Thursday, August 11, 2016


I contend that 1900 saw the single most horrific victory in modern Olympic history, surpassed only by the ancient standard for horror when King Oenomaus was killed in an Olympic chariot crack up , followed by the race winner Pelops throwing competing driver Myrtilus, off a cliff. What could have surpassed such gore and horror, committed in the name of the purity of athletic endeavor? Simply, the Paris games of 1900 when Leon de Lunden from Belgium murdered 21 birds to win the "Live Pigeon Shooting" event.
In order to make the sport even “less sporting” for the birds, the little sacrifices were released one at a time, and each human contestant was allowed to keep blasting away until he missed – twice. Sports historian Andrew Strunk has described the event as “…a rather unpleasant choice. Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping…”. In all 300 unlucky pigeons were sacrificed for the Olympic ideal. Just think of it; Dick Cheney could have been an Olympic athlete! If maiming competitors counted, he might have won gold.
Those Paris games of 1900 almost didn’t happen, since the French considered Pierre Fredy Baron de Coubertin, who was pushing the modern Olympic concept, as "too English”, what with his alien ideas about exercise producing a healthy mind and body. In fact it wasn’t until Coubertin resigned from the French Athletic Associations that other French sportsmen agreed to back his idea.
Unfortunately, with Coubertin out of the way, the French Government stepped in and things went down hill very quickly from there. First the government decided not to award medals for first place, but "valuable artwork" instead. It must have been quite a sight to see Msr. Aumoitte, winner of the “one ball” croquet championship, standing on the victory podium with a Monet hanging around his neck.
Then there was the marathon, where two American runners, Arthur Newton and Dick Grant, lead from the start. But when they reached the finish line together they discovered two heretofore unnoticed French runners, Michel Theato and Emile Champion, rested and waiting for them, and already wearing their winner’s artwork. The Americans pointed out that all the other contestants were splattered with mud while Theato and Champion looked like they had not even broken a sweat. But this being France, the American protests were worst than meaningless.
In fact, because they protested the Americans were awarded sixth and seventh place, instead of third and fourth. Well, as Albert Camus noted in one of his lighter moments, "Pauvre de moi, du cognito tricherie, ergo se donner la mort”, or, “Please excuse me but I think you cheated so I am now going to commit suicide".  The International Olympic Committee took the American protests under consideration for twelve years, before finally rejecting them; proving once again the Jerry Lewis rule about sports rulings; timing is everything.
The Games of 1900 were the longest in Olympic History, running between 14 May and 28 October, and including such extravagant events as "Cannon Shooting", "Life Saving", "Kite Flying", "Tug of War" and "Fire Fighting". The Croquet Tournament took 21 weeks to play out in front of a paying audience of exactly one, an elderly Englishman living in Nice, France.
Curiously the strongest protest in that the 1900 Olympics was between two Americans. The born-again coaches from Syracuse University felt that competing on a Sunday would be a sin. So they talked their student Myer Prinstein (above), the world record holder in the long jump, into going along with them. Myer was a nice Jewish boy, and he finally agreed to skip the Sunday competition out of “team spirit”.  Besides, his qualifying jump on Saturday – his actual Sabbath - had been so impressive he thought it would be good enough for the victory. And it almost was. Almost.
That Sunday afternoon (14 July, 1900), while Myer was soaking in the Parisian culture, his Catholic teammate Alvin Kraenzlein(above) broke his own sabbath and beat Myer’s long jump mark by exactly...one centimeter. That Monday, when Myer noticed that Alvin was carrying an extra Van Gough around, he started pounding on Alvin. And Alvin pounded right back. But, since they were both track stars with no upper body strength, nobody got seriously injured.
The nineteen hundred games also featured a controversial final in the “Underwater Swimming” competition. This may sound like a fancy name for drowning, but the drowners, er, the swimmers, were actually awarded 2 points for each meter they swam under water and one point for each second they were able to remain submerged. But despite having stayed under for far longer than anyone else, Peder Lykkeberg of Denmark was disqualified because it was alleged that he “swam in circles”. Just read the rules, I say.
Also in the river (during this Olympics all the water sports were held in the river Seine, which was not nearly as clean a sewer then it is today), were the exciting finals of the “Swimming Obstacle Course”, involving swimming, pole climbing, more swimming, boat boarding and de-boarding, more swimming, followed by swimming under a boat, followed by more swimming.
The winner was Freddy Lane from Australia, in 2:38, who climbed over the stern of the boat as opposed to clambering across the boat's wider middle. For his efforts Freddie received a 50 pound bronze horse. I presume the equestrian winners received statues of fish. Oddly enough neither of the water events were repeated at any future Olympics.
But the sport from the 1900 Paris games  I am most glad having missed was the "Equestrian Long Jump". Now, try to picture this: four spindly legs holding up a big muscular body, and with a human wearing riding garb and hat balanced on their back. Horse and rider gallop up to the jump line and then fling themselves into the air.
The winner was a British stallion named “Extra Dry”(above), with a soaring leap of 20 feet and one quarter of an inch. Can you image the excitement that must have gripped the crowds, watching this equrestian suicidal display? A horse leaping twenty feet and one quarter of an inch; that’s just nine feet short of the current human long jump record. And we've only got two legs.
It makes me wonder if the X Games are really all that original.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2016


I have often pondered in these pages about the personalities attracted to the art of political science. There are few souls that so hunger for power and attention. There are even fewer egos or ids that can thrive in the organized anarchy that passes for modern democracy. And if every once in a great while the field throws up a skilled dissembler of half truths, it is just as likely to an uncover an occasional preposterous paranoid psychotic. The trick for the voter is identifying which is which before they go on the public payroll. As an abject lesson in spotting the lunatics among the loonies, I shall now relate the story of Byron Anthony Looper, a politician, who in the words of his defense counsel, knew how to lose an election. It is a skill more valuable than you might first imagine.
He might have been a gentleman by act of Congress, but in 1985, in his third year at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Byron was thrown from a horse and so badly injured his knee, he was given an honorable discharge. Then he might have been a Democrat, thanks to his uncle Max Roach Looper, a state Representative from tiny Dawsonville, Georgia. But Byron lost his first election in 1987, and after three years as a legislative aide, legend has it that he went to Peutro Rico
He claimed to have worked there as the sober assistant to a university president. But the university does not seem to have existed, nor did the president. And according to Modesta Blansett, who dated him while he was still in Georgia, Byron was a real charmer, except when he drank, which was often. On those occasions he “exhibited a dark, angry temper”. Byron had two traffic tickets for drunk driving in Hall County, Georgia, and in March of 1986 he pleaded “no contest” to a third. In 1987 he picked up another DUI conviction in Atlanta. Then, like many people approaching thirty, Byron felt the need to re-invent himself. So in 1993 he returned home, one hundred miles north as the crow flies, to the 931 area code, to the Cumberland Plateau of central Tennessee.
As a small boy Byron had left Cookeville, the farming and industrial community bisected by Interstate 40, 80 miles east of Nashville and 100 west of Knoxville. But times and circumstances had changed Byron. His “pinstriped oxford cloth and double-breasted suits” and power ties no longer fit in among the 24,000 overhaul wearing farmers in the Putnam County capital, nor even with the 11,000 students attending Tennessee Tech, nestled in the center of town. Still, shortly after his arrival, Byron decided to register to run as a Republican against the popular local Democratic state Representative Jere Hargrove.  Mr. Hargrove remembered being puzzled just a few days after Byron had filed his paperwork, when the conservative Democrat received a letter from Byron Looper, seeking help in getting a job with the Farmers Home Administration. Hargrove says he never responded “because I thought it was crazy.” He remembered the campaign which followed as “dirty”. And for Byron it was unproductive. He lost. Again.
Still, Byron refused to give up. As the Republican county Chairman Scott Ebersole remembered, “He was playing politics all the time.” Byron even took out an ad in the political magazine, “Campaigns & Elections”, seeking the help of a consultant. William Lindsay Adams, based in Louisiana, answered the ad, but found his interview with Byron made him “uncomfortable”. “Byron told him that if a candidate wasn't in the race at the end, it wouldn't cost him very much to win”. Adams quoted Looper as saying it would just be “about 35 cents” – the price of a bullet. After that conversation, Adams stopped answering Bryon's calls.
Then in 1996, Byron found Republican backing for a run against the 14 year Putnam County Tax Assessor, Bill Rippetoe. Their support was understandable, since if elected, Byron would be the first Republican to hold a county wide office in recent memory.  Byron took part in no debates, and made no public appearances. But he did run a lot of negative radio ads, claiming that Rippetoe had fixed tax assessments for his friends. There was no evidence for this, of course, but Rippetoe was not prepared to respond. And to prove his philosophy on property taxes, Byron invested $4.95 to legally change his middle name from Anthony to “(Low Tax)” - parentheses included. He did run one positive ad, promising he was “a new kind of leader”, and introducing his wife Terry to the voters. However, Terry Guess was not his wife, but merely his girlfriend, who was also his landlady. He was renting a room in her house. But by the time the truth had come out, Bryon had finally achieved his dream – he won the election by 1,100 votes. And immediately he learned that old lesson about being careful what you wish for.
A week after taking the oath of office, on Thursday, 12 September, 1996, Byron called a press conference to announce he had discovered $100 million worth of property taxes had not been paid. But before the reverberations from that headline had reached the farthest corners of Putnam county, from Hanging Limb to Muddy Pond, the County Commission, to which Byron reported, responded that $100 million was the “normal backlog” for property taxes at this time of year. They also suggested that Bryon should just do his job and stop holding press conferences. After further checking, Byron held a press conference to announce they were right. Then he left town – for Puerto Rico.
This time Byron was gone three weeks, which in a town the size of Cookeville did not go un-noticed. When he returned he cleaned house, firing dozens of staffers, and hiring a “Security Chief”, who swept the office for listening devices. None were found. He also assigned three employees to photocopy more then 5,000 pages of County Commission records. When this expense was questioned, he held a press conference to announce he had uncovered “a good ol' boy network” and was suing to make the documents public. In response the County Commission revealed that the documents already were public. This time “Low Tax” was forced to issue a written apology. Said County Executive Doug McBroom, “His attitude was that we're all dumb, and he was here to save us...but he kept getting caught.”
At one of his many press conferences, Byron was faced with an allegation that he had fired staffers because they were Democrats. But Byron had a ready answer for that charge. It was preposterous, he said, since he was secretly a Democrat, too. A quick look at the records revealed Byron was telling the truth. He was a registered Democrat. Still. Whereupon, the Democratic Party  had him purged from their rolls. The Republicans were perfectly happy to have him as a member since, in heavily Democratic Putnam County,  beggars can't be choosers.
Meanwhile, the work in the Tax Assessor's office became increasingly chaotic. Byron would disappear from the office for days at a time, and when he did show up, he spent time trying to transfer properties to the tax rolls of neighboring counties – specifically properties owned by members of the County Commission who were giving him such a hard time. His new Security Chief got into a fist fight with a voter. Some property owners were charging Byron had “shaken them down” for political contributions. And when they did not contribute, Bryon increased their property tax assessments. Under Byron's stewardship, records went missing, and his remaining employees had spent 90 hours working on his next campaign, for the congressional seat held by Democrat Bart Gordon.
His congressional campaign had barley gotten off the ground when in March of 1998, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation hit Byron with a 14 count indictment for official misconduct, theft of services, misuse of county property and misuse of county employees. In the primary Bryon came in third in a field of four Republicans.  But the resourceful young man had an ace in the hole. He was the only Republican who had also filed to run against the popular five term State Senator, Tommy Burks . By default Byron thus qualified for the general election in November.
Nobody expected Byron to win, evidently not even Byron. But Tommy Burks had been a politician to long to never be over confident. He told a friend, “This Looper boy is absolutely crazy. I believe he's capable of doing anything.” And then in August, another lawsuit was filed against Byron, from an unexpected source. It was filed by Byron's former girlfriend and landlady, Terry Guess. She alleged that in December of 1997, after they had broken up, Byron had assaulted and raped her. And when she ordered him out of her house, he had filed a false transfer of ownership of her home to his name. But Terry's breaking point came when she discovered she was pregnant. Now, with the baby due in a few weeks, she sued Bryron, asking for $1.3 million in damages and child support. Byron did his best to “handle” the suit. He held a press conference. He referred to Terry as “a former stripper”, and complained “She left me with heart palpitations, a small box of memorabilia, and a red G-string.” It was a good line, but it did not help his career.
But Byron had uncovered a “quirk” in the election laws of Tennessee which he felt certain would bring him victory. Early on the morning of 9 October, 1998,  Byron (Low Tax) Looper drove a black sedan onto a unpresuspossing pig and tobacco farm, and stopped next to a pumpkin patch, along the side a pick up truck. And then he fired one 9mm round into the skull of State Senator Tommy Burks, killing him instantly.
According to Tennessee law, a candidate who died within 30 days of an election, must have his name removed from the ballot. So Byron figured he would win by default - emphases on "fault".  But what  Byron had not counted on was that his clever cover up would dissolve like salt in a Tennessee thunderstorm. In a matter of hours the cops had discovered that Byron had bought the sedan in Georgia, resold it there to a different Georgia car dealer a few hours after the murder. And worse, Byron had been recognized at the scene by two of Tommy Burk's farmhands. Plus there was his confession to a childhood friend a few hours later after the murder.  On election day Byron was in jail, and although he was still the only living candidate on the ballot, and although his radio ads continued to be aired, Charlotte Burks, Tommy's widow, won the election.  She received 30,252 write in votes against Byron (Low Tax) Looper's 1,531 votes. The lady finally retired from politics in 2014, after 4 terms in the state senate. 
Yup,  that Byron (Low Tax) Looper sure knew how to lose an election. And a court case. He changed lawyers eight times, but in August of 2000,  Byron was finally convicted of first degree murder. Even after his conviction the tried to run the assessor's office from jail, until the State Attorney General removed him from office. Eventually he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in the Morgan County Correctional Complex. And that was when he got yet another name change, becoming  inmate #323358 .  That name stuck until  26 June, 2013, when a female counselor informed Byron that he was losing his private cell and being transferred to the prison's general population.  Byron slapped her face, and was subdued by a guard. Later that day he was found dead in his isolation cell. A pair of autopsies revealed he died of a combination of high levels of antidepressant and "deterioration of his heart muscle".  His unofficial epitaph was provided by his last (of 8) attorney, McCracken Poston. He called Byron " a colorful character in both Georgia and Tennessee politics" . But Poston was forced to add, "The fact that Byron was an unusual, if often difficult, client is well documented."   That it was.  And that it is.
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