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Monday, September 28, 2009

History lesson: 10 things you might not know about the Olympics

On Friday, the International Olympic Committee will decide whether the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics will be Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid or Rio de Janeiro. Here are 10 facts about the five-ring circus:

1. Olympic sites are chosen by secret ballot, so we're not sure how London beat Paris for the 2012 Summer Olympics. But some blame French President Jacques Chirac, who insulted Britain before the vote by saying, "After Finland, it's the country with the worst food." France's bid wasn't getting British support anyway, but Finland had two IOC members, and some speculate that they were swing votes in the 54-50 outcome.

2. Tug-o-war made its last appearance as an Olympic sport in 1920.

3. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, decreed in his will that his heart be sent to the site of ancient Olympia in Greece, where it is kept in a monument. The rest of him was buried in Lausanne, Switzerland.

4. Chicago was supposed to host the 1904 Olympics, but St. Louis stole it away. The Games were a fiasco. Only 14 of 32 participants finished the marathon, which was held in 90-degree heat with a single water well at the 12-mile mark. Cuban marathoner Felix Carvajal, who lost his money in a craps game in New Orleans, hitchhiked to St. Louis and ran the race in street shoes. He stopped to chat with spectators and to steal apples from an orchard but still finished fourth. American Fred Lorz dropped out after nine miles, rode in a car for 11, then rejoined the race and crossed the finish line first, quickly admitting his hoax. The prize went to American Thomas Hicks, whose supporters gave him strychnine (a stimulant in low doses) and brandy -- the first known use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Olympics.

5. French athletes bent the rules at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics: Despite Prohibition, they were allowed wine with their meals.

6. George Patton, who would later become a famous U.S. general, competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics pentathlon, an event combining pistol shooting, swimming, fencing, cross country and steeplechase. Patton performed poorly in his best event -- pistols -- but shined in fencing, defeating the French army champion. Old Blood and Guts finished fifth overall, the only non-Swede to make the top seven.

7. The greatest star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics was the 10th child born to an Alabama sharecropper family named Owens. But he was not born with the name Jesse. He was called James Cleveland Owens, and as a child moved to his namesake city -- Cleveland. A teacher asked his name, and he said "J.C." The teacher thought he said "Jesse," and the boy was too polite to disagree. ( Mayor Richard Daley often cites Owens in pushing Chicago's bid, and indeed Owens was a Chicagoan, but only late in life. A dozen years after the Olympics, Owens settled here, and he is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side.)

8. Another great Olympian with Chicago ties was Johnny Weissmuller, the winner of five gold medals in swimming who later starred as Tarzan in the movies. Weissmuller swam brilliantly in the 1924 and '28 Olympics -- and also in the waters off Chicago's North Avenue Beach on a stormy day in July 1927. Weissmuller was training on the lakefront with his brother Peter when a sudden storm swamped the pleasure boat Favorite. The disaster killed 27 of the 71 people aboard -- mostly women and children -- but the Weissmuller brothers rescued 11 people.

9. No boxing was held at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics because the sport was illegal in Sweden.

10 . A study of the 2004 Athens Olympics found that athletes who wore red while competing in "combat sports" such as wrestling scored higher than opponents wearing blue.

SOURCES: "Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement," edited by John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle; "The Complete Book of the Olympics" by David Wallechinsky; "General Patton: A Soldier's Life" by Stanley Hirshson; "Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero" by David Fury; " Jesse Owens: An American Life" by William J. Baker; The Wall Street Journal; Tribune news services