Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Well, That Was Simple

Many race-based events at the Olympics, swimming and track events in particular, break down into three stages: heats, semifinals and the final. You need some way to get the numbers cut down and determine who wins what.

Except when you don't. In the early days, due to the low number of entries, the heats and sometimes the semifinals could get skipped and they could go right to the final. Two specific occasions are worthy of note here.

In Antwerp 1920, the semifinals of the men's 4x400-meter relay were superfluous. Only six teams had entered- Belgium, France, Great Britain, South Africa, Sweden and the United States- and as you know, a track has plenty of room for six teams. The officials, though, decided that a semifinal was necessary; they'd take the top three from each of two heats, creating something even less necessary than a semifinal in which you have room for everyone in the final: a semifinal that doesn't even eliminate anyone. Needless to say, everyone took it rather easy in the semifinals. Great Britain wound up winning gold, South Africa silver and France bronze.

There was also at least one occasion where the final was unnecessary. Stockholm 1912 featured the only Olympic appearance of the two-handed javelin event. You threw three times with your right hand and three times with your left hand, and they added up your best single throws with each hand. 14 athletes from four nations were involved: Finland, Hungary, Norway and the host nation of Sweden. The top three from preliminaries moved on to the final.

As it turned out, the preliminaries put through a Finnish medal sweep. Julius Saaristo was in first at the end of the prelims, Vaino Siikaneimi in second, and Urho Peltonen in third. They turned out to all be perfectly fine with this turn of events. In fact, they were so fine with this turn of events that they all agreed they were happy just letting the results stand like that and not even bothering with the final. The officials just shrugged their shoulders and said, sure, why not.

Back then, they were just going to be playing the Russian anthem anyway.

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