance seemingly everywhere and endorsed a number of products.

Perhaps the thing that was the most peculiar about the young skiier was her name – Picabo.

Soon, a story came about that she was named after the children’s game, “Peek-a-Boo” (where an adult or older child looks at a baby, covers their (the older player) face with their hands, then uncovers their face and says “Peek-a-boo!” to the baby, who gets a great deal of amusement out of the exchange. Yes, I just defined “Peek-a-boo!” – what can I say, I’m thorough!).

The story is not exactly true, but the real story is perhaps even odder than that.

Street’s parents, Stubby and Dee, decided to raise their family in a slightly unconventional way. In 1967, they moved to the small rural town of Triumph, Idaho. When Street was born, they decided that they were going to let her pick her OWN name, and not be so presumptuous as to tell her what her name would be. So for the first two years of her life, she was known only as “Little Girl.”

Nearby their home in Triumph was a town called Picabo, named after the Picabo Tribe. Stubby was aware of this town when, in 1973, Street’s parents were forced to give her a name so that they could get her a U.S. Passport for a trip to Mexico. According to Stubby, while playing Peek-A-Boo with “Little Girl,” he thought of the town and said, basically, “Hey, that’d be a nice name!”

So they named her Picabo, but when she was four years old, they told her that she could change her name if she’d like to whatever she wanted. She chose to stick with Picabo, and the rest, as they say, is history.
OLYMPIC LEGEND: Dan O’Brien missed out on competing in the 1992 Olympics due to an act of pride.

STATUS: Essentially True

Dan O’Brien is one of the greatest decathlete of all time.

His single season points record of 8,891 (set IN 1992, of all years!) was the world record for seven years, and still remains the United States record.

His drive to win is world renowned.

However, that very same drive to win might have led to his downfall in 1992.

Leading up to the 1992 Olympics, the sneaker company Reebok turned two little-known decathletes, Dave Johnson and Dan O’Brien (both from Oregon) into national stars, via Reebok’s “Dan vs. Dave” commercials.

The amusing commercials depicted the two men at various states of their lives, and played up the rivalry between the two personable, fairly evenly matched competitors (although O’Brien was the slight favorite), as they both seemed to be good bets for winning the Gold Medals at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barecelona, Spain.

Here’s a sampling of their commercials…

Sadly, though, Dave Johnson suffered a stress fracture in his foot at the beginning of the Olympics in 1992. He persevered, though, and simply got himself a larger sneaker, tied it tight and competed on the broken foot and came in third place, winning the Bronze Medal!

O’Brien, however, did not even QUALIFY for the 1992 Olympics!

First off, it is noteworthy to point out that a lot of countries out there don’t even HAVE trials to decide who gets to go to the Olympics. They just pick who they feel are their best athletes and that’s it. The United States, however, forces everyone to earn their way on to the team, even if it means that their best athletes get left off because they had bad days.

O’Brien’s bad day occurred at the U.S. trials at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, where O’Brien failed to clear the pole vault in his three given tries, leaving him with zero points in an event he figured to get over 800 points in.

The real reason that O’Brien failed to make the cut was simple bad luck. He just happened to not clear the bars. It was at a height, 15 feet 9 inches, that he COULD clear and HAS cleared before (in fact, he only recently before the trials had cleared 16 feet 1 inch).

However, the fact of the matter is that 15 feet 9 inches IS pretty darn tall, and it was at a height where he did not NEED it to be to qualify. O’Brien would have qualified for the Olympics if he had cleared anything over 9 feet 2 1/4 inches. And O’Brien certainly knew that he only needed to clear a nominal height. He ALSO knew that to pass Johnson, he would likely need a high height.

O’Brien did not want to just QUALIFY, he wanted to beat Johnson and also hope to set a new World Record in the decathlon, so he could not try for the lower heights.

And so he was eliminated.

In 1996, he was back, with only one concession – in the trials he attempted a 15 foot 1 inch poll vault instead of 15 feet 9 inches. O’Brien went on to convincingly win the Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

So, when it boils down to it, did Dan O’Brien miss out on the Olympics because of pride?

In a roundabout way, I say True

Thanks to bostonnewsarchives for the commercial clips!

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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