14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Olympic Athletes

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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.

10 Secrets of Brewmasters

Being a brewmaster is about more than just sampling beer and coming up with new recipes. Maintenance and sanitation also play a huge role in the job.
Being a brewmaster is about more than just sampling beer and coming up with new recipes. Maintenance and sanitation also play a huge role in the job.
Stone Brewing

With roughly 7500 craft beer breweries in the United States—a number that continues to grow—it’s clear consumers like their ales and lagers. And as more of these breweries pop up in towns and cities every month, it’s up to brewmasters to constantly produce new beers to satisfy demanding (and evolving) palates, maintain a sterile workspace, and properly operate all the complex machinery that pumps out your favorite IPA. To find out what goes into owning and operating a brewery, Mental Floss spoke with a number of brewmasters about what their days entail. Here’s what they had to say about taste tests, oyster beer, and getting doused in hop sludge.

1. A lot of brewmasters started out as home brewers.

Stone Brewery equipment.
A brew kettle from Stone's Richmond, Virginia, location.
Stone Brewing

While brewmasters sometimes attend college to study chemistry or even specific brewing courses, a fair number get their start in their own homes. “When I started, I would say about 50 percent [were home brewers],” Tom Kehoe, co-owner of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says. This was back when there were only around 649 breweries in the country, according to Kehoe. That number has only grown with time, and now he says as many as 90 percent of current brewers experimented with home brewing before moving on to larger productions.

While home brewing can be a good start, Kehoe says that there’s a limit to how much you can learn in a garage setting. “The basic knowledge of how beer is made is exactly the same. However, good brewing practices need to be learned on site. The environment working in a brewery is a lot different than brewing at home.”

One example? Size. According to Jeremy Moynier, brewmaster of Stone Brewing in San Diego, California, people are surprised when they see the scale of some brewing operations. "A home brewer is used to making a few gallons," Moynier says. "We could be making a 250-barrel batch [at Stone]. Each barrel is 30 gallons."

2. Brewmasters use sound almost as much as taste to evaluate the brewing process.

Brewing equipment from Yards Brewing.
This is just a sample of the brewing equipment employed by Yards.
Yards Brewing

Breweries come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them implement a lot of machinery, stainless steel vats, pumps, and bottling lines to concoct their brews. It becomes a symphony of sorts, according Moynier. And if one instrument sounds off, he can tell.

"You use all of your senses, from taste to sound," he tells Mental Floss. "Breweries are noisy, and there are sounds you get attuned to. If something sounds wrong, you know there’s a problem somewhere. Your senses being in tune are important."

Once, Moynier heard an unusual squeaking noise in the factory. He discovered that the tank that held the crushed malt was backed up, which would eventually ruin the conveyor belts if no one noticed in time. Thankfully, Moynier picked up on that change in noise, and the problem was corrected before the machine required a more expensive repair.

3. Brewmasters are always trying novel flavors. Even oysters.

There’s no shortage of creativity among brewmasters, with breweries constantly experimenting with different flavor profiles, from tea to chocolate to fruit. "There are so many different styles, flavor, and aroma profiles you can hit," Moynier says. "We’re constantly learning about new ingredients.” One that impressed Moynier recently was an oyster stout, a style that was originally billed as a beer that simply paired well with oysters more than a century ago, but has since evolved to include actual oyster meat and stock in modern recipes. This one came from Liberty Station, one of Stone Brewing’s locations in San Diego. "It was pretty fascinating," he says. "They got a real briny, oyster thing going."

4. Sanitation is one of the most important parts of being a brewmaster.

A picture of Stone Brewing's beer equipment.
Stone's barrels hold 30 gallons of beer.
Stone Brewing

The stereotype of brewmasters sipping beer all day and hovering over batches is slightly misguided. According to John Trogner, co-owner with brother Chris of Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, Pennsylvania, most of the job is making sure beer is made in clean conditions. “People usually think you’re sitting around all day dreaming up recipes and tasting beer,” Trogner says. "That’s a very small component. Physical cleaning is probably 80 percent of it. Sanitation is paramount. It’s like a chef keeping a kitchen clean. Workers spend most of their time scrubbing."

Just because the breweries are kept clean doesn't mean the brewmasters are quite as lucky. Depending on the valve and your luck that day, that could sometimes mean an unintentional beer shower for workers. "I’ve taken baths in yeast and beer sludge," Trogner says of his early days, explaining it's a hazard you face when you're opening the valves on the brew tanks.

5. Brewmasters know they're expected to bring beer to most gatherings.

A look at the Tröegs brewery.
Foeders are large wooden vats that age a beer to create a unique flavor profile. It's part of Tröegs's Splinter Cellar, and each foeder was custom made and shipped to the brewery.
Tröegs Independent Brewing

Like any other profession, brewmasters can sometimes be greeted with an expectation that their services and goods are free for friends and relatives to enjoy at gatherings and family events. "If it’s appropriate to bring beer, I will," Kehoe says. "And sometimes when it is not so appropriate. I have brought beer to a business networking breakfast and somehow it turned out to be a great icebreaker. I find that people are disappointed if I don’t have at least some beer at the ready."

6. The job can make you critical of other beers and even food.

Working to perfect beers all day can have an effect on how brewmasters regard other beer options. "I still love beer, but it changes the way you approach it," Moynier says. "You pick out a flaw, and it will bother you. It might ruin your enjoyment. But if you find a beer you really like, it can also make it more enjoyable."

A brewmaster doesn’t just develop a sense of what makes for a good beer; they’re also constantly thinking about what type of food pairs well with certain beers. "It definitely affects the way you taste things," Moynier says. "It’s made me a pickier eater. You’ll think about how food will pair with beer sometimes, where you wouldn’t necessarily think about that before. It made me appreciate how things go together."

7. Brewmasters know names and logos can make or break a beer.

Tröegs Independent Brewing Mad Elf beer is pictured
Tröegs's Mad Elf is one of the most recognizable beers around the holidays.
Tröegs Independent Brewing

With so many beer options, it’s imperative for brewmasters to use marketing as a way of setting up a consumer’s palate before they sample anything. For Tröegs's Haze Charmer, which offers pineapple and grapefruit notes, the brewery went to great lengths to describe how the "haze" of the recipe carries hop oil into the mouth.

"Haze Charmer emerges from a soft, swirling cloud of oats and unmalted wheat. Vigorous dry-hopping adds a second phase of haze, propping up the oils of Citrus and El Dorado," the website description of the beer reads.

"The name is a critical component," Trogner says. "Consumers are getting to know it before they try it."

The right—or wrong—name and design can make all the difference. Trogner promoted a cherry, honey, and chocolate ale around the holidays and called it Mad Elf, with bottles and packaging decked out in cartoon images of a tipsy elf enjoying one too many. It's become a perennial hit.

"It’s a celebration of the holidays," Trogner says. "Mad Elf is kind of part of social webbing, which is nice to hear. Grandmothers come in and buy five or six cases for family coming over for the holidays."

Similar beers with different branding didn't fare as well. "We’ve done beers like Mad Elf out of season and it didn’t have near the fervor or excitement," he says.

8. A brewmaster associates a beer’s personality with color.

Yards Pale Ale is pictured.
Yards's Philadelphia Pale Ale is lighter in color and far more citrusy than an amber lager.
Yards Brewing

According to Kehoe, light and dark beers each give off a distinctive personality trait depending on their color, which comes from the grains used. "To me, the color of the beer is the mood of the beer," he says. "Light color is fluid and exciting; darker [is] slower and more filling and relaxing." Amber is more middle-of-the-road and more versatile. "[It] can be whatever personality that you want to project in the moment."

9. Smells are a big inspiration for new beers.

Don’t think brewmasters develop recipes based just on tasting other beers; it’s more of a multi-sensory experience. Trogner says that most beer ideas come from everyday life. “We’re not sitting around and looking at other types of beer,” he says. “It’s more about an experience, like having an amazing dish at a restaurant. Or you might be hiking and smell something floral in the air, like pine.”

10. Yes, brewmasters sometimes drink early in the morning.

While downing beer is probably not as common an occurrence as you might think, brewmasters are still expected to sample their wares before it goes out for distribution. According to Moynier, those executive samples can happen at odd times of the day depending on schedules.

"Tastings can happen at six in the morning," he says. "We also have structured tasting and daily taste panels to approve beer about to be packaged. Three times a week we have a brewmaster taste panel where we focus on new beers we’re trying out for release or changes to recipes. There’s an executive panel once a month with [Stone's founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner]."

Or, as Kehoe puts it, “I don’t drink all day, but I do drink every day.”

14 Secrets of TSA Agents

Being a TSA agent means plenty of job stress.
Being a TSA agent means plenty of job stress.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last year, more than 964 million people boarded airplanes departing or arriving within the United States. Barring any special security clearance, virtually all of them were filtered through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federally operated branch charged with screening passengers to ensure they’re complying with the rules of safe air travel.

Some travelers believe the TSA’s policies are burdensome and ineffectual; others acknowledge that individual employees are doing their best to conform to a frequently confusing, ever-changing set of procedures. We asked some former TSA officers about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say about life in blue gloves.

1. CATS ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS.

A cat escaping from its carrier.
"Cats are a nightmare."
Lightspruch/iStock via Getty Images

According to Jason Harrington, who spent six years at O’Hare Airport as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO), rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal. “Cats are a nightmare,” he says. “They don’t want to come out of their carriers, they scratch and claw, and they don’t come when you call them.” A cat that’s made a break for it and who hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach, which a TSA supervisor could use as justifiable cause to shut down an entire terminal.

Dogs, however, are no problem. “A pat down on a dog amounts to going over and petting them,” Harrington says. “That’s actually pleasant.”

2. THEY HAVE CODE WORDS FOR ATTRACTIVE (AND ANNOYING) PASSENGERS.

Because TSOs are usually in close proximity to passengers, some checkpoints develop a vocabulary of code words that allows them to speak freely without offending anyone. “Code talk for attractive females was the most common,” Harrington says. An employee might say “hotel papa” to alert others to an appealing traveler heading their way—the “h” is for “hot.” Others might assign a code number, like 39, and call it out. Harrington was also informed by a supervisor that he could signal for a prolonged screening for an annoying passenger if Harrington told him that the traveler was “very nice.”

3. FANCY HAIRDOS ARE A SECURITY RISK.

Any passenger coming through with an elaborate hairdo—either carefully braided hair or the kind of up-do found on women headed for a wedding—means additional inspection will be required, because piled-up hair can conceivably conceal a weapon.

“Just about anything can set off an anomaly in the head area, from braids to a scrunchie to a barrette to a bad hair day,” Harrington says. “And those body scanners are especially fussy when it comes to the head, giving false positives there more than any other area.”

4. THEY LIKE YOU BETTER WHEN YOU’RE EXHAUSTED.

A customer sleeping in the airport.
A tired customer is a pleasant customer.
AlexBrylov/iStock via Getty Images

“Tina”—a former TSO in the northeast who prefers not to use her real name—says that travelers taking evening flights are typically more cooperative than morning passengers. “People are actually much nastier when they’re flying out in the morning,” she says. “The really late-night travelers are the best ones to be around.” (Also on Tina’s naughty list: business travelers. “They’re generally meaner.”)

5. THEY SOMETIMES LIE ABOUT WHERE THEY WORK.

Because public criticism of the TSA is so pervasive, Harrington has found that many employees stretch the truth about where they work when asked. “If I had to admit it, I’d say I was working for the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “When I made mention of that on Facebook, I got a ton of officers who said they did the same thing.”

6. CHEESE CAN LOOK JUST LIKE A BOMB.

Airport X-ray screening.
The foods in your bag can really confuse agents during an x-ray screening.
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

That giant wheel of cheese you’re bringing back from the holidays? It’s going to cause a lot of agitation among employees monitoring the x-ray machine. “A block of cheese is indistinguishable from C4,” Harrington says. “There is no difference on the screen. Meats, too. All organic products look orange on the display and similar to explosives.”

7. YOUR GENDER CAN CONFUSE THEM.

When a passenger enters a full-body scanner, the device operator hits a button to tell the unit whether it’s a he or she. It makes a difference, since a female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa. If a person's gender isn’t easily ascertained on sight and a TSO guesses, a pair of breasts could initiate a delay. “The machines detect things under clothes, and if it doesn’t match what’s been pressed, it means a pat down,” Harrington says.

8. THEY DON’T DO THE SAME THING ALL DAY.

TSOs typically get assigned to different stations (ticket taker, x-ray operator, shouting-at-you-to-take-your-shoes-off officer) at the security checkpoint, and never for very long: 30 minutes is typically the limit before a new officer is brought in. According to Tina, the revolving schedule is to avoid employee error. “After 30 minutes, you may begin to miss things,” she says.

9. OPTING OUT GETS THEM ANNOYED.

Harrington’s security checkpoint had a code word for passengers who “opted out,” or refused to submit to the full-body scanners—they were “tulips,” and they proved to be an annoyance.

“It slows down the whole operation and a lot of guys would hate it,” he says. “Now that it’s millimeter [radio] waves and people still opt out, they get annoyed, thinking the passenger doesn’t even know what they’re opting out of.”

10. THEY’RE WRITING ON YOUR TICKET FOR TWO REASONS.

A TSA agent looking at a traveller's documents
No, TSA agents don't love it when you opt out of their full-body scans.
John Moore/Getty Images

Policies can vary by airport, but generally, security officers sitting up front and checking tickets are looking for irregularities in your identification: If something causes them to be suspicious, they’ll write something on your ticket that would prompt a more thorough inspection. “They’ll also write their badge number and initials,” Tina says, “so the airline knows they’ve been through security when they board.”

11. “CREDIBLE THREATS” STRESS THEM OUT.

According to Tina, turnover rates for TSOs can be high, and that’s due in large part to the perpetual stress of preparing for a hazardous situation. “In 10 months’ time, we went through active shooter training three times,” she says. “Another time, we were told there was a credible threat against the airport and not to wear our uniforms to or from work.”

12. THEY HATE WHEN YOU ASK THEM TO CHANGE GLOVES.

"The most common complaint [from TSOs] is when passengers ask them to change their gloves before a pat down," Harrington says, "because we change them all the time. We might have changed them just before getting to someone and passengers will still insist they use new ones in front of their face."

13. IT’S REALLY HARD TO GET FIRED.

TSOs undergo regular training and performance reviews where they're expected to simulate a screening in a private room for supervisors. After two years, the probationary period is over, and employees are generally set. “They’d call it being a ‘made’ man or woman,” Harrington says, referring to the mafia term for acceptance. “It’s really hard to get fired at that point. The only way to lose your job would be to commit a crime.”

14. THEY DON’T GET AIRPORT PERKS.

As federal employees, TSOs don’t enjoy any perks from airlines: Accepting a gift could be cause for termination, according to Tina. “But there’s a loophole,” she says. “If you’re friends with a pilot or have a personal relationship with an airline employee, you can accept it.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

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