Herky-Jerky Frank McClerky, crossing the line at the 1912 Stockholm marathon
“Damn this cursed race!”
The famous words were spoken by Pierre de Coubertin, the first president of the International Olympic Committee, after the 1896 marathon. An obese Greek man named Spyridon Louis had crossed the line first in under three hours without a drop of sweat on his brow, and though it could never be proven, it was widely assumed that he’d cheated his way through the course on various conveyances. De Coubertin argued that the race was too long, could not be policed effectively, and therefore should be canceled to prevent deception. His opponents were too many, and the marathon remained on the Olympic program, but that didn’t end the debate. Since that first inauspicious finish, controversy has followed controversy, and very few marathon gold medalists are looked upon without suspicion.
Here are the top five great marathon cheats in Olympic history.
1. The Kolehmainen Octuplets, 1920, Antwerp
Using a brilliant plan whereby they split the race into 3.275-mile segments, these Finnish brothers managed to win a gold despite having very little distance running experience. Before the race, they manufactured eight identical outfits and bibs, and waited for each other at the transition points. When a Kolehmainen came close, his brother would be waiting with a bottle of water. The two would pretend to collide, and when the dust had settled, the original runner would slip into the crowd while his look-alike would resume the race. The Finnish papers, unaware of the deception, hailed “Hannes Kolehmainen” as the greatest Olympian in history, for overcoming seven separate falls on the way to winning gold.
2. Herky Jerky Frank McClerky, 1912, Stockholm
McClerky suffered from severe Tourette’s Syndrome, which caused his entire body to spasm uncontrollably without his medication. McClerky thought he was entering the marathon as a legitimate runner, but his coaches deprived him of his pills for days before the event, sending him into a state of almost total spasmodic trance. During the race, he could only muster enough physical control to stay on course, while his body jerked itself forward of its own volition. It was a horrifying site for spectators and the other runners, but it proved incredibly effective. McClerky won the gold, and footage of his race inspired Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie, which was the start of the zombie craze in genre film and literature.
3. Juan Carlos Zabala, The Centaur, 1932, Los Angeles
Zabala claimed to be a half-man, half-horse centaur when he entered the 1932 marathon, and though officials tried for days to disprove this ridiculous notion, there was no evidence that he was lying. He was examined from head to toe meticulously for hours at a time, but it appeared as if he was, indeed, half of each creature. There was no centaur rule on the books, and so they had no choice but to let him compete. Zabala finished the marathon in less than hour running at horse speed, still a world record. The postscript is predictable- a complex sewing job performed by Argentine surgeons had disguised the fact that Zabala was in fact mounted on a horse’s body, with the horse obscuring his legs and Zabala obscuring the horse’s head. Zabala and the horse, named Che Guevara, retained functional independence with a unified body, creating an effective, but quite fake, centaur simulacrum.
4. Waldemar Cierpinski, 1976, Montreal
This East German runner was fully capable of finishing a marathon, but it took him at least four hours, far too slow to compete with the world champions. To make up the gap, he ran with a pack of Stasi-trained dogs who were taught to attack other runners and disable them with severe leg bites the minute they passed Cierpinski on the course. It was a particularly hot day in Montreal, and Cierpinski finished with the slowest marathon time in history- 5 hours, 27 minutes- to win the gold medal.
5. Nikolai the Compulsive Masturbator, Helsinki, 1952
Contrary to what you might think, Nikolai Martinev did not masturbate during the marathon, but rather immediately after crossing the finish line, during the post-race interivew, and all throughout the medal ceremony. In a particularly ugly chapter of Stalin’s reign in the Soviet Union, Martinev was trained to become both a distance runner and a compulsive masturbator by the Soviet secret police. The theory was that by depriving him of his awful habit for days before the race, and threatening to shoot him if he stopped or gave in to the impulse during his run, it would ensure that he’d finish as quickly as possible in order to experience relief. Whether you admire or deplore this strategy, it worked, and Martinev won the gold with ease. Upon his return to the Soviet Union, he was shot by Stalin himself for shaming the country by masturbating on television during the gold medal presentation.