As we've come to know them, the Olympic Games are generally marked by all-out effort, serious officiating, precise timekeeping and strict regulations. This hasn't always been the case. From the start of their 19th-century renaissance until the mid-20th century, the Games seemed to have had a touch of slapdash zaniness, where disorganization resulted in everything from disappearing athletes to marathon runners drinking champagne on the course. Norwegian curling team pants aside, contemporary Olympics are a far less wacky affair. Here are some of the wildest moments from Games past.
1. Zaniness ensues
Tunisia’s modern pentathlon performance at the 1960 Rome Games reads more like a primer in slapstick than an Olympic event. All three competitors were removed from the shooting event for firing too close to the judges, they all fell off their horses in the show riding section, and one of them came close to drowning in the swimming division. When it came to the fencing portion, the only team member who had experience was sent out three times, disguised by his mask, pretending to be each of the three team members. Needless to say, the team was disqualified.
2. Wrong-way runner
Near the end of marathon of the 1908 London Games, South African prison officer Charles Hefferon, leading the pack, accepted a glass of champagne from a fan. The bubbly caused him to vomit, allowing Italian pastry chef Dorando Pietri to take the lead. Pietri entered the stadium so discombobulated that he began running the wrong way, and had to be redirected by officials. He collapsed four times in the last 200 yards and required assistance to cross the line. He was proclaimed the winner, but was then disqualified for the help he received, giving American Johnny Hayes the gold and bubbly-drinker Hefferon the silver.
3. Sporting verse
Fancy Frenchman Pierre de Frédy, the Baron de Coubertin, served as the second president of the International Olympic Committee, and is generally considered the father of the modern Olympics. In 1912, when art competitions were introduced at the Stockholm Games, the French aristocrat entered his poem, "Ode to Sport," and won the gold medal for literature! The art competitions — comprised of art inspired by sport in the disciplines of architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture — were discontinued in 1952.
4. The never-ending match
Estonian wrestler Martin Klein competed for the Russia Empire in the 1912 Games, and his silver medal in the middleweight class earned Estonia its first medal — ever. And hard earned it was. In the semifinal against Finnish contender Alfred Asikainen, the two wrestled for a whopping 11 hours and 40 minutes, making it the longest wrestling match ever recorded. When it came time for the finals the following day, Klein was understandably too spent to attain the gold.
5. Sink or swim, win the heat
Although this moment of zaniness is more recent, its definitely one for the books. At the 2000 Sydney Games, Eric Moussambani from Equatorial Guinea found himself swimming his 100-meter freestyle heat alone when the other competitors were disqualified for false start. After struggling through the swim and nearly sinking at the end, his time of 1:52.72 was more than a minute slower than competitive times. Turns out he had only been swimming for eight months and had only trained in a 20-meter hotel pool. His perseverance and chutzpah made him a cult hero. Look for him as coach of the Equatorial Guinea swim team during London 2012.
6. Sir, I challenge you to a duel
France’s 1924 Olympics brought us Johnny Weismuller, "Chariots of Fire," and a whole lot of old-fashioned dueling for honor. Seven fencing events were contested in all, resulting in two instances of “taking it outside.” Aldolfo Contronei, the captain of the Italian foil team, fought Giorgio Santelli, the son of the Hungarian Olympic team’s coach, Italo Santelli. The duel was fought away from the Games with heavy sabers. Four months later another duel was hatched when a Hungarian judge fought one of the Italian team members, Oreste Puliti.
7. Just another game of golf
American Margaret Abbott was visiting Paris with her mother during the 1900 Olympics when mom and daughter entered a nine-hole golf tournament. The event was so disorganized that the duo, as well as other competitors, never knew it was part of the Games. It wasn’t until after her death in 1955 that historians discovered that the event was indeed on the Olympic program. USA’s first-ever female gold medalist died never having known she had competed!
8. Knock on wood
American gymnast George Eyser won an impressive six medals (three gold, two silver, one bronze) during a single day of the 1904 St. Louis Games. Even more impressive, he only had one leg. Fitted with a wooden prosthesis after being hit by a train, Eyser was still able to compete — even in the vault event, which at the time involved jumping over a long horse without the use of a springboard.
9. Missing: Marathon runner, if found…
Sounding more like a plot line from a mystery novel rather than the Olympics, Japanese marathon runner Shizo Kanakuri had a curious adventure during the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm. Having lost consciousness during the run due to the heat, he was revived and taken in by a farming family until he recuperated. He never finished the event, and returned to Japan without notifying the Games — but Swedish officials had no idea what happened to him. He was finally tracked down in 1966 and was presented with an offer to complete the run. He accepted and completed the marathon. His time: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 8 hours, 32 minutes and 20.379 seconds.