Olympic Urban Legends Revealed #11

This is the eleventh in a series of examinations of urban legends related to the Olympics and whether they are true or false. Today, discover how the Olympics brought the world Epson printers, learn whether the Ancient Olympians were actually “amateurs” and marvel at the strange “drug” that led to the first ever athlete to be banned from the Olympics for using an illegal substance.

Click here to view an archive of all the previous Olympic urban legends.

Let’s begin!

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: The Olympics led to a watch company becoming one of the largest printer manufacturers in the world.

STATUS: True

The development of new technologies has had a dramatic effect on the world of sports over the years. Take the development of video technology for television broadcasts of sports games. The ability to watch a play again instantly has come to affect pretty much every major U.S. sport. While some professional leagues have been slow to accept it, the usage of instant replay to decide close plays is now a part of most U.S. sports and is only becoming more important as the years go by (note the National Football League added a rule for the 2011 season that all scoring plays are now automatically reviewed on video to see if they were proper scores). While that is an example of a technology that was developed independent of sports being adapted to the world of sports, there are other technological advancements that were examples of athletes having a need that someone developed a technology to address. For instance, Dr. Frank Jobe inventing a procedure where he removes a tendon from one part of a pitcher’s body and uses it to replace a damaged one in a pitcher’s elbow (the so-called “Tommy John Surgery”) would have sounded like science fiction in the early days of baseball, but the procedure has saved countless careers that otherwise would have been lost. Current pitchers as varied as John Axford, AJ Burnett, Shawn Marcum, Stephen Strasburg, Brian Wilson and CJ Wilson all would likely not be Major Leaguers now if it were not for Jobe’s procedure.

The connection between the sports need and the development of Tommy John Surgery is a bit obvious. Much less obvious, though, is the fact that the world of sports also led to the creation of the modern day desktop printer. Read on to learn how sports turned a watch company into one of the leading manufacturers of desktop printers in the world.

Throughout much of the history of the Olympic Games, the Olympics’ time-keeping needs had been met mostly by Swiss watch companies, mostly famously the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (SSIH) Group, manufacturers of the Omega timepiece. Now part of the Swatch Group, the makers of the Omega timepiece were the official timekeepers for the most recent Olympics. Of course, things have changed a little bit since their first Olympics in 1932. Back then, they sent over a watchmaker and three dozen or so stopwatches. For the 2010 Olympics, they provided over 200 timekeeping personnel and over 200 tons of timing equipment. The major difference in those days as opposed to now is that electronic timekeeping was not used. In fact, electronic scores were not officially used for all Olympic events until the 1968 Games. Before then, it literally was a person with a stopwatch keeping time. This slowly began to change in the late 1950s/early 1960s with the advent of using computers to track time. For the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo, Japan, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected a Japanese company, Suwa Seikosha Co., Ltd, manufacturers of Seiko watches, to be the official timekeeper of the Olympics. The corporation had formed a subsidiary called Shinshu Seiki Co. to develop precision parts for their watches. It was this subsidiary that was taxed with an important duty for the 1964 Games. You see, if they were going to track some of the events with electronic timekeeping, they would need to have access to those scores right away. So they were forced to come up with a way to print out the scores on to paper. Therefore, the company developed a portable electronic printer that they could use to print out their times. This was not the only innovation debuted by the company at the 1964 Games. They also introduced new quartz timing technology and advanced liquid crystal displays (LCD) that were major success for the company in their products for years to come. However, the quartz and LCD technology were natural evolutions of their timekeeping products. Their new printing technology, though, was very much an offshoot.

After the Games, though, the company realized the utility of the printing device that they had just invented. Electronic printers had certainly existed at this point (Xerox and IBM both made them), but they tended to be quite larger. So Shinshu Seiki began manufacturing their compact electronic printer in 1968. It was called the EP-101.

By 1975, they had a new subsidiary called Epson America (“son” of the EP printer) that specialized in micro-computer parts like their small electronic printers. Initially, they sold their printers to other companies who included them with their products, but soon Epson began selling their own printers and devices. Their dot matrix printer released in 1978 was a smash success.

Their printing technology became a major part of calculators of the era, allowing print calculators and cash registers to get smaller and smaller. Obviously, over the years, the technology that made them so avant garde in the 1960s and 1970s became out-of-date, but by this time they had already become one of the world’s largest printer companies (and had adapted to the new printer technologies, like inkjet printing). In 1982, Shinshu Seiki re-named itself the Epson Corporation and eventually it merged with Suwa Seikosha Co. in 1985 to form Seiko Epson, which the company remains known as to this day.

And all because they needed a way to print out their scores for the Olympics. Pretty darn cool.

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: Athletes during the Ancient Greek Olympic Games were amateurs.

STATUS: False

Until the 1970s, competition in the Olympic Games were reserved for amateur athletes, which in this sense is defined strictly as “athletes who do not get paid to perform their sport.” Slowly but surely various Olympic sports relaxed their rules to allow for professionals to compete in the Olympics and today, there are few Olympic events that only allow amateurs to compete in them (boxing is a notable exception). The rules perserving the Olympics as an “amateurs only” event were quite strict during the early days of the modern Olympics. Not only could you have never received any monetary prizes for your athletic achievements, but you would be barred (in theory, at least) for working as a sports teacher or if you had ever performed against professional athletes, even if you yourself were not paid for the event. The most famous example of this rule being enforced is Olympic legend Jim Thorpe, who had his medals from the 1912 Olympic Games revoked in 1913 because it was discovered that he had played some semi-professional baseball during the summer while in college (a fairly common practice for college athletes, although unlike Thorpe, most thought to use pseudonyms). When these rules were devised for the Olympics, it was the tradition of the Ancient Greek Olympics that were cited. Avery Brundage, longtime President of the International Olympic Committe (IOC), once wrote, “The amateur code, coming to us from antiquity, contributed to and strengthed by the noblest aspirations of great men of each generation, embraces the highest moral laws. No philosophy, no religion, preaches loftier sentiments.” Was Brundage correct? Did the the amateur code come from the Ancient Greek Games? Or were its origins slightly less noble in nature?

First off, the term “amateur” did not exist in the days of the Greeks. The word comes from a French derivation of a Latin word (amator, meaning “lover”). It is defined as “lover of” and in practice, it means someone who does something because they love it, not because of money. Someone who does something because of money would be a “professional.” Therefore, the term is a bit difficult to apply to sports because pretty much every notable athlete out there does, indeed, compete because of a love for the sport. If Kobe Bryant were not getting paid $25,000,000 a year to play basketball, he would still play basketball. If there were no such thing as a professional basketball league, guys like Bryant and other NBA stars would simply play basketball as amateurs. We already saw it happen in the United States before professional leagues began – people just played in amateur leagues. So if you are going strictly by the “lover of” definition of amateur, then yes, the Ancient Greek athletes were, indeed, amateurs. However, that is not the definition people like Avery Brundage were going by when they established strict rules about monetary rewards for athletes. They were referring to the notion that getting paid for your sport means that you are not an amateur.

And here, there is no support in Olympic history. Olympic athletes during the Ancient Olympic Games were well compensated for their efforts.

Victories in the Olympic Games were cause for what we would call today “bragging rights” between the various Greek city-states, and this heated competition soon resulted in increasing levels of compensation for the participants. In 600 B.C., a winning athlete from Athens was given 500 drachma, an enormous sum – enough that he could theoretically live off of it for the rest of his life. By 200 B.C., Greek athletes had formed professional athletic guilds similar to today’s Players Associations for the various professional sports. In fact, professionalism in the Olympic Games were so widespread that they even drew criticism back then from observers who noted that the financial rewards of the Games were causing young Greek men to shirk their other studies to concentrate on athletics, resulting in these men becoming worse soldiers and scholars.

So no, the idea of extolling the virtues of athletes who are not compensated for their performances was not an Ancient Greek idea. In fact, the notion was developed far more recently, in Victorian England, by men like Dr William Penny Brookes, founder of the Much Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850. Brookes’ attempt to resurrect the Olympic Games inspired similar efforts, like John Hulley and Charles Melly’s Liverpool Olympics in 1862 (organized with input from Brookes). These games caused a movement that eventually led to Pierre de Coubertin’s successful attempt to start the Modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens. Brookes’ ideas regarding amateurism (which was “athletes should not be paid for their efforts”) remained the standard for all the other games of the era and ultimately became the standard adopted by the Olympics. However, this standard seemed less interested in celebrating the nobility of “playing for the love of the game” so much as they were celebrating the nobility of, well, the nobility. As who in the world could afford to pursue such unpaid athletic endeavors? Why, the wealthy of course. This led to such arduous rules such as competitors being barred from amateur competitions if they were or ever had been employed as “a mechanic, artisan or labourer.” As an example, I wrote in an old Sports Legend about the difficulties the great British rower Bobby Pearce went through to be able to compete in British’s Diamond Challenge Sculls amateur rowing competition because he worked as a carpenter.

Eventually, these standards were relaxed and we reached the point today where we can watch the actual best athletes in the world compete against each other in most Olympic events. And whether they are millionaires or Home Depot workers, rest assured that they are all competing for the love of sport, and the noble aspirations Brundage talked about in the past are being met.

Thanks to John A. Davis’ The Olympic Games Effect and Kristine Toohey and Anthony J. Veal’s The Olympic Games for their work on this topic.

OLYMPIC URBAN LEGEND: The first Olympian banned for using illegal substances was an athlete who drank two beers before an event.

STATUS: True

In 1967, the the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally decided to begin to crack down on athletes using illegal substances at the Olympic Games. They did not have to wait long before they had their first infraction. At the 1968 Olympics, Swedish pentathlete Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall was disqualified.

Liljenwall was competing in the 1968 Olympics as part of Sweden’s team in the team pentathlon (they came in fourth in 1964). The group finished third and won the bronze. However, they were all stripped of their medals because their teammate, Liljenwall, was discovered to have an illegal substance in his blood.

Amazingly enough, it turned out that Liljenwall’s illegal substance was alcohol! He drank two beers before the pistol shooting part of the competition to steady his nerves. Fourteen other athletes tested positive for tranquilizers in the 1968 Olympics, but they were not banned at the time, while alcohol was. Alcohol, meanwhile, is no longer on the list of banned substances at the Olympics (except for some select sports, and even then, only during the actual event).

So two beers led to the first disqualification over illegal substances in Olympic history. I don’t mean to suggest that what Liljenwall did was not foolish, as it was (and I am sure he would admit to that, as well – and you could make the argument that while the beer almost certainly did NOT help him, he THOUGHT that it did, which is the issue), but it just seems funny that the first disqualification did not come for steroids or amphetamines or anything like that, but just for two beers. So for using something that would not even get him banned today, Liljenwall forever has to be known as the first Olympic athlete to ever be disqualified for using a banned substance. Rough stuff.

Okay, that’s it for this edition of Olympic Urban Legends Revealed!

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

-Brian Cronin

5 Responses to “Olympic Urban Legends Revealed #11”

  1. The first sentence below Liljenwall’s picture should probably say 1968 Olympics. There was no Olympics in 1958.

  2. Brian Cronin on May 4th, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    Indeed!

    Thanks.

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