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1904 Olympics : When Rat Poison was used as an energy drink

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1904 was quite a milestone for the Olympic games as it was the first time the game would be hosted in the US as a step to making this event the international phenomenon we know today. But this high hope was met with deception as they turned out to be the most scandalous Olympics that completely jeopardized the future of the games.

At first, the International Olympic Committee chose Chicago as the host of the games. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the World Fair was about to be held and the organizers were antsy: Another international event was happening at the same time which might overshadow the fair thus affect its attendance. This fear made the organizers scheme and they threatened to make their own international sports event, even bigger than the Olympics in St. Louis to draw away athletes from Chicago. This threat made Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, give in and awarded the Olympics to St. Louis. Little did he know that this decision was a huge mistake. As a small comparison, the 2016 Olympics in Rio saw about 11 000 athletes from 206 countries compete, as for the 1904 Olympics, about 650 athletes showed up (about 500 of them were from the US and half the foreigners were Canadians) from 12 countries. These shameful numbers are due to the fact that St. Louis Missouri didn’t have the logistics to get participants to the town as it was very hard to get to back in the early 1900s. As a result, people could participate in the games at any time, some even were picked from the streets to compete. But the pièce de résistance in this event’s hall of shame was the marathon which can only be described as merciless and sadistic. There was a total of 7 high hills on the track, roads were tremendously dusty and surprisingly enough were open as some cars were driving alongside runners, scattering more dust in the air. The marathon also started on a hot August day around 3 PM. As if things couldn’t get any more difficult, the participants weren’t allowed to drink water either.

There were about 32 runners in the marathon and some of them never run a marathon before but decided to hop in this wild journey. One of the contestants was John Lordan who had lots of high hopes and bets placed on him since he was the winner of the last year’s Boston Marathon, but he dropped out from the first half mile as he started vomiting and almost passed out.

Next was William Garcia who collapsed on the road, coughing up blood and nearly died. The poor man suffered from an esophagus coated in dust and a ripped stomach lining. Other remarkable participants were the very first Africans to compete in the Olympics Len Taunyane and Jan Mashiane (performers at the world fair). Jan was one of the few who actually finished the race and was 9th but his friend Len had a tough time as a dog started chasing him for a whole mile (he was still able to finish the race).

Thomas Hicks also took part in this marathon, an American athlete with a team of trainers who were riding along with him during the race. These trainers came up with a peculiar energy drink and a performance enhancer for their athlete: egg whites mixed with brandy and strychnine, a substance used as rat poison. The poor man collapsed after crossing the finish line after the effects of his drink started taking a toll on his body. He miraculously finished second after Fred Lorz, the famous participant who cheated his way to the first place. He ran about a third of the way and then started riding a car for about 11 miles. Fred wasn’t ashamed of this as he was waving at the spectators and other runners, after a good rest he hopped off the car and ran the last 5 miles arriving first to the finish line. As he was about to receive the Gold medal from Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the spectators who saw Fred get down from a car exposed him. As the crowd started raging over his shameful cheating, Fred laughed it off, said he was joking, and never intended to take the gold medal anyway. Since his disqualification, the gold medal was given to Thomas Hicks, the official winner of the very first Olympics held in the US and the survivor from a very questionable energy drink.

In total, only half of the runners were able to cross the finish line in the slowest times ever recorded in the history of the marathon making the St. Louis 1904 Olympics, the most disastrous games to ever occur.

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« Akâak » sucks!

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Before answering this clickbaity title, I am going to tell you a story about socks. Don’t worry, I’m getting somewhere with this and I promise you that you will in all likelihood learn something interesting from this article.

The other day, I found some cute made-in-Tunisia socks, which you can see on the cover of this article. You most likely get the reference for that meme. In case you don’t, I am going to kindly explain it. A few months ago, a new word became extremely trendy in Tunisia: عكعك.

What does it meme? 

Rumors suggest that this new word originated in Sbitla, where a man named “Âkâak” was killed in an accident after the « evil eye » hit him. This incident led the word “Âkâak »to becoming widely known as a bad omen. If someone envies you, and they want to explicitly “give their evil eye” they will say it. It is, however, mostly used jokingly.

In addition to being used by everyday people, (even my mom!) It is all over TikTok and YouTube now. Several videos showing catastrophes happening to people soon after someone shouts “âkâak” are displayed on these platforms: from upturned wheelbarrows to injured people and the list is endless.

What is a meme?

This is the section where I will be defining the concept of a meme. The origin of a social meme -often unknown as it spreads from mouth to ear- was interpreted by Merriam-Webster as the following:

“While memes today are recognized as amusing or interesting items that spread widely through the internet, the word itself dates to the 1970s. Originally ‘memes’ were conceptualized as units of cultural transfer, and could be boiled down to ‘ideas that catch on and pass between people via culture.’” Merriam-Webster.

To be more precise than the Merriam-Webster definition, the word meme first occurred in the 1976 book “The selfish gene” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He came up with the word by combining the ancient Greek word mimeme –meaning something imitated- with the English word gene

The meme mutation:

A meme is to a culture what a virus is to living or computing hosts: the meme will only spread if its host, or in this case a social human, carries it on.

If we go back to our original example, the word “âkâak”, we see that it all started with someone using it to summon the evil eye, then it spread from person to person much like how a virus would.

We can apply this concept to every viral meme you’ve come across. For instance, someone someday was watching Spongebob, and for some preposterous reasons, they came upon this famous episode and found the idea of the rainbow very interesting. They then used it as a reference in a picture.

But memes have another property that resembles viruses: they mutate. The reference originally said “Imagination”, how did it change? Well, it simply mutated!

Words are memes?

We can’t help but notice this repeating cycle: invention by humans then spreading then mutating.

Following this reasoning, words can be considered to be memes: all words have been invented by someone and spread through society. The words will mutate according to the language or accent used (among other factors).

In our socks example, the origin is actually tragic if we were to believe the rumor. Yet the meaning of the word mutated to become a joke after spreading. Think about it like the children’s game Chinese whispers; also known by its Arabic name « Chnowa howa? » The story will almost inevitably change at the end of the line. That is how memes mutate and that’s how new words are made: through a meme pandemic!

Thus, everything is a meme, words are memes, you’re a meme and your life’s a meme as well.

That’s it for today. If you came here hoping for me to talk about superstition, I didn’t have that on the menu but you can educate yourself on the evil eye, which is also a kind of meme that is referred to as “old wives’ tales”. You should know however that this reference only explains it from an Islamic point of view since that is the culture it is most associated with. I highly encourage you to find other sources and to form your own opinion on the matter.

Reference: The copyright to “what does it meme” goes to a series of YouTube videos made by one of my favorite YouTube channels. Check it out, it depicts phrases and phenomenons that were popularized by the cinematic industry. 

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