13 medal-worthy Olympic stories
To become an Olympic hero in our book, it takes more than athleticism. Whether they were cross-dressing their way to the podium or somersaulting with one leg, these athletes deserve infinite points for style. Some of them lost big-time, but all of them won our twisted little hearts.
1. The Weightlifter Who Beefed Up at a Japanese Internment Camp
A scrawny, asthmatic child, Tamio Kono developed his weightlifting physique in the most unlikely place—a Japanese internment camp. During World War II, he and his family were forced from their home in San Francisco and moved to a detention center in the California desert. For three and a half years, they endured brutal conditions along with other Japanese immigrants. Although the situation was terrible, the climate wasn’t. The desert air agreed with Tamio’s lungs, and he started lifting weights to pass the time.
After the war, Kono kept training, and within a decade, he was the lynchpin of the U.S. national weightlifting team. Despite his family’s detention, he proudly lifted for the Americans. Using his freakish ability to raise and lower his weight quickly, Kono helped the team fill gaps in its roster. During his career, Kono lifted competitively at weights ranging from 149 lbs. to 198 lbs. To bulk up, he’d devour six or seven meals a day, and to slim down, he’d “starve” himself with three meals a day. He won his first gold as a lightweight during his Olympic debut in 1952, his second as a light heavyweight in 1956, and then a silver as a middleweight in 1960. All in all, he set seven Olympic records and 26 world records. Plus, he went on to become Mister Universe three times. Not bad for a boy who’d once been a 105-lb. weakling.
2. Riding to Glory Without the Use of Her Legs
In 1944, Danish horseback rider Lis Hartel contracted polio while pregnant. Although the illness left her almost totally paralyzed, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She also kept training for her event—equestrian dressage. By 1947, she was riding again, even though she couldn’t use the muscles below her knees. Despite needing help mounting and dismounting her horse, she competed for Denmark at the 1952 Games, winning a silver medal in a sport that was almost entirely dominated by men. In an indelible image of Olympic sportsmanship, Swedish gold medalist Henri Saint Cyr helped Hartel onto the platform at the awards ceremony. In the following years, Hartel kept on riding and won another silver at the 1956 Games.
Honorable Mentions in Competing Without Your Entire Body
The One-Handed Gunner: Hungarian rapid-fire pistol champ Karoly Takacs was known for his steady right hand. But while he was serving in the army in 1938, a grenade accident destroyed it. Undeterred, he taught himself to shoot with his left hand and won gold medals at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.
The One-Legged Gymnast: At the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, American gymnast George Eyser grabbed one bronze, two silvers, and three gold medals—all while competing with a wooden leg.
3. The Boxer Who Turned Down Millions for Communism
Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson burst onto the heavyweight scene at the 1972 Munich Games by knocking down his first opponent in just 30 seconds. He was a force in the ring, and commentators often joked that the “honor” of facing him should go to the loser—not the winner—of previous matches.
After Stevenson cakewalked his way to the gold in 1972, boxing promoters clamored for the Cuban to go pro, but he resisted. He believed passionately in the Cuban revolution and preferred to fight on behalf of his country. After he nabbed another gold at the 1976 Montreal Games, promoters became even pushier. Stevenson passed up millions of dollars and was hailed as a national hero for his convictions. Then he picked up his third straight gold in 1980, at age 28. After retiring, Stevenson worked as a boxing consultant in Cuba, earning about $400 a month. When asked about all the money he turned down, he often replied, “What is a million dollars against 8 million Cubans who love me?”
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