This is the tenth in a series of examinations of legends related to the Olympics and whether they are true or false. Today, learn the bizarre tale of how Johnny “Tarzan” Weismuller faked his identity to compete in the 1924 Olympics, discover the even more bizarre tale of how the Olympic torch was blown out in 1976!
Click here to view an archive of all the previous Olympic urban legends.
OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller took on a fake identity so he could represent the United States in the 1924 Olympics.
Followers of U.S. politics surely know of the controversy that surrounded President Barack Obama and his birth certificate throughout his pursuit (and attainment) of the highest elected office in the United States. “Prove you were born in America” was a common refrain from certain circles (heck, even after the President did reveal his birth certificate that has not stopped some folks who still believe he was born outside the United States). Eighty-eight years ago, there was another political “birther” topic, only it was about Chicago swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. In the days leading up to the qualification tournament for the 1924 United States Olympic swimming team, Illinois Representative Henry Riggs Rathbone expressed his doubts that Weissmuller, the swimming sensation (who later went on to become a film superstar as the portrayer of Tarzan on the screen), was born in the United States. Why won’t he produce a birth certificate? Was he eligible for the U.S. Olympic team? Obviously, the U.S. Olympic swimming team allowed Weissmuller to compete, since he won five Gold Medals for the U.S. in 1924 and 1928. But was Weissmuller a U.S. citizen when he won Olympic gold?
After becoming one of the most famous swimmers in the world, Weissmuller translated his success into being a spokesperson for BVD. He then turned that into a long series of hit films playing first Tarzan, King of the Jungle (it was Weissmuller’s films that debuted the legendary “Tarzan yell”) then Jungle Jim and finally just playing himself.
When Johnny Weissmuller died, his obituary listed Winber, Pennsylvania as his birthplace and that’s the answer Weissmuller gave everyone, including his five wives, three children and even his official biographer. At the height of his fame, the town celebrated their hometown hero in 1950 with a special day for Weissmuller (schools even closed for the day) and the Rev. Father MacKowiak presented Weissmuller with his church birth records, the same records that secured him a spot in the 1924 Olympic Games. But were they actually Johnny’s records?
Nope, they were not.
Weissmuller was actually born in 1904 in Freidorf (as Jonas/Johann), a suburb of the city Timişoara within the Banat region of what was then Hungary and is now Romania. When Weissmuller was an infant (not even a year old) his family emigrated to the United States. They settled in Pennsylvania where their second son, Petrus (Peter) was born in 1905 (in Windber).
The Weissmullers eventually moved to Chicago, where Johnny took up swimming. He dropped out of high school and was working odd jobs when swimming coach WIlliam Bachrach discovered him at the Illinois Athletic Club. He began training Johnny and eventually “debuted” Johnny in August 1921 when Weissmuller became a dominant swimmer. He actually had an undefeated record in official competition.
As his records and accolades began piling up in 1922 and 1923 (including breaking Duke Kahanamoku’s record in the 100 meter freestyle), attention naturally began to turn to the 1924 Olympics in Paris, France. Weissmuller’s grandmother made a bold decision to try to claim that Johnny was born and raised in Chicago, stating, “Johnny was born in Chicago, will be 20 years of age next June, and has no intention of being anything but an American citizen.” The Chicago Tribune went with the headline, “CAN’T BAR WEISS FROM OLYMPICS; WAS BORN HERE.” Rathbone backed off a bit, noting that it was possible Weissmuller WAS born in Chicago, but the fact remained that there was no evidence that he was and his family would not (or could not) deliver it.
With the Olympic trials fast approaching, the Weissmullers changed their tune. Johnny was not born in Chicago, he was born back in Windber. In fact, his younger brother Peter was actually his OLDER brother. The church records in Windber read “Petrus John Weissmuller,” but John has clearly been written in in another color pen with different handwriting.
Still, this was enough and Weissmuller was awarded a passport. Interestingly enough, I believe Weissmuller did not actually change his date of birth on the passport. I could be mistaken there.
An interesting aspect of this story is just how many people knew and just didn’t tell. For instance, all the people in Chicago who were friends with the family knew very well that this was untrue (particularly the ones who also emigrated from Hungary). Meanwhile, the people back home DEFINITELY knew, as they had his birth records! Still, no one wanted to make trouble for the Weissmullers, so they kept silent, even though I am sure a number of them felt that he was turning his back on his heritage.
It was those feelings of “hey, what about OUR connection to you?” that led to the truth coming out, as people began to publicly speak about the fact that birth records (and heck, all records) about Johnny and Peter told a different story than what was told in 1924. Weissmuller’s son had an interesting point when he wrote about it in his book about his father, that the amount of worry that Weissmuller had to deal with must have been quite extreme. They would most likely take away his six medals (three golds in 1924, two in 1928 and a bronze for water polo also in 1924) and his mother would suffer great shame. Not only that, but Weissmuller truly DID love the United States. He would go on and on about his great appreciation and love for “his” country, and the thought of having that identity taken away was likely frightening, so he kept it a secret right until his death.
But now the record is straight.
Thanks to Arlene Mueller’s Sports Illustrated article on the topic from 1984 plus Johnny Weissmuller Jr’s book about his father, Tarzan, My Father (written with W. Craig Reed).
OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: A cigarette lighter was once used to re-light the extinguished Olympic Flame.
While the interlocking rings that make up the Olympic flag are undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol of the Olympic Games, the Olympic Flame is certainly a close second. Representing the theft of fire from the Greek Gods by Prometheus, a fire was kept burning throughout the ancient Olympic Games. This tradition continues today, with a relay of the flame (typically via torch) from Olympia, Greece (home of the original Olympics) to wherever the current Games are being held. The handling of the Olympic Flame almost always goes off without a hitch. In 1976, however, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, there was one notable slip that was magnified by the well-meaning efforts of a quick-thinking plumber with a cigarette lighter.
While today the Olympic Flame is a major symbol for the Olympics (it is one of their most protected trademarks), when the modern Olympics began in 1896, there was no Olympic Flame. It was not until the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Netherlands that the Flame became a part of the Games once more. Amusingly enough, and demonstrating how little the event meant at the time, the first lighter of the Modern Olympic Flame was an unnamed employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam, who lit the flame in the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. Eight years later, with the Olympic Games being held in Berlin, Germany, the Nazis decided to introduce a torch relay. The Olympic Flame would be lit using a concave mirror in Olympia, Greece and transported via torch relay from Olympia to Berlin. This journey, which was over 3,187 kilometers long, was done by 3,331 runners running over twelve days and eleven nights. German propaganda filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, later staged the torch relay for her 1938 film, Olympia. Adolf Hitler felt that the Ancient Greeks were the forerunners to his modern Third Reich, and felt that such a relay was a bold expression of this idea.
While the relay did not have the most noble of starts, a good idea is a good idea, and the torch relay is a good idea, so it has been used in each Olympic Games (both Summer and Winter) ever since. As you might expect, as the years go by, the relay gets more and more elaborate. In the early days of the relay, the torch would be taken to the country where the games were being held and then the actual relay would begin. However, in recent years, more elaborate relays have taken place, likely set off by the 2004 Olympic Games, which were held in Athens, Greece. Since just taking the Flame from Olympia to Athens would not be particularly notable, it was determine instead to have the first global torch relay. A 78 day journey began, with the Olympic flame covering a distance of over 78,000 kilometers with over 11,3000 torchbearers. The relay passed through Africa and South America for the first time, and all previous Olympic cities were visited before returning to Athens to start the 2004 Summer Games. Since then, the 2008 Summer Olympic and the 2010 Youth Olympics have both traveled to multiple continents, as well.
In 1976, the flame was delivered from Greece to Canada through a particularly novel means of transportation. The Olympic Flame was lit through normal means and taken to Athens, where an electronic pulse derived from the flame was then transmitted via satellite from Athens to Ottawa, where this pulse arrived and was used to set off a laser beam that made a flame. This flame was then taken by hand from Ottawa to Montreal. After the early days where who lit the flame was not a big deal, it has become increasingly important to pick the “right” person to light the Olympic Cauldron where the flame will remain visible to the public throughout the Games (that is actually part of the rules – the flame must always remain visible, which was a problem in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, when the main stadium where the opening ceremonies were held, BC Place Stadium, was domed, so the Cauldron had to go in a nearby stadium where it would theoretically be visible even when the stadium was closed). The first celebrity to light the Olympic Flame was in 1952, during the Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland. Nine-time Olympic Gold Medalist Paavo Nurmi was given the honor of being the last person in the relay and the famed Olympic runner (who also won three Silver Medals) lit the Olympic Cauldron. In 1976, the lighters were two teenagers, Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, who were track and field athletes, one from “English Canada” and one from “French Canada,” to symbolize the unity between the two parts of Canada.
When the Flame is being transported, there are always backup torches lit from the same source. This is in case of accidental dousing. This way, a backup torch can be used so that the Flame still comes from the same Olympia source. In 2008, during their massive multi-continental torch relay, anti-Chinese protesters gathered at various points of the relay. In Paris, France and London, England, protesters (upset with China’s treatment of Tibet) tried to extinguish the flame repeatedly. The torch with the flame was carried in a high-tech aluminium device designed to withstand high winds and sabotage with fire extinguishers, but eventually the folks in charge of the relay decided it best to extinguish the flame and pick it back up later on in the journey (they actually had to extinguish it again later for the same reasons). However, since they had the backup flames, it was not a big deal.
In 1976, though, an unexpected cloud burst doused the flame at Olympic Stadium. The problem was that no one was around, because there were no games scheduled that day. The only people on scene were workmen. One of the men, a plumber named M. Pierre Bouchard, quickly rushed up the steps of the platform holding the Cauldron and used a cigarette lighter to light some pieces of newspaper, then used his ingenious little contraption to re-light the cauldron. Naturally, when Olympic officials were notified of the situation, they quickly rushed over and extinguished Bouchard’s make-shift Olympic Flame and used the backup torches to re-light the Flame.
While it is pretty humorous, it was also quite enterprising on Bouchard’s part!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org