Olympic Urban Legends Revealed #5

This is the fifth 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 idea of running a four minute mile was considered impossible before Roger Bannister did it in 1954.

STATUS: False

On May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister amazed and delighted the world when he became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds.

The former Olympic competitor (1952 Olympics, where he failed to medal) Bannister instantly became one of the most famous athletes in the world, and even today, his name is one of the more recognizable ones in sports history.

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One of the most standout aspects of his success was the idea that was being passed around at the time that what he did was “impossible.”

If you do a quick search for the 4 minute mile and “impossible,” you get quotes like:

“Before 1954, it seemed to be a physical barrier that humans could not cross. It was impossible.”

“Runners were told by scientists that it was physically impossible to run a mile under 4 minutes.”

“It was believed that the 4 minute mile was physically impossible. And it was commonly accepted. It was a fact.”

“Many philosophers and physiologists supposed that it was impossible for anybody to run that fast.”

“Before the 1950′s, running the mile in under four minutes was considered impossible.”

I think you get the gist of it.

This particular brand of thought is being brought about a lot lately due to the fact that it works well for a certain brand of philosophy, or, more specifically, a certain brand of “self-help” – to wit, everyone thought it was impossible, but then Bannister did it, and within FIFTY DAYS (forty-six, to be precise), Bannister’s record was broken, and THAT record was broken and so on and so forth (the current record in the mile is a shocking 3 minutes and 43.13 seconds, set by Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999). So the theory is that if you BELIEVE something is impossible, it is, so you only need to believe in yourself and your ability to achieve a goal, and you will be able to. Yadda yadda yadda.

So, at the heart of the matter, WAS the Four Minute Mile considered impossible?

There are really two answers to this one.

Yes, it WAS considered impossible – by the general public who were being fed the line constantly by sportswriters. And yes, there were scientists who proclaimed that it was impossible. But there were scientists who said that it WAS possible.

In the sport itself, though, it was deemed a sheer inevitability.

What people tend to gloss over is the fact that sports, as a whole, took a big hit from World War II, by way of athletes being involved in you know, World War II, rather than training to set new world records.

If you look at the progress of runners BEFORE the War, it was pretty evident that the four minute mile WAS going to be broken, it was just a matter of who did it. Heck, in 1942-1945, the record in the mile had already been shaved off by FIVE seconds down to just barely over four minutes. It just so happened that that 1945 record was held for longer than usual due to the War. The War through off the time tables, but by the early 1950s, Bannister and his peers all knew ONE of them would eventually run the four minute mile – it was just a matter of who would do it first.

So while yeah, sportswriters definitely did harp on the whole “it’s impossible!” thing frequently, and even some scientists got in on the act, ultimately, everyone involved knew it was possible.

NOTE: Yes, I did sort of stretch things to include Bannister here with the Olympic legends. He WAS an Olympian, though!

OLYMPIC LEGEND: Tara Lipinski stood on Tupperware as a 2-year-old to imitate the Gold Medal winners at the Olympic Games.

STATUS: True

First off, note that it is Tupperware with a capital “T.” I love that my spell-check is looking out for Tupperware’s trademark.

In any event, Tara Lipinski burst on to the world scene in 1997 when she won both the World AND the US Figure Skating Championships at the tender age of 14.

The International Skating Union actually ruled, in 1996, to make 15 the minimum age a skater had to be to compete. However, luckily for Lipinski, they grandfathered her in, so she was able to compete in 1997 at 14.

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The next year, Lipinski once again shocked the world by winning the Olympic Gold Medal for Figure Skating at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

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Lipinski soon went pro.

After a few injuries, her pro career finished and nowadays, she’s pursuing a career in acting and personality work in Los Angeles.

Okay, the legend about Lipinski is a difficult one to pin down, because it involves conflicting reports from her parents, Jack and Pat Lipinksi.

As the story goes, when Tara was 2 years old and the 1984 Summer Olympics were on, she was enthralled by the award ceremonies, so when they went to step on the podium, she wanted to stand on one of her own, so her mother supplied her with a Tupperware podium.

The story changed a lot over the years, with one very popular variation being that it happened when she was 6 years old in 1988, and that it was the WINTER Olympics watching Katarina Witt.

However, the biggest problem the story has is that Tara’s father was quoted in 1997 about the story (which was a popular one even before she won Olympic Gold, although at the time, the story went that she made a podium out of boxes) saying:

It was actually two years ago. And it was Tupperware not boxes. It was the Summer Games. Every time some anthem would be playing, she would stand on a Tupperware bowl.

He continued:

It makes me look bad, the story about the boxes. It was like I was already at that age pushing her to be champion.

In Lipinski’s biography, she repeats the 2-year-old claim.

A couple of years ago, a fan asked her pretty point blank about the confusion between 12 years old (which would be her age if it had happened, like her father said, “two years ago”) and 2 (the fan actually says 3, but I think that’s just confusion) in an online Q&A, and Lipinski answered:

I was actually 2 years old when this happened and this story has been misinterpreted over the years. My mom was watching the 1984 Summer Olympics. When the athletes were on the podium and the anthems were playing, I wanted to copy them. That’s when my mom gave me some Tupperware to stand on.

This is a tough one, but I think I’m going to side with Tara (her mother has also repeated the 2-year-old part) against her father. In fact, I think that there’s a decent chance that he was misquoted and instead of saying “2 years ago” (which wouldn’t even work, as there was no Olympic Games in 1995) he actually said “she was 2 years old.”

A 12-year-old competitive skater sitting on Tupperware pretending to win a medal in 1995 (when there were no Olympics)?

That doesn’t make nearly as much sense as a 2 year old standing on Tupperware mimicking the people she saw on TV in 1984 (when there were Olympics).

So, I’m going with true!

OLYMPIC LEGEND: A German man was ordered to pretend to a woman to win a medal for Germany in the 1936 Summer Olympics.

STATUS: True

As we’ve discussed in the past, Adolf Hitler was really into the idea of Germany hosting the Olympics in 1936. He looked at the Olympics as a perfect way to show the world that Germany was made of the finest stock in the world.

A problem for Hitler was that in the 1932 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles, the United States took home 102 medals (41 gold) while Germany only won 20 medals (3 gold).

Hitler began a grand undertaking to ensure that Germany would be the leading medal winners when Germany hosted the Games in 1936, and Hitler was successful, as Germany took home 89 medals to the United States’ second place finish of 56 (33 golds to 24 in favor of Germany).

However, one such attempt to bring home a medal was a bit…peculiar, to say the least.

An eighteen year old German male named Hermann Ratjen was asked by the Nazi Youth movement to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics in the Women’s High Jump.

He did so, and competed in the Games as Dora Ratjen.

According to fellow German high jumper Gretel Bergmann:

I never suspected anything. I just said, ‘She’s kind of weird’ but she was a nice kid. We got along very well.

I never looked when she undressed or most likely she never got undressed in front of me completely. We had this huge shower room and we all took showers in there and she never came in, always went into this little room which had a bath. That was supposed to be off-limits, but she went in there.

All the girls thought she was a little unusual – pretty deep voice – and they made fun of her.

Amazingly enough, the ploy did not even work, as Ratjen came in fourth in the competition!

Ratjen continued to compete as a woman, but coming back from the European Championships in 1938 (where he set a new World’s Record in the Women’s High Jump) he was discovered, due to two women noticing he had five o’clock shadow.

He was barred from the sport (naturally).

Crazy stuff.

Thanks to Christopher Hilton’s piece in The Independent for the Bergmann quotes!

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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