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The Olympics Used to Look WAY Different (These Rare, Vintage Photos Are Proof)

A look back at the fancy attire, gender equality issues, sea-faring hotels and other little-known quirks of the 1908 and 1912 Olympics.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What the U.S. team looked like

The 1912 Olympics were held in Stockholm, Sweden, giving U.S. athletes two problems: how to get there, and who to crash with? The American Olympic Committee (AOC) answered both questions with the SS Finland, a 580-foot-long ocean liner that served as the delegation’s transport, training ground, and floating hotel for more than two weeks. America’s 164 athletes (some seen here) left New York on Flag Day, June 14, and arrived in Stockholm on June 30 after a brief stop in Antwerp. To accommodate their ongoing training, a 100-yard track was installed on the Finland’s top deck, as was a 5-by-15-foot swimming tank and a fleet of bikes secured to the ship’s structure. Discus champion James Duncan had a hole bored into the middle of a discus, tied it by rope to the ship’s rail, and practiced by hurling it repeatedly into the sea and reeling it back in. All this effort paid off; America led the 1912 Olympics with 25 gold medals, surpassing their Swedish hosts by one. These 13 Olympic moments changed history.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What Olympic swimmers looked like

Three U.S. swimmers stand on a diving board before the 1912 Olympics. It is unclear who the men are, or why they seem to be wearing Speedos over their Speedos. While aboard the ocean liner Finland, U.S. swimmers only had a 5-by-15-foot tank of water to work in; to practice their strokes in this confined space, they swam wearing special belts tethered to an overhead rope that kept them centered in the middle of the tank. The men’s swimming team took two gold medals in 1912. Though this was the first Olympics to include women’s events in the swimming program, America did not participate.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What an Olympic gold medalist looked like

Behold the face of a world-class athlete… technically. Included among the 1908 London Olympics were 15 shooting events. America busted out its big guns and sent 56-year-old master hunter, marksman, horse breeder, and sculptor Walter W. Winans (above) and his performance-enhancing mustaches to represent America against Europe’s top sharpshooters. Born to wealthy Americans in Russia and groomed in London, Winans repped the United States before ever setting foot there. He not only took the gold for the double-shot running deer event (which consists of firing twice at a moving deer-shaped target 110 yards away), but returned in 1912 to clinch the gold medal for sculpture. Yes: sculpture (along with architecture, literature, music, and painting) used to be an Olympic event. Here’s his gold-winning bronze, if you’re curious what an Olympic sculptor is capable of.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What judges looked like

The 1912 American shot put champ Pat McDonald stoops with a fleet of well-dressed judges to inspect the tape during one of his events. In their coats, hats, and ties, Olympic judges were a picture of dandy authority. In other track events, judges relied on technological breakthroughs to aid their timing, trying out “first-class chronometers” attached to starting pistols that engaged a timer right as the gun went off. The longest-recorded race time of the 1912 Olympics? 54 years. Japanese marathoner Shiso Kanakuri collapsed mid-event and withdrew without alerting Olympic officials. He was declared “missing,” his race never complete—until 1967. That’s when the Swedish National Olympic Committee invited the now 75-year-old athlete to return and finish his race. Kanakuri obliged. His final time: 54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What track athletes looked like

Members of the 1912 U.S. track and field team stand in front of a billboard for Adams’ Tutti-Frutti chewing gum (the first successful machine-vended candy in the world). The U.S. team crushed their competition in track events that year, taking home a combined 42 medals; Sweden, in second place, only took 15. Notice that the athletes wear shirts emblazoned with their college or club emblems, with the exception of one man: Jim Thorpe (fourth from right), who would go on to win gold in two new events, the decathlon and modern pentathlon, lose them in 1913 for violating amateurism rules, then posthumously earn them back in 1982. According to legend, Thorpe won his medals while wearing mismatched shoes that he rescued from a rubbish pile after his originals were stolen at the games. This photo shows him wearing multiple socks in one shoe, as his foot was too small to fill it. Check out these amazing photos of the Olympics gymnastics leotard through the years.

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What the opening ceremony used to look like

The “solemn opening” to the Stockholm Games took place on July 6, 1912. According to the staggering, 1,100-page Official Report on the Stockholm Games, the permanent stadium contained no more than 7,500 seats; note here that the grandstand isn’t even totally full for the opening ceremony. To start, 2,408 competitors from 28 nations marched into the stadium alphabetically by the nation’s name in Swedish.  Of the 2,408 athletes, 48 were women. A hymn was then sung, prayers read, and the King and Crown Prince read some remarks. Trumpeters in medieval garb played Swedish fanfare as the athletes marched past the Royal Box. Per the report’s slightly-too-excited author, “it was a stately sight to see these thousands of well set up, athletically developed young men and women, from all parts of the world, march down the arena.”

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Courtesy Library of Congress

What Olympic style looked like

Here, 1912 gold- and silver-medalist Platt Adams reminds us that it took a while for specialized athletic gear to catch on worldwide. In his high-waisted shorts and thin-soled shoes, he looks strange to modern eyes, but was hardly the worst-dressed at the Olympics. Japanese Olympian Shiso Kanakuri, our legendary 54-year marathon runner mentioned above, wore traditional two-toed tabi shoes made of canvas through his ill-fated event.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest