14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Olympic Athletes

Getty
Getty

For every Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt—athletes who make history and sign lucrative endorsement deals—there are thousands of men and women who work every bit as hard for just a fraction of the recognition. The goal: to go down in history as having reached the pinnacle of physical performance in the Olympics, that universally recognized standard of excellence. Held every four years in both winter and summer iterations, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cap off years of training and join the world’s athletic elite.

Mental Floss spoke with several medalists about the realities of competing, from the surreal perks of Olympic Village (like all-you-can-eat McNuggets) to getting a tax bill for reaching the podium.

1. IT COSTS A SMALL FORTUNE TO GET READY.

While some teams or individuals in high-profile sports benefit from sponsorships or subsidized costs at the Olympics, the expense of training over a period of a decade or more to prepare for competition often falls on their own shoulders. Kyle Tress, a skeleton racer who rockets down a course face-first on a sled at 90 mph, estimates he spent well over $100,000 on the road to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. “It’s astronomical,” he says. “A competition sled alone costs well over $10,000, and you have to buy new runners at $1000 each. Then there’s travel. Some of these places, like a ski resort in France, aren’t easy to get to.”

2. THEIR FAMILIES SWAP OR SELL TICKETS.

Athletes are usually given a set number of tickets to their events, which may not match the number of friends, family, or members of their support team they’d like to attend. As a result, families often trade tickets for certain days with the families of other athletes. “My dad is in charge of tickets this year,” says Henrik Rummel, a rower who took bronze in the 2012 Games and is set to compete in Rio. “He’ll trade off days with other [athletes'] family members to fill the tickets we need. It’s crappy to only have so many tickets. I don’t even want to be involved in the process.”

3. QUALIFYING CAN BE MORE NERVE-WRACKING THAN THE ACTUAL GAMES.

Marti Malloy, a 2012 bronze medalist in judo, knew early in 2016 that she had racked up enough wins to qualify for the Rio Games. But those kinds of preliminary competitions can sometimes be more of a pressure cooker than competing in front of a billion television viewers. “There can be more nerves in a small tournament when you feel like you can’t lose,” she says. “In the Olympics, it’s like, you lost, but you lost among the best people on the planet.”

4. THEY GORGE ON MCDONALD’S.

As a longtime Olympic sponsor, McDonald’s has guaranteed itself a permanent residence in the dining hall of Olympic Village, the mini-town erected in the host city for every event. Like all the food there, it’s absolutely free. “Some athletes don’t go before their event, but after, you can walk up and ask for six cheeseburgers and they just ring it up,” Rummel says. If an athlete doesn’t need to burn fuel over a long duration, they might decide to indulge early: Sprinter Usain Bolt wrote that he devoured 1000 Chicken McNuggets in the 10-day span before and after winning three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games.

5. THEY LIVE IN A WEIRDLY UNFINISHED TOWN.

Built fresh for every Games, Olympic Village is a multimillion dollar landscape that resembles a college campus, with housing, dining, and open recreational areas. Often times the paint and grass will still smell fresh, and little details can get lost in the rush to finish it on time. “Our apartment door had a 2.5-inch gap on the bottom,” Tress says, which let in the cold Sochi air. One of his friends, a bobsledder, had a malfunctioning lock on his bathroom door. “He had to punch his way out.” At least he could finish his business: in some Sochi rooms, the toilets wouldn't flush.

6. THEY GET THEIR OWN TRAFFIC LANE.

Host cities have to put up with a huge influx of traffic. As a result, Olympic athletes and staff typically have an express shortcut to and from the venues. “There were dedicated traffic lanes, which made it much easier getting around,” Rummel says.

7. THEY SOMETIMES SKIP THE OPENING CEREMONIES.

The pageantry that accompanies the opening ceremonies for the Summer and Winter Games is an Olympic tradition, with athletes expected to participate—but many don’t, fearing that being on their feet for up to six or eight hours might impact their performance if their event is one of the first scheduled. Malloy, who participated in the 2012 ceremonies, is an exception. “I thought about [not doing] it, but I did and won a medal anyway,” she says. “It wasn’t detrimental, so I’ll probably go again in Rio. I’m kind of superstitious.”

8. THEY CAN GET A BUNCH OF DENTAL WORK DONE FOR FREE.

Because so many athletes work just part-time in order to be able to train, medical and dental benefits can be hard to come by, and their athletic training can be hard on the teeth. At the 2014 Games, Tress was surprised to see a dental office in Olympic Village where the care was totally free. “Most everyone on my team went and saw the dentist,” he says. “The U.S. Olympic Committee [itself] doesn’t provide dental for us. For a sport where we’re required to wear a mouth guard, that’s pretty crazy.”

9. THEY GET A LITTLE OBSESSIVE ABOUT BEING CLEAN.

After devoting their lives to training, Olympic athletes have just a narrow window of opportunity to perform at the highest level—and getting sick can be devastating. As a result, some coaches mandate that athletes not share water bottles in case of cross-contamination. They also get pretty particular about personal hygiene. “You take care to wash your hands a lot more,” Rummel says. “I also carry hand sanitizer. You get sick and it’s four years undone. That’s it.”

10. BRONZE MEDALISTS MIGHT BE HAPPIER THAN SILVER MEDALISTS.

At least, that’s according to a 1995 study of photos and interviews featuring medal winners. Psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey, and Thomas Gilovich looked at photographs and listened to audio interviews of competitors taken after the 1992 Olympics and found that bronze winners seemed subjectively more pleased than the more sullen silver-medal winners. They theorized that silver medalists were disappointed when comparing themselves to gold medal winners, while bronze athletes were happy to have placed at all.

Does Rummel—who won bronze in 2012—think it holds water? “I was a little disappointed as a first reaction, but then you realize it’s special and allow yourself to celebrate. Now, I’m really proud of it. [But] it depends on the sport. A basketball team in a semifinal match might be happy to get bronze when it’s that or nothing.”

11. THEY SWAP CLOTHES.

When the U.S. teams go in for processing before departing for Olympic Village, they’re entering into the world’s highest-end rummage sale: apparel from sponsors like Nike and Ralph Lauren are laid out and athletes are free to take as much as they like. “You get duffel bags full of the stuff,” Malloy says. “You have to wear it all the time so there’s enough to wear for two weeks, and we wind up trading amongst ourselves.”

12. THEY GET TAXED FOR WINNING.

Some countries provide significant perks for bringing home gold medals: Russian athletes can get cars and six-figure cash prizes. The U.S. Olympic Committee has a tiered reward structure, with $10,000 awarded to bronze medalists, $15,000 for silver, and $25,000 for gold. While the medal itself isn’t assigned any monetary value, the cash is considered income. “You do pay taxes on it,” Rummel says.

13. THEY NEED TO TIPTOE AROUND.

Because so many events take place over a two-week period, athletes who have wrapped up competitions and can celebrate need to be mindful of everyone who is still on deck. “When people are finished competing, it turns into more of a party atmosphere,” Tress says. “But you have to be respectful.” There’s no official noise ordinance, and no booze is allowed inside the Village, but victory parties are still low-key when sleeping athletes are around.

14. THEY WIND UP WATCHING A LOT OF EVENTS ON TELEVISION.

Even though they can sign up for tickets to different events and see them live, some athletes are just too tired from the experience to get up from the couch. “I remember sitting in a common room watching something on television,” Malloy says. “My teammate turned to me and said, ‘I guess we could have just gone to this.’”

All images courtesy of Getty.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Secrets of Aldi Employees

Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since opening its very first store in Germany in 1961 and then coming to America in 1976, discount grocery chain Aldi has grown to over 1900 stores in 36 states. Using inventive cost-cutting measures—customers are responsible for returning their own carts and the store charges for bags unless you bring your own—the brand has become synonymous with quality at an affordable price.

Tasked with overseeing the long hours of daily operations are the company’s 25,000-plus store employees, who are typically part of a small team of 20 or fewer people per location. Aldi workers are expected to be proficient in everything from unloading pallets and stocking shelves to checking out customers at a speed that meets or exceeds standards—employees are even timed on how fast a customer pulls out their credit card.

To find out more about this challenging line of work, Mental Floss reached out to several current and former Aldi employees. Here’s what they had to say about memorizing barcode numbers, how many miles they walk during a typical shift, and why sitting down at the register is actually more efficient than standing.

1. Working at Aldi means walking. A lot.

At Aldi, employees aren’t given set roles when it comes to unloading, stocking, cleaning, or working the register. Everyone is expected to be able to do everything, which means a lot of physical effort. “Our job is considered physically demanding, because Aldi has very few employees running per shift, meaning there are more expectations placed on each of us,” Jonah, an Aldi employee in Pennsylvania, tells Mental Floss. “If you aren't ringing, you are expected to be cleaning, stocking, re-stocking, or organizing the shelves. There is no ‘down time.’”

That suits many employees just fine. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing, and this job is the complete opposite,” Kyle, an Aldi employee in Virginia, tells Mental Floss. “I actually wear a Fitbit when I work, because I have been curious about how many steps I take. I average about 127,000 steps every [five-day] work week. I’d say an estimate is 25,400 steps a shift.”

2. Aldi employees sit down at the register for a very good reason.

An Aldi employee is pictured ringing out a customer in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees are expected to ring customers out as quickly as possible.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Employees can sit on stools while ringing guests up at a register, but getting a little rest isn't the sole reason for the seat. “While [resting] is true, Aldi says that cashiers sit at the register because, according to their testing, it allows us to ring up items faster,” Jonah says.

3. Aldi employees are monitored for their ringing speed.

Part of the reason Aldi can get away with as few as three to five employees in a store at any one time is because customers can be processed quickly. Aldi typically sets performance standards for employees at the checkout, who might be expected to process as many as 1200 items per hour. “We are given reports at the end of each day for our ringing statistics,” Jonah says.

And that’s not the only performance metric used to evaluate workers. “Ringing is the only part where we get an actual report, but managers will tell us that we are expected to knock out two pallets per hour, or one pallet every half hour," Jonah says.

4. Aldi employees “train” customers to move quickly.

Part of an employee’s register performance review depends on how quickly they can get a customer away from the register and toward an area where they bag their own groceries. To do this, employees encourage customers to have their payment method ready and inserted into the card reader before their items are done being scanned. “Aldi is all about efficiency, and encouraging our customers to ‘pre-insert’ their card while we are ringing allows the payment process to be near instant, rather than having our customers wait for us to finish ringing and then pull out their card and insert it,” Jonah says.

5. Aldi employees need Tetris-type skills to load carts.

Aldi shopping carts are pictured in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
There's even a science behind how an Aldi cart is loaded.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When an employee rings up a customer, items are loaded from the cart to the conveyor belt and then back into the cart. Because heavier items need to be placed first, employees need to be strategic when placing products. “[We put] light items like eggs, bread, chips, etc. at the top of the cart and everything else on the bottom,” Sara, an Aldi employee in Indiana, tells Mental Floss. “However, it really just depends on the order that customers put their items on the belt.” (They prefer you put heavy items like bottled water first.)

For maximum efficiency, Jonah prefers customers take products out of their display boxes and avoid trying to bag their groceries while cashiers are still ringing them out. “It slows us down and causes a longer wait for everyone,” Jonah says.

6. Aldi employees memorize barcode numbers.

An Aldi shopping basket is pictured in Cardiff, United Kingdom in August 2018
Aldi employees know the barcode numbers for several products by heart.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Ringing speed is so crucial to Aldi’s success—and an employee’s job performance—that many workers memorize barcode numbers to keep the line moving. “Items like milk and water have codes that we memorize,” Sara says. “For example, someone could be buying six gallons of milk, and instead of having the customer put all of them on the belt for us to scan one by one, we tell them to leave them in their cart and we key in the codes, making the checkout process faster.”

7. Aldi employees may or may not give you a quarter if you forget one.

Because it would take time and money to collect shopping carts, Aldi has a system where customers insert a quarter to unlock a cart from the collection area. When they return it, they get the quarter back. But not all customers remember to bring a quarter, and first-time shoppers might not even know they need one. And if they ask an Aldi employee to borrow one, they may or may not get it.

“I try not to give them a quarter because the quarters we give come out of our own registers,” Kyle says. “So if we don't get them back, we end up losing money out of our own drawer. If it's a first-time shopper, I gladly give them a quarter and explain to them why we have this system in place, and pretty much every person is very understanding on why we do it.”

If you’re short a quarter, don’t try shoving anything else in the slot. “People will try to use foreign currency that are the same size as quarters,” Kyle says. “Doesn't hurt us; it's just annoying to deal with.”

8. Aldi has a store phone, but customers shouldn’t bother calling.

Customers are pictured in front of an Aldi store in Edgewood, Maryland in December 2017
Aldi employees are too busy in the store to answer the phone.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Aldi keeps the phone numbers for individual stores unlisted, preferring that employees deal with customers already in the store. Limits are placed on when the phone can be used. “We do technically have a store phone, but this phone is strictly used for receiving calls from the warehouse, global help desk, and to our security company we use,” Kyle says.

9. Aldi’s return policy is something employees can find a little too generous.

Aldi has a unique return policy for items purchased in their stores. Under their Twice as Nice Guarantee, customers can return a product and not only get a replacement item but a refund, as well. “Our Twice as Nice Guarantee is a very good system; I'd say one of the best in grocery,” Kyle says. “That doesn't mean it's perfect, though. I have seen people abuse this system. It's happened in my own store numerous times.”

Kyle declines to explain how it’s abused, though anecdotal reports are that perfectly good items are sometimes brought back to exchange for the benefit of a new item plus the refund. Serial returners are sometimes flagged and told to ease up. (The policy is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic but is expected to return in the future.)

10. Aldi employees are required to wear steel-toed boots.

Work boots are pictured
Aldi employees need to protect their feet from inventory mishaps.
banjongseal324/iStock via Getty Images

Check out the footwear of an Aldi employee and you’ll notice they have on steel-toed boots normally seen on construction sites or warehouse jobs. That’s because workers are expected to unload the massive inventory pallets that arrive regularly. “All associates are required to wear steel-toed boots because of the equipment we use on the job,” Kyle says. “We use pallet jacks and it is just a safety precaution.” (Aldi does reimburse workers for the boots.)

11. Aldi employees appreciate you taking the survey.

Customers are pictured inside of an Aldi store in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees say that receipt surveys can make a real difference in stores.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The customer surveys that appear on Aldi receipts might go ignored by many, but they serve a real purpose. Employees are expected to meet a store quota of completed surveys, and customers can actually influence the selection inside the store. “We encourage customers to fill them out if they want a certain item brought in since the surveys go straight to corporate,” Sara says.

Regardless of how they offer their input, customers can often get what they want. “One thing that may surprise people is that you have a very strong voice on what items we should carry in our stores,” Kyle says. “A prime example of this is the [L’Oven Fresh] Zero Net Carb Bread. It was an Aldi Finds [a limited-time item] and people wanted this item to be a normal item so badly, and the company listened.”