A Brief History of Olympic Defectors

Buda Mendes // Getty Images
Buda Mendes // Getty Images

For some athletes, the Olympics aren’t just a competition: they’re a chance to escape oppression. Earlier this week, seven of Cameroon’s athletes disappeared from London’s Olympic Village. The week before, three runners from Sudan’s Olympic training squad filed for asylum in Britain. Here’s a look at some other Olympic defections.

1948 Summer Olympics: London

Marie Provaznikova, a Czech who was President of the International Gymnastics Federation, was the first person to defect from the Olympics. Czechoslovakia had recently become a satellite of the Soviet Union, and Provaznikova knew her country wouldn’t be the same. She darted to the United States, where she later taught gymnastics. Provaznikova lived in the U.S. until 1991, dying at age 101.

1956 Summer Olympics: Melbourne

In 1956, Hungary flew 83 athletes to Melbourne, Australia. While their plane took off, the streets of Budapest cracked with the sound of gunfire: Hungarians were revolting against Soviet rule. By the time the Games were over, the Soviets had crushed the opposition. When the team heard the news, only 38 athletes decided to ride the plane back home. Most of the other athletes defected to America and settled in California.

1964 Winter Olympics: Innsbruck, Austria

While her team wined and dined, Ute Gaehler, an alternate for East Germany’s toboggan team, ran for the border. One night, as her team was celebrating at a reception, Gaehler slipped out of her living quarters and fled for West Germany. She made it safely. The AP reports that 13 fans from “Eastern European Communist countries” also escaped.

1964 Summer Olympics: Tokyo

Two Hungarian athletes—a canoeist and a marksman—defected in 1964 and later found sanctuary in the United States. Both fled because Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had been ousted from office. Khrushchev was one of the USSR’s least repressive rulers, and the Hungarians feared that life back home would change for the worse.

1968 Summer Olympics: Mexico City

1968 was the first time summer athletes had to take “sex verification tests.” The controversial tests stirred up some noise, helping Cuban tennis player Juan Campos quietly defect to Mexico amid the ruckus.

1972 Summer Olympics: Munich

According to the Associated Press, 117 people defected at the Munich games. However, there is little information on who they were, where they were from, and where they went.

1976 Summer Olympics: Montreal

In 1976, four Romanians and one Russian sought refuge in Canada. One of the defectors was Sergei Nemtsanov, a 17-year-old Russian diver. The head of the Soviet Olympic squad claimed that “unidentified terrorists” had kidnapped Nemtsanov and brainwashed him to “embrace freedom.” In reality, Nemtsanov had fallen in love with a female diver from Cincinnati and was hiding with a family in Ontario. He eventually had to revoke his defection, and he left brokenhearted.

1980 Summer Olympics: Moscow

The road to Moscow was paved with deserters, primarily because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Many Afghani athletes feared going to Moscow and jumped ship to avoid it. A month before the games, seven members of the basketball team fled to Pakistan. A day before the Olympic flight, seven wrestlers also left for Pakistan. Five more players defected during the games, some fleeing to America, others to West Germany.

1984 Summer Olympics: Los Angeles

In 1984, a San Diego newspaper hired Romanian sportswriter Vladimir Moraru as a translator. When the games finished, Moraru decided that he liked the San Diego sun. The Romanian writer asked for, and received, political asylum.

1996 Summer Olympics: Atlanta

When Iraqi weightlifter Raid Ahmed went to Atlanta, he carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony. A week later, he rejected that same flag and defected to the U.S. Ahmed vocally opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he feared execution. Afghanistan’s flag bearer, boxer Jawid Aman Mukhamad, had the same problem: Afghan officials accused him of being a communist (Mukhamad had trained in Russia). Scared for his life, he acquired refugee status in Canada.

An Explosive History of the T-Shirt Cannon

Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images
Tom Szczerbowski, Getty Images

As the mascot for the San Antonio Spurs from 1983 to 2004, Tim Derk—also known as the Coyote—was constantly looking for ways to make the live game experience better for fans. In addition to dancing, antagonizing players, and engaging with attendees, Derk did what many mascots do to raise morale: He gave the crowd free stuff.

Shirts, hats, and other apparel were tossed out on a regular basis, though the gifts were limited to the ability of a mascot’s throwing arm. Which meant that fans seated in the upper bleachers didn’t get much of anything, except maybe a nosebleed.

Derk and the other mascots used huge rubber bands to propel shirts to those people seated higher up in the stands, but even those had limited range. Then, in the 1990s, Derk and his peers decided to become apparel arms dealers. They designed and fabricated a massive, 90-pound cast-iron pipe 4 feet in length that used the pneumatic principle to blast T-shirts into the air and into the arms of fans.

Once Derk strapped it on for an appearance during a game as “Rambote,” sports would never be the same again.

The T-shirt cannon can be traced back to Britain during World War II, when sailors on commercial freighter ships were left vulnerable after their anti-aircraft weapons had been rerouted to warships. Desperate to protect themselves from enemy attack, the sailors adopted a weapon developed by the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. Dubbed a Holman Projector, it could shoot projectiles out of a tube using steam from the ship’s boiler.

Rugby mascot Captain Hurricane (L) stands near former Hurricanes player Norm Hewitt (R) as he fires a T-shirt cannon at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand in May 2018
Hagen Hopkins, Getty Images

Sailors usually lobbed grenades in this manner, but when they weren’t under direct threat—which was most of the time—they loaded the gun with less-lethal ammunition, like potatoes. When Winston Churchill observed a demonstration and someone forgot the grenades, operators used beer bottles instead.

Without a wartime steam boiler, people still felt a need to launch projectiles. Contemporary “spud launchers” use compressed gas, usually carbon dioxide, that is delivered into an air tank. When the trigger is pulled, the gas is released all at once, and the energy shoots whatever’s in the barrel. That can be a potato, a paintball pellet, or a rolled-up T-shirt.

Derk was intrigued by the concept of the spud launcher and adopted it for clothing. When he began brandishing his T-shirt cannon, other mascots quickly followed suit. Kenn Solomon, also known as Rocky the Mountain Lion—a mascot cheering on the Denver Nuggets—had a friend build him one after seeing Derk’s. Solomon also got involved in selling them commercially. Pretty soon, the device was in heavy use across the NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL organizations, growing smaller and lighter with each passing year. Once 90 pounds, the cannons now weigh as little as two pounds.

This T-shirt arms race grew to include multi-barrel guns like Big Bella, a 600-pound behemoth which debuted in 2012 at a Philadelphia 76ers game and could fire 100 shirts every 60 seconds. Not to be outdone, the Milwaukee Bucks introduced a triple-barreled gun powerful enough to propel vests and jackets. The Army’s football team built a tiny T-shirt tank.

Rumble, the mascot for the Oklahoma City Thunder, fires a T-shirt cannon at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in May 2016
J Pat Carter, Getty Images

Despite having a relatively innocuous payload, these guns have not always brought joy to attendees. In 2018, a mascot named Chip at the University of Colorado-Boulder suffered an injury when a T-shirt cannon malfunctioned, shooting him in the groin. (The video, of course, went viral.) That same year, a fan named Jennifer Harughty claimed that Orbit, the mascot for the Houston Astros, shot her with a T-shirt and shattered her finger, necessitating surgery. In 2019, Alex Swanson was at Citi Field for a New York Mets game and alleged that a shirt struck him in the eye and knocked him unconscious. Both sued the respective teams.

Derk surely had no idea there would be the occasional mishap, nor could he have predicted someone might misappropriate the gun for other purposes. In 2019, a woman named Kerri Jo Hickman was arrested after being caught while trying to deliver contraband—cell phones, chargers, ear buds, and drugs—by shooting it over the fence of North Folk Correction Center in Sayre, Oklahoma, with a T-shirt cannon.

A Show of Support: The Creators of the Sports Bra Are Now in the National Inventors Hall of Fame

jacoblund/iStock via Getty Images
jacoblund/iStock via Getty Images

In 1977, Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller, and Polly Smith wanted to find a way to make exercise more comfortable for women. So they sewed two jockstraps together to create a prototype for what would become known as the sports bra, and revolutionized the fitness apparel industry in the process. Brands like Nike, Champion, and Under Armour all market versions of the trio's invention. And now all three of them will be cementing their place in history with membership in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

According to WCAX, the three Vermont residents—who named their creation the Jogbra—were honored during a ceremony at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week for their work on the bra, which had a radical impact on the health of women.

The idea initially came from Lindahl, an avid runner living in Burlington, Vermont, who found that conventional bras lacked the support or design that would make physical exertion comfortable. She wanted a bra with stable straps, breathable fabric, and compression. So she asked Smith, a childhood friend and costume designer, for help.

Smith sewed two men’s athletic supporters together, which Lindahl tested while running. Later, the garment was modified with non-chafing seams and an elastic band for support. Lindahl partnered with Miller to co-found Jogbra Inc. in 1977, with the garment being patented in 1979. The sports bra market grew into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and their invention is credited with helping millions of women take up running.

Lindahl was CEO of Jogbra until it was sold to Playtex in 1990. Miller stayed with the company through 1997 and later became a Vermont state senator. Smith became a designer for the Jim Henson Company and earned seven daytime Emmys.

The three women will also be honored in May in Washington, D.C. for the Greatest Celebration of American Innovation event.

[h/t WCAX]

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