Leon de Lunden of Belgium won the live pigeon shooting event at the 1900 Olympics in Paris
Leon de Lunden of Belgium won the live pigeon shooting event at the 1900 Olympics in Paris

Up in the air they flew – 8,000 pigeons released into the piercing blue sky, free as a….um….bird.

Many remember the Summer Games in 1964 for the moment pigeons filled the National Stadium during the Opening Ceremony. Not many remember the Summer Games in 1900 for the moment when pigeons were blown out of the sky.

Hard as it may be to believe, pigeon shooting was an Olympic sport at the Games in Paris 115 years ago. The Olympian would stand at the ready with a rifle when pigeons were released in front of him. About 300 pigeons were shot down dead in what must have been a grisly messy event. The gold medalist was Leon de Lunden of Belgian with 21 kills. The silver and bronze medalists shot down 20 and 18 respectively, as part of a total 300 birds killed.

Pigeon shooting was replaced by clay pigeon shooting at the 1904 Games in St Louis, Missouri.

Clay Pigeons is also the name of my favorite Blaze Foley song.

No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

We don’t all let loose that mighty yalp in victory, jump on the pile, brother upon brother, bonding with a screaming universe that borders on the spiritual.

We sometimes go inwards, burrowing towards the source of the volcano, feeling the rumble grow. But we won’t show you. This moment isn’t for you.

When I read this passage below in “All Together“, by William Stowe, about his eight-man crew’s victory at theAll Together US trials for the chance to bring Olympic Gold back to America, I am reminded of the film “Miracle“, about the stunning 1980 victory of the men’s US ice hockey team over the USSR. In this scene, just after play-by-play announcer Al Michaels screams “Yes!”, the coach of the team, the legendary Herb Brooks, finds his way to the end of the bench, smiles at his wife, and then vanishes alone into the passageway under the stands.

He is alone. He is feeling the rumble grow. And he is happy.

Stowe had a similar experience, 16 years earlier. As he writes, his team has pulled off a mammoth, and somewhat unexpected victory to win the US trials.

We were all basking in our victory and had no reason to hurry in packing up the boat for its return to Philadelphia. I could only think about getting the USA uniform and being a part of the American team. Later when I got to my car in the parking lot, I looked around and saw that no one was watching. Only then did I let out the victory whoop, the one I had been holding back for hours, and dance a victory jig. I had no conception of what we would have to do and how hard we would have to train to best represent America in the Olympic games three months hence. I simply was savoring the moment.

water_polo_aug08_main_631_jpg__800x600_q85_crop

On December 6, 1956, Hungary and the Soviet Union faced off in the pool at the Melbourne Olympic Games in arguably the most famous water polo match ever.

It was only a month earlier when a spontaneous uprising by Hungarians against their Soviet overlords throughout the country was crushed by tanks and troops from the USSR. And as the fickle finger of fate always has its way, Hungary ended up in a match with the Soviet Union in the Olympic water polo semifinals.

As this fascinating Smithsonian article explains, this was not just a water polo competition. This was war.

“Within the game’s first minute, a Russian player put a hammerlock on a Hungarian and was sent to the penalty box as the crowd jeered. A Hungarian player scored the first goal, punching a Russian player on the chin with a windmill motion while shooting. The Hungarians scored three more goals, including two by Zador. They taunted the Russians, who were being shut out and becoming increasingly frustrated. Two more Russians were sent to the penalty box after slugging Hungarian players.”

Freedom's FuryThe picture up top is of Emil Zador, who was punched at the end of the match as he turned his head away from the competition for a moment, his bloodied visage a reminder that the removal of politics from the Olympic Games was a whack-a-mole experience at best.

But even more amazing than that picture is the film from that match! Here is a clip from the 2006 documentary, Freedom’s Fury, narrated by Mark Spitz. In addition to interviews of the players from that game are the spellbinding images of grappling and punching in the pool.

Hungary would go on to beat Yugoslavia to win gold. Emil Zador, the famous bloody face, stayed

Ron Clarke at Melbourne OlympicsAt the tender age of 18, Ron Clarke carried the Olympic torch through the Melbourne Cricket Ground up the steps to light the Olympic cauldron. Clarke would go on to break 17 world records in middle distance running, as well as take the bronze medal in the 10,000 meter race in Tokyo in 1964.

The self-described “accountant who also runs”, had a reputation for being a sportsman, and would go on to become the mayor of Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Here is a film clip of Ron Clarke showing his training routine as he prepared for competition in Europe before flying over to Tokyo for the 1964 Games, where he would captain the Australian athletics team.

New York Times, October 16, 1964
New York Times, October 16, 1964

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was at the height of his influence and powers in 1960. At the kickoff of the Olympic Summer Games in Rome, he released a letter to all Olympians that grew feelings of good will towards the Soviet Union.

Rome 1960_MaranissAs David Maraniss wrote in his brilliant book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, “Khrushchev’s message was meant not just for the Soviets but for all athletes gathered in Rome, even if it was boilerplate Soviet rhetoric… ‘The Olympic Games were worthy because they improved brotherly contact among sportsmen of different countries,’ he noted, concluding: ‘I wish all sportsmen taking part the best success in sports as well as in work, studies, and their private lives.’”

Maraniss emphasized that “American diplomats had been frustrated for days by the seeming propaganda coup the Soviets gained when newspapers around the world reported on the message of peace and friendship that Premier Khrushchev sent to the Olympians in Rome.”

Khruschev, in the summer of 1960, was heading to New York City to address the United Nations, and he was at the top of his game.

But four years later, at the end of the first week of the Tokyo Summer Games, the world learned that one of the most powerful men in the world was deposed. As Ron Barak, US gymnast at the 1964 Games related to me, it was all a bit of a mystery.

“The day in the Village began like any other day during that two-week period. Then people began noticing the Soviets were gone. No one had witnessed their departure and until they returned late in the day, no one knew what was behind it. But there

Admit it. You’ve done it. Maybe it was at an Independence Day picnic in America, or a company offsite in Penang. You got down and dirty, strained every sinew in your body, and pulled that rope as if your life depended on it. If you had strength and rhythm on your side, you basked in glory as your enemy fell splashing into the mud pit.

Tug of war.

If you were a slave to the boob tube in America in the 1970s, then you watched “Battle of the Stars”, a program where teams of actors and celebrities competed against each other in athletic competitions, the highlight being the tug of war.

There was a time when nations competed for medals at the Olympics in this contest of strength and teamwork: gold and glory was won by a combined team from Denmark and Sweden in Paris in 1900, by the US in 1904 in St Louis, by Great Britain in London in 1908, by Sweden in Stockholm in 1912, and by Great Britain again in Antwerp in 1920.

1920 Olympics_tug of warBut ever since 1920, Olympic tug of war went the way of the horse and buggy.

One hundred years later, the tug of war is attempting a comeback. According to NBC OlympicTalk, tug of war is one of 26 sports hoping to be included