Mini-Stories: Volume 12

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
It’s the end of 2021. Who can believe it? And that means it’s time for our annual mini-stories episodes. Mini-stories are joyful little stories that come up in our research for another episode or maybe they’re just some fun thing someone told us about that we found really interesting but they didn’t quite warrant a full episode and many months of hard reporting. They’re great 99pi stories nonetheless. I love them because I get to interview my colleagues and get told great stories all day. Sometimes I know a little bit about what each producer is going to talk about, but sometimes I know nothing, which is very fun. This year, in addition to the staff that you know and love, we have some stories from special guests – some friends of the show stop by. This week we have stories of controversial sports logos, copious amounts of geese poop, odd olympic events and modernist penguins. I mean, come one. That’s a list of stories right there! Stay with us.

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STORY 1: NBA LOGO

Chris Berube:
So Roman, it is the most wonderful time of the year. It is NBA basketball season.

Roman Mars:
Isn’t that like eight months out of the year?

Chris Berube:
It is. It is. But that doesn’t mean — it’s the majority of the year and also the most wonderful time of the year, in my opinion. Roman, we’ve talked about branding and logos on the show before and today, I want to talk to you about a logo that is overlooked, sometimes. It is the NBA logo, so it’s the logo for the entire league. Take a look. I’ve sent it over. Tell me what you see.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so it is the NBA logo. I have seen. I think many other people have seen. It is blue and red, and it has the sort of silhouette of a basketball player like sort of, you know, he’s kind of like in action, has a ball in his hand that says NBA below it. If you have ever seen an NBA logo, this is the one you’ve probably seen.

Chris Berube:
So Roman, the NBA logo, it’s elegant. It’s also pretty simple, right? It’s kind of generic. It’s just a person playing basketball like nobody’s going to want to wear that on a T-shirt or a hat. Right?

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Chris Berube:
Would you be surprised to know this logo is the topic of hot debate among basketball fans?

Roman Mars:
Well, I would be surprised. Yeah, it seems very anodyne. Very basic.

Chris Berube:
Buckle up, Roman, I have a story for you. So I called up the sports journalist named Morgan Campbell. We started talking about league logos and he told me they fall under two categories.

Morgan Campbell:
You either have a shield. When you look at Major League Soccer, the NFL, the NHL, they all have different versions of the shield.

Chris Berube:
The shield is just like a shield with some letters on it. It’s pretty not offensive. The second category of league logo is the silhouette of a player. So the first league to go with the silhouette was Major League Baseball. They hired a design firm named Sandgren & Murtha, and a man named Jerry Dior made the logo. And Morgan pointed this out to me, there’s actually a really serious problem with this logo.

Morgan Campbell:
Major League Baseball has, you know, a silhouette and red, white and blue, of course, of a guy who is either about to hit a baseball. It’s out of the strike zone – high – because it’s headed for his shoulder or is about to get hit by a pitch and go to first base.

Chris Berube:
Once he pointed that out, I was like, oh yeah, there’s no way he’s hitting that ball. It’s way too high.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, that’s way high.

Chris Berube:
So despite the ball being a little too high, this was a very popular logo when it launched in 1968, and around the same time the NBA was looking to get its own logo.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

Chris Berube:
So a designer named Alan Siegel makes up this silhouette of a man dribbling a basketball. But there’s one big difference with this logo. This is not a generic silhouette. It’s a real guy.

Morgan Campbell:
The NBA logo, It’s understood that this silhouette is from a still picture of Jerry West. Like all of these leagues, their logo is not connected to a specific player, whereas the NBA people know, especially older people and people with long memories, know that that’s Jerry West.

Roman Mars:
So, but how can you really tell. Like the baseball one is just like there’s like a kind of a triangle for a nose. And there’s some more distinct features to the NBA logo. But how can you really tell that’s an individual person in that picture?

Chris Berube:
So I had the same question. I mean, it’s just a silhouette, like, how can you tell it’s a specific person? And then I saw the reference photo. So Roman, here you go. I’ve sent you the NBA logo and a reference photo of Jerry West. Take a look.

Roman Mars:
Oh yeah.

Chris Berube:
That’s him, right?

Roman Mars:
That’s it. That’s the picture.

Chris Berube:
It’s pretty undeniably him. It’s like the ears are his. It’s his haircut in silhouette.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Chris Berube:
Even how his foot is positioned is exactly the reference photo. Like, there’s no denying this is Jerry West in the silhouette.

Roman Mars:
So unlike you, I am not a big basketball fan. So can you tell me about Jerry West?

Chris Berube:
So Jerry West was one of the greatest basketball players of the 60s. He’s this legend from the L.A. Lakers. At the time, it makes a lot of sense that they chose him as the logo.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Chris Berube:
But here’s the thing. The NBA has never acknowledged that it’s him.

Roman Mars:
I mean, probably for good reason, like for legal reasons.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. I assume they do want to pay Jerry West royalties or admit that they based it on a real guy, so they’ve actually never admitted that it’s him. But every basketball fan knows that it’s him. Like Jerry West gets approached on the street by children who are like, “You’re the NBA logo.” His nickname is “the logo.”

Roman Mars:
Even though he’s not officially the logo, no one claims him officially as the logo, but he is called “the logo.”

Chris Berube:
Exactly. And there are some things about this that are a little bit complicated about Jerry West being the logo.

Roman Mars:
Mm-Hmm. (affirmative)

Chris Berube:
So the first issue is that Jerry West played in the 1960s. That is a very, very different era of basketball.

Morgan Campbell:
Yeah. Well, what it looks like is like a snapshot – a freeze frame – of the game the way people used to play it before athletes were as big and as fast as they are now.

Chris Berube:
So Morgan’s point is, this is not the silhouette of a modern NBA player like even the posture of the silhouette looks kind of wrong for a modern NBA player. Like in the 60s, there was no three point line, like it was just a totally different game. So in that way, it’s not very modern.

Roman Mars:
I mean, I guess you could argue that, you know, it’s really hard to come up with the generic logo that’s modern. So, you know, maybe having an old picture and preserving basketball history in some way…. you know, there’s something logical about it, you know.

Chris Berube:
Yeah. It’s like, maybe you could argue it’s a way to preserve the history of the sports, to acknowledge a different era.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm. (affirmative).

Chris Berube:
This brings us to the second problem, which is a little bit awkward. It’s the Jerry West is white, and at the time most of the NBA players were white. And today, about three quarters of the players in the NBA are Black. So a few NBA players have actually brought this up as an issue. They’re saying, well, most of the NBA players are black were being represented by a logo of a white person. Like, what kind of a message does this send, right? Yeah, that’s fair. Yeah. Then there’s the third problem, which is that Jerry West really hates this. He hates that he has the logo.

Roman Mars:
Well, why?

Chris Berube:
So I tried reaching out to Jerry West for this story. He didn’t want to talk to me. Like he clearly doesn’t like talking about this thing anymore, that has dominated the last 50 years of his life. But he did talk about it on ESPN a couple of years ago.

JERRY WEST (ON ESPN):
I wish that had never gotten out. That logo. I do. I really do. And I’ve said it more than once. And you know, it’s flattering if that’s me and I know it is me. But it is flattering. And uh… but if I were the NBA, I would be embarrassed about it. I really would.

ESPN SPORTSCASTER:
Why?

JERRY WEST (ON ESPN):
Because I don’t know. I just, I don’t like to do anything to call attention to myself. And when people say that, that’s just not who I am, period. And if they would want to change it, I wish they would. In many ways, I wish they would.

Roman Mars:
Oh, wow. So he wants them to change it. I mean, you really hear some pathos in his voice there. That’s really interesting. So is his wish ever going to come true? Are they going to make that happen?

Chris Berube:
So probably not. And here’s a big part of the reason — nobody can agree what players should replace Jerry West on the logo. If you’re going to stick with the silhouette-type logo. There is no consensus choice.

Morgan Campbell:
The one thing basketball fans do better than anyone on this planet is just argue over stuff. Just argue over stuff! Is LeBron better than Jordan? Does Steph Curry deserve to be considered alongside LeBron and Jordan and Magic? So imagine the moment you say, “We’re taking Jerry West off of the logo and looking for a new player to put on the logo”. Like NBA fandom, NBA Twitter, all of them would implode within 10 minutes.

Chris Berube:
I mean, I guess you could do Michael Jordan because that’s the closest you have to a consensus choice. But he already has this iconic silhouette that is used to sell sneakers. So that feels like it’s a nonstarter. I mean, you could do a generic silhouette, but the problem with that is it kind of feels like the horse is out of the barn, like that would make people really upset, like basically any choice would make a lot of people really angry.

Roman Mars:
That makes sense to me. That’s just the way people argue these days. I mean, did Jerry West have some kind of suggestion?

Chris Berube:
So he’s joked about it. He suggested it should be the commissioner of basketball, Adam Silver, which means it would be a person in a suit. And that’s, I mean, look, that’s a terrible choice. I don’t want to suggest that Jerry West is wrong here, but Jerry West is wrong here. It should not be Adam Silver, the commissioner of basketball.

Roman Mars:
I agree with you.

Chris Berube:
But recently, one player has kind of emerged as a fan favorite to become the new logo. It’s Kobe Bryant. So Bryant died in a helicopter crash last year at the age of 41. And soon after he died, this petition appeared online to make him the logo. About three million people have signed it at this point. Bryant’s widow is on board. Lots of NBA players support the idea, however–

Roman Mars:
Yeah, no. I think I know what this, however, is about.

Chris Berube:
Yeah, his legacy is complicated. You might remember Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault in 2003, and the charges were dropped, but he was sued in civil court and he settled out of court and issued a public apology. So, I mean, there’s certainly no perfect candidate, but Kobe Bryant would make a lot of people mad if he was the choice for the NBA logo.

Roman Mars:
For sure. So I guess the other option is they could, you know, just have the shield style one like the NFL or the NHL. I mean, the other leagues do that. Why not do that?

Chris Berube:
Yeah, I actually mentioned this idea to Morgan, and he was like, “No way, let’s not do that.” And his reason is something that’s cool about the NBA is that you do get to see players’ personalities.

Morgan Campbell:
And so I mean, the difference between the NBA and the NFL is that the NBA, like, you can see the players bodies, you can see their faces, you can see their facial expressions. And the sport itself allows for a lot of individual expression. Whereas all that stuff is one, impossible to see in the NFL because players wear helmets and two, because of the rules, like, any type of individual expression and spontaneity is frowned upon. That’s taunting. How dare you feel good about having made a play?

Chris Berube:
Roman, do you know what some people call the NFL?

Roman Mars:
No.

Chris Berube:
The no fun league. Because players are not allowed to really show their personality, but the NBA, it’s like they wear outfits before the games. They are allowed to talk to each other. They’re like — it’s just really fun. That’s a big draw of the sport for me.

Roman Mars:
But I think I could make the opposite case that if it is a league full of personalities that you don’t want another personality on the logo to mess with the personalities that are on the court, you know.

Chris Berube:
Roman, the shield is so boring. Have you seen it? Have you seen the NFL logo?

Roman Mars:
You know what? I haven’t, and I think it’s probably a testament to the fact that it, you know, isn’t quite as salient as this one.

Chris Berube:
Totally. And it’s something that comes up on our show a lot is the idea that there’s kind of no such thing as a generic design, right? Because when you’re trying to make something very unspecific and uncontroversial, you’re still making choices, right? Like you’re still communicating something.

Roman Mars:
Yeah, there’s even bias in that notion to make something generic and it always comes through. And it just is one of the reasons why design is always so fascinating. Well, I’m certainly much more fascinated by the NBA logo than I was before this started, so thank you for giving me a way to look at it.

Chris Berube:
Thanks again to Morgan Campbell, who spoke to us. You can find his writing at the CBC and in the New York Times, and he has a show on YouTube called “Bring It In,” which I like a lot. I would strongly recommend checking it out.

Roman Mars:
Cool. All right. Thanks, Chris.

Chris Berube:
Thanks, Roman.

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STORY #2 FOOTNOTES

Roman Mars:
So I’m talking with popular science writer Mary Roach, author of such books as “Stiff,” “Gulp,” and “Packing for Mars.” Her most recent is the bestseller called “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.” It’s all about the unpredictable and fraught interactions between humans and wildlife, and it’s so much fun. It’s so engaging. And like all of your other books, it’s full of footnotes, which I particularly love. Can you tell me how you use footnotes? Why do you use footnotes? And what do they do for you in the text?

Mary Roach:
Yeah, they’re not normal footnotes, Roman. They’re not footnotes the way intelligent scholarly people use footnotes. They’re just moments where I have this material that I found and I love. I love it very much and it cracks me up, but I can’t find a way to shoehorn it in. It’s too long to set it off with parentheses or em dashes. Is too much. It just derails the flow. However much flow I ever have, so I insist on keeping it in and I put it in a footnote. And my editor, I think initially she didn’t realize what they were. She was going to put them at the end of the chapter. I’m like, “No, no, no. It’s not that kind of footnote.” I think she, like most people, was just skipping them. But anyway, she agreed that we could put them on the page. And they’re just– it’s just material that is hilarious or bizarre or just, it’s just me being self-indulgent and wanting that material in there, even though it doesn’t really fit.

Roman Mars:
And I personally love them because they are like a window into your mind, which is a mind I enjoy spending time with.

Mary Roach:
They’re definitely that.

Roman Mars:
The footnotes are really, like kind of an analog to how we do mini-stories at the end of the year. They’re just joyful little asides that don’t constitute a book or a chapter or even a paragraph in the main text, you know. They’re just kind of like their own thing. And so I was hoping that in our mini-stories episode, you could share with me one or two of your favorite footnotes from the book and the context for how they both maybe fit in or didn’t fit into the main part of the text of “Fuzz.”

Mary Roach:
I would love to. Okay, this one has to do with Canada geese. And I was originally going to have a Canada Goose chapter. I was going to learn to be an egg addler, which we don’t need to get into right here. But egg addling isn’t done very much anymore. I couldn’t get trained as an egg addler.

Roman Mars:
I know you said you don’t want to get into it, but could you just quickly tell me what an egg addler is?

Mary Roach:
Yeah, sure. If you take an egg and you – a goose egg, say – and you shake it or you coated in oil, that’s another way to do it, it kills the little embryo inside. So people who want to get rid of Canada geese in a humane way would practice egg addling. They shake the egg. But you have to be sure that it’s not far enough along that the embryo is considered more goose than embryo. So it’s kind of goose abortion in a way, and people have done a lot of work looking at, you know, if the egg floats, it means there’s more air than goose. So it’s okay to addle it, so…. you know. But it’s a lot of work because of the bucket of the, you know, the water and floating all the eggs to make sure it’s a humane killing. And also the geese come at you pretty angrily. You have to carry an umbrella and open up the umbrella at them to scare them away. So you kind of look like — isn’t there a Batman character…?

Roman Mars:
The Penguin. Yeah, sure.

Mary Roach:
The Penguin, yeah. So that appealed to me, that whole scenario with the umbrella and the bucket and the eggs, but I couldn’t find anyone to train me. So the whole chapter is gone – the Canada geese. But you know, I had trouble letting go of the Canada geese, so I have a part of the book where I’m talking to someone at the Vatican about, you know, do we have the right to destroy animals? And for what reason, like, can you call certain animals a pest and then ethically kill them? This conversation with this poor guy at the Pontifical Academy for Life, who doesn’t really understand why he’s having to have this conversation. Anyway, we’re talking about Canada geese and I’m saying, you know, what is their crime? They crap. That’s it. That’s the only thing. They’re not harming anyone. They’re not posing a danger. They crap on lawns and golf courses. And so, you know, maybe we should get rid of golf courses and not geese. Anyway, it was this whole conversation with this poor guy. But I wanted — here’s the footnote — because I’m saying, what is their crime? They crap a lot. Canada geese crap a lot. And then here’s the footnote.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Mary Roach:
But not as heavily as the internet would have you believe. Goose busters has them extruding three to four pounds a day. The geese police superintendent at the National Mall in Washington, DC, claims two to three pounds a day per goose. A Boston city councilor — “as much as three pounds per day.” The Canada Goose Fecal Smear campaign appears to have hit its zenith in New Jersey’s Montclair local newspaper, “An adult Canada goose can weigh up to 20 pounds and defecates more than twice its weight daily.” That would be 40 pounds a day coming out of a single goose. That is how much a horse makes. The reporter cited the USDA. A contact with their National Wildlife Research Center public Affairs Office steered me to the USDA geese, ducks and coots fact sheet, which gives a daily total of one point five pounds. The author of the USDA fact sheet got his information from a Virginia Tech University Cooperative Extension Goose fact sheet. That fact sheet says “studies have shown,” but does not cite any studies. A Google Scholar search brings up just one researcher, BA Manny, who actually went out and weighed some turds. Manny’s finding? The average total wet weight of a Canada goose’s daily droppings is just a third of a pound. So where did Virginia Tech get the 1.5 pound per day figure? The author did not reply to multiple emails, and so it remains a mystery. Poundage aside, the Canada Goose is a frequent crapper 28 times a day on average, Manny found. In related research, a Canadian team reports that, “Sleeping geese sometimes produce small piles of droppings.”

Roman Mars:
You’re doing God’s work, Mary. So do you want to set up the second footnote from “Fuzz” that you have for us?

Mary Roach:
So the other footnote I want to share is kind of related in that it’s another instance where I’m trying to get to the bottom of something and they won’t call me back. They won’t write to me, you know, dealing with public affairs people and publicity people and that constant struggle to get people who understandably don’t want to talk to me. I get that alot! Okay, this has to do with well, around the time of World War II, there were a number of poisons that the National Defense Research Committee, they were working with the Wildlife Research Laboratory, they were looking for new rat poisons, and they were trying out some of the poisons that the government had experimented with for human warfare. One of them was ricin, but the code name for ricin was Compound W. And so I’m familiar with Compound W as a wart remover, and I was curious whether the Compound W people knew that this was a code name for ricin, whether that mattered to them, whether possibly it was an in joke. Anyway, I had a lot of questions for these folks at Compound W. And here’s the footnote: “Did the makers of the wart removal product Compound W realized this when they named their product? I dont know, because Prestige Brands, which owns Compound W, doesn’t return calls and their online media query form is a dead end and they are not on Twitter. But while we’re on the topic of inappropriate names, let’s consider Prestige Brands because here are some more of their prestige brands: Fleet enemas, Nix for lice, Beano for flatulence, URISTAT, Nostrilla decongestant, Summer’s Eve douche, Boil-Ese, Efferdent denture cleaner and Boudreaux’s butt paste. So it’s all Prestige Brands.

Roman Mars:
Yeah.

Mary Roach:
That’s my favorite footnote.

Roman Mars:
I’ll probably find products that do their job well. They probably do that quite prestigiously.

Mary Roach:
It’s kind of like if Mary Roach owned a product company, a corporate product company, that’s what it would sell. It’s kind of… I mean, I have a real affinity for these people, even though they won’t get back to me.

Roman Mars:
Well, maybe maybe next time they will.

Mary Roach:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
So thank you so much for giving us a guide through your footnotes. And if you want to read, you know, the accompanying text that encircles these footnotes, the book “Fuzz” is so great. I enjoyed every minute reading it. So thank you so much for writing it and for coming on the show.

Mary Roach:
Thanks so much, Roman. I always enjoy it.

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STORY #3 ARCHITECTURAL OLYMPICS

Roman Mars:
The Olympic Games seem almost timeless, going back to ancient Greece. So it can be easy to forget that the modern games, as we know them today, were only launched just over a century ago. Kurt Kohlstedt is here with some lesser-known modern Olympic history from when the games were still being shaped into the international event we know today.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
That’s right. And to get things started, Roman, I’m going to have you read the first stanza of a poem. It’s titled “Ode to Sport,” and it was written in 1912 — 16 years after the first modern Olympic Games.

Roman Mars:
Okay, here it goes. “O, sport pleasure of the gods, essence of life, you appeared suddenly in the midst of the gray clearing, which rides with the drudgery of modern existence, like the radiant messenger of a past age when mankind still smiled and the glimmer of dawn lit up the mountain tops and flecks of light dotted the ground in the gloomy forests.”

Roman Mars:
Well done. That was excellent.

Roman Mars:
So, well, other than them having a really dim view of the modern condition, what is that poem about?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, see, it’s not just any poem. It’s an Olympic poem. And I don’t mean that it’s a poem about the Olympics. I mean, it literally won an Olympic gold medal for literature.

Roman Mars:
Okay. Okay, I mean, I don’t know about every sport in the Olympics, but I’m pretty sure literature is not one that I’m familiar with at all.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, you’re right. And nobody is today, for the most part. But for decades, the Olympic Games actually did include competitions that fell under these five main artistic categories. And one of those was literature.

Roman Mars:
And so because I only think of them as sporting events and decathlons and pentathlon, how did literature find its way into the Olympics?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, it started with this person who is broadly credited with launching the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin. And he was this French aristocrat who advocated for and then ultimately organized the International Olympic Committee, which is still around today. So he’s at the forefront of Olympics in general, and that committee decided to host the very first modern international Olympics in 1896, and they chose Athens as the host city, which was, of course, a nod to the ancient Greek Olympics.

Roman Mars:
So the first modern games in Athens, they did both features like sports and arts like that?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Well, not quite yet, but the very first set of games was basically what you’d expect. It had sports like swimming, weightlifting and fencing. But then after we’d had a couple of good successful games, all centered around sports, Coubertin sprung this idea on the IOC in 1986. He basically was like, here we go. Like, why don’t we also add these arts categories I’ve been thinking about? And those were architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.

Roman Mars:
Architecture. Now we’re cooking. Okay, keep going.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
So these architects and other artists participating in this new “Pentathlon of the Muses” were supposed to be amateurs, much like their counterparts competing on the sports side.

Roman Mars:
It all seems like a pretty big departure from, you know, what I think of as the ancient Olympics. Were those always centered around sports, too?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
I mean, they were for the most part, but there were some ancient Olympic competitions for music or singing or even what’s called heralding, which I gather just involve announcing things really loudly. I don’t know. And so Coubertin kind of referred to that in his arguments for including the arts in the modern Olympics. And he wrote, “In the high times of Olympia, the fine arts were combined harmoniously with the Olympic Games to create their glory. This is to become reality once again.” But, and I find this strange for some reason, all of these artistic entries were also supposed to be related to sports.

Roman Mars:
Which, I mean the poem you had me read at the top was was like that. It was about sports. I mean, I don’t know if like, if you were judging all poems equally, if one about sports would necessarily win the Gold Medal, but when it comes to poems in the Olympics during this era, they had to be about sports.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yeah, exactly. So it was kind of limiting. And so, in the realm of architecture, for example, contenders submitted stuff like athletic stadiums and sporting complexes and playing fields and swimming pools and even ski jumps. And some of those pieces were published during the Olympics, like that’s where they kind of first appeared, but others were like built structures, like out in the world.

Roman Mars:
So they were judging actual built structures. It’s not just like, how did you bring your building to Athens? Like, how did that work?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. So in most cases, whether or not the thing was built, they relied on renderings. But there were exceptions. So in the 1928 games in Amsterdam, there was this Dutch architect who won the Gold Medal for the stadium that was being used in those Olympics.

Roman Mars:
Talk about a home field advantage.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right? It does seem like it being there maybe could skew the judges a little bit. But the crazy thing is like, by this time, there were a lot of submissions. Like that year alone, there were over a thousand works of art submitted in all these different categories.

Roman Mars:
Wow. It’s kind of amazing to me that there was this period of time where there were that many submissions and it was that big a part of the games. But no one knows about this period of time in the Olympics history.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right? Like, I didn’t either. I mean, you know, I went to architecture school. You’d think that they would teach you about the architectural Olympics. But no, they kind of faded from memory. But for a long time, they were really a big deal. And the IOC even got to the point of adding new subcategories within the arts like orchestra in dramatic works, even town planning. Yeah, right.? And so these creative competitions grew popular. And one side effect was that they started to naturally draw in people who are more like aspiring professionals and even veteran creatives. And some of these participating artists were even selling their artworks during the games.

Roman Mars:
Well, that seems to be somewhat in the violation of the spirit of the games. You know, just to use it as a showcase for selling your work. It’s like big a gallery show.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right.

Roman Mars:
If the act of being in the games turns you from an amateur to a professional, then that makes things kind of complicated.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
It does. And really, this idea of amateurism is something that the IOC was pushing more and more as time went on and we were getting into the 1940s. So the arts became this natural target, right? Like, it was the obvious thing that was like not being quite as amateur as everybody thought it would be. And frankly, you know, this amateur focus to begin with was a bit of a stretch for the arts and that architect who won the award for building that Olympic Stadium, like obviously, he wasn’t an amateur.

Roman Mars:
Right? Yeah. You couldn’t host the Olympic Games in an amateur stadium, you know, with amateur adherence to building guidelines.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right. Just think a rough sketch of an idea, you know. It’ll be fine. And there were other problems, too. Like some artists didn’t want to participate because they might lose, and that could damage their reputation.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm. (affirmative).

Kurt Kohlstedt:
And then, you know, as you mentioned before, it’s like this sports focus was pretty limiting. And so eventually, after the London Games in ’48, the IOC just discontinued the arts competitions altogether. And now there’s this thing called the Cultural Olympiad, which is separate, but really like the main events and the medals are for sports.

Roman Mars:
I mean, that’s stunning to me that it lasted until 1948, so that means that there’s like a stretch of like 30 years or more where there were these artistic medal winners. Like are there anybody that I would know of in that cohort.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
You know, most of them aren’t famous people, for better or for worse. Like the ones I actually find most interesting are these like ways in which they kind of like, pushed the idea of the Olympics or like things like set unusual records. So for example, there is this Olympian in 1912 who won a medal for swimming, while he also won a medal for sculpture. Like, to me, that’s really cool. Like, that’s like, wow, that’s really the liberal arts competition, right? You can like, win in art and sports. And then there was this winner in the arts who was 73 years old when he won. You know, we think of Olympic contenders being pretty young, but it’s like in the arts, really, any age can apply. And then there’s Coubertin himself, who won a gold medal in an arts category in the 1912 Paris Olympics.

Roman Mars:
Wait a second. I mean, he helped jumpstart the Olympics, like sort of the founder of the modern Olympics, and then he competed in the Olympics.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Yes, yes he did. And he won his award for literature or more specifically, poetry.

Roman Mars:
Did he write that poem at the top that you made me read?

Kurt Kohlstedt:
That’s the one. Coubertin submitted it under a pseudonym, and he won the Gold!

Roman Mars:
Well, I’m sure there’s nothing fishy going on there.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
No, not at all. Not at all. And you know, I mean, there is this possibility that he submitted it because he wanted to make sure all the art categories were represented. You know, the first year that the arts were included.

Roman Mars:
Mm-Hmm. (affirmative)

Kurt Kohlstedt:
But obviously, I mean, I can’t help but wonder if he was secretly harboring a second motive. I mean, he put a lot into pitching these arts competitions, so, you know, maybe, just maybe, he knew he really couldn’t compete on the sports side. But, you know, he wanted his shot at the gold.

Roman Mars:
If there was a podcast Olympics and I got a gold medal, I would totally be into it. Oh my god.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right? You could found it and then submit your work to it. It’d be the best.
Roman Mars: I love it. Oh, I really do love it. Well, that’s so great. I want to bring this back. I would love to see, you know, what you know, Michael Phelps could do when it comes to designing a stadium.

Kurt Kohlstedt:
Right?

Roman Mars:
That would be so awesome

Kurt Kohlstedt: Or how well he can sculpt. I mean, I don’t know, like the possibilities are endless.
Roman Mars: Well, I love imagining an Olympics like that. Thanks, Kurt. Coming up, modernism and penguins collide. After this.

[BREAK]

——————————————

CODA – PENGUIN POOL

Roman Mars:
Okay, Delaney Hall, what is your mini-story for this year?

Delaney Hall:
Well, for months there’s been this story that’s been kicking around in our pitch meetings and it is about the penguin pool at the London Zoo.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Delaney Hall:
And when the pool was originally built in 1934, it was this groundbreaking work of engineering. But there is also a lot of drama over the pool, which is now empty and like, big questions about what to do with it.

Roman Mars:
I love the idea of drama about a penguin pool. So what is so special about this pool?

Delaney Hall:
Well, I will get to that. But first, if you will allow me a brief digression into zoo history.

Roman Mars:
I will always allow you all digressions. This is like… this empire was built on digressions.

Delaney Hall:
Okay, well, well here is the digression. So modern zoos. Let’s start there. Modern zoos date back to the mid-19th century, and one of the first was actually the London Zoo. It was established in 1828, and that was a time when the natural sciences were blossoming, so classification and taxonomy were all the rage. And you can see that reflected in zoo design of the time. So that’s kind of where you get the idea of the cat house and the monkey house and the reptile house.

Roman Mars:
So as soon as they started dividing animals taxonomically, then they started to put them in different houses. And that’s still like, you still see that in zoos today. As soon as you walk into the zoo, like the monkey house is there.

Delaney Hall:
Right. But the thing about zoos back then is that even though there was this growing appreciation for the natural world, zoos were basically still, you know, jails for animals. Animals were kept tightly chained in small cages. The lifespan of the typical zoo animal was quite short.

Roman Mars:
I mean, you can imagine that that’s not a way any animal should live. Was there a point when that started to get a little bit better or what did they start to do to change that?

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. By the mid-20th century, there are a couple of big things happening in zoo design. One is the decline of cages with bars, so zoo designers are starting to make exhibits that are instead surrounded by moats of water. They’re less explicitly cage-like. And then, on the other hand, there’s this other trend happening, which is towards modernist zoo design.

Roman Mars:
And you know, here we love modernism and all, but I can imagine the clash of modernism and, you know, zoo design having some problems?

Delaney Hall:
Yes, absolutely. I mean, we love modernism. I don’t know that animals love modernism. You know, like, not super comfortable for the animals.

Roman Mars:
Fair enough.

Delaney Hall:
So these modernist exhibits have concrete cubes and blocky sculptural elements, and there is an argument being made in favor of these new environments. You know, zoo designers say they’re clean, they’re easily hosed down. They’re very sterile. But as you’ll see, they’re not always the friendliest spaces for animals, and that is where we get back to the famous penguin pool. So here’s a picture of the pool for you to check out.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so this is a… there’s basically a pool area created. There’s people observing from like, I don’t know, the second level. And then there is a sort of double helix of ramps kind of curving around each other. As a set of shapes, it’s actually pretty beautiful.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, it is. It is like zoo exhibit as art.

Roman Mars:
Mm-hmm. (affirmative).

Delaney Hall:
But it does not look like a habitat.

Roman Mars:
Right.

Delaney Hall:
But it was very popular when it first opened. So here’s an old video clip of a reporter visiting the enclosure back in the 30s.

NEWS ARCHIVAL TAPE:
So it’s left-right, left-right, round the pool and up the plank.

Delaney Hall:
You see the penguins walking up and down the spirals and swimming in the shallow pool below them. And the concept was fairly clever. Like, penguins could march up and around the ramps. It gave them some room to wander, and it also brought them up to eye level with the spectators.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. So who designed this? This particular pool.

Delaney Hall:
The designer was an architect named Berthold Lubetkin, but a lot of the credit also goes to Ove Arup.

Roman Mars:
Oh yeah. Yeah, he’s, I mean, this is like, the company Arup, the structural engineering company, is behind tons of amazing structures, including the Sydney Opera House. Lot of things.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, exactly. And part of Arup’s reputation came from projects like the pool. He was behind the pool’s iconic reinforced concrete ramps and the engineering firm Kier that Arup worked for when he built the ramps still holds them up, you know, many decades later as an example of their groundbreaking work. So here’s one of their promotional videos.

KIER PROMO VIDEO:
In this case, it was expertise in concrete that led to Kier engineer Ove Arup developing the groundbreaking torsion-reinforced concrete system that allows the interlocking spiral ramps to float in space.

Roman Mars:
So it’s pretty to look at. The ramps are amazing and sort of an engineering feat. The pool is still there. But you’d mentioned that it’s empty. Like, it doesn’t hold penguins anymore. So why did that happen?

Delaney Hall:
Well, this is where the controversy comes in and, you know, where we start to see the limits of building exhibits that are more about design than about creating a livable habitat for animals. So what happened is that, kind of surprisingly, for 50 years or so, penguins lived in the pool area with few problems. We don’t know if they liked living there, but they were relatively healthy. Then eventually, zookeepers started noticing a problem, which was that penguins were getting infections, specifically something called bumble foot.

Roman Mars:
Oh no. What’s bumblefoot? It sounds both like kind of cutesy and terrifying at the same time.

Delaney Hall:
I know, it sounds like a disease that would just happen in penguins. It actually afflicts various animals but-

Roman Mars:
Or what would happen in the Potter-verse or something like that?

Delaney Hall:
Yes. So it is a kind of bacterial infection, and it seems like what happened is that a few decades ago, the pool was renovated. And during that process, the zoo swapped out the original rubber poolside paving for concrete. And they also added these quartz granules to make the surface less slippery.

Roman Mars:
Less slippery for penguins?! Why did it need to be less slippery? They live on ice! I don’t understand that at all.

Delaney Hall:
Well, not all penguins. Not all penguins.

Roman Mars:
Okay, I guess they don’t, but still like… So effectively they’re walking on this really rough surface that’s scratching up their feet and that leads to infection.

Delaney Hall:
Yes, exactly. So the changes in the material led to wounded feet, which I think led to the infections. But it’s also a little more complicated than that because a guy named John Allen who worked on restoring the pool, he’s spoken about this and he says that the original bird selected for the pool were an Antarctic species that generally huddles together. And then when those penguins were swapped out for species that prefers to burrow, the habitat just wasn’t as well suited for them. So it seems like it was related to the redesign, but also to the changing of the species and some combination of how the species interacted with the built environment.

Roman Mars:
Okay, so this guy John Allen, he wasn’t convinced that it was just the concrete causing the problem.

Delaney Hall:
Right, right. So that’s part of the tension. There’s this question of who’s to blame for the pool failing the penguins. The other big debate is what to do with the pool now because it has just been sitting there completely empty.

Roman Mars:
Right. Well, I mean, presumably you just replace it with a penguin pool that actually works.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah. Yes, exactly. You would think so. I mean, even the architect’s own daughter, Sasha, has suggested they can just “blow it to smithereens and move on.” She says the pool has outlived its usefulness.

Roman Mars:
But I can already see what’s coming down the pike here because this thing is this engineering feat. It’s sort of more of an architectural issue than a penguin issue. So I take it there are some preservationists out there that want to keep it.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, some preservationists really want to save it. It is a historical landmark. One especially vocal London newspaper editor wrote that tearing the place down would be an “act of cultural vandalism.” And he called Sasha’s statement about blowing up her father’s pool “patricidal.”

Roman Mars:
That’s pretty dramatic. Okay. Well, I guess that’s what newspaper editors and opinion columnists kind of have to do for them to earn their keep. But it is kind of amazing when you boil it down that this is all over a pool for penguins.

Delaney Hall:
Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

Roman Mars:
And so where do the London Zoo’s penguins live now?

Delaney Hall:
Well, the penguins have been moved to a new penguin beach, and the beach is indicative of the latest trends and zoo design, which is, you know, they’re trying to more faithfully recreate the actual native habitats of the animals who live there. So in the case of the beach, that’s a South American beach landscape with lots of plants and water. The water is deep enough for diving, there’s sand that the penguins can burrow in, which is an important part of their mating ritual. And then there’s rocks for the penguins, you know, little feet to walk on instead of concrete with quartz granules. So, it mimics the places these penguins actually live in the wild. Here’s one of the zookeepers.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
The previous pool that we used to keep the penguins in beforehand was okay, but it didn’t have all of the new whizzy kind of exhibit penguin-friendly adaptations we’ve got into this pond. So, for instance, the old pool you used to see the penguins swimming around…

Roman Mars:
I mean, it sounds like they actually kind of settled on an interesting compromise, which is they have a penguin habitat that actually functions as the penguin habitat. And if they want to keep those ramps around just to look at them, like more power to them. I don’t think… That’s their place. They can decide what to do with it or not. I suppose.

Delaney Hall:
That’s true.

Roman Mars:
You can put little stuffed penguins all around it. And show how it used to work or something.

Delaney Hall:
A little animatronic penguins.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Or just a diorama.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, they could go full like, New York Natural History Museum with those weird dioramas.

Roman Mars:
But it has less to do with natural history and more to do with like, engineering history. And then there’s a little like, architectural lesson as soon as you enter the zoo which is not what most kids will expect or enjoy.

Delaney Hall:
But we will. You’ll like it. Just concrete, no animals.

Roman Mars:
Well, thank you, Delaney. This is a fascinating place. I had no idea.

Delaney Hall:
Yeah, of course. Thanks so much, Roman.

Roman Mars:
As always, there’s lots of images and videos of the pool at our website. It’s 99pi.org.

———
CREDITS:

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube, Kurt Kohlstedt and Delaney Hall. Mix and tech production by Ameeta Ganatra. Music by our director of sound Swan Real.

The rest of the team is Vivian Le, Emmet FitzGerald, Lasha Madan, Christopher Johnson, Joe Rosenberg, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

Special thanks to my old officemate Mary Roach, who I wish I still got lunch with everyday. You should read all her books. She’s the best.

We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building — in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show at @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99pi at 99pi.org.

 

  1. Sean Redmond

    On the topic of Michael Phelps & sculpting, he has (or certainly had) sculpted his body to a degree that many would find very easy on the eye, for a given definition of ‘sculpt’ of course.
    And on the topic of the NBA logo, I would think that democracy and some ground rules are the answer here.
    a. The basic format of the logo stays the same, only the silhouette would vary.
    b. Allow submissions of silhouettes from current players within the association.
    c. The players upon whom the silhouettes are based must be dead.
    d. Only the current players within the Association may vote.
    e. They may vote for, say, 5 silhouettes in order of their choice and the single transferable vote is used.
    f. The silhouette that eventually reaches the quota is chosen. If the quota is not reached and there are no more transferable votes, the silhouette with the highest rank is chosen. In the event of a tie, a coin is tossed.
    g. The logo is changed once a decade on the same date (or xth weekend of a month).

    Here we let the players choose and one of the great players of the past will be honoured. It is democratic and those who disagree will have to live with it.

  2. Dianna J

    Regarding the NBA logo, why don’t they use an image of a basketball entering the net? Do away with the player totally.

  3. Dominic Castelli

    On the topic of the NBA Logo, why not just have the logo for the year be a silhouette of the previous year’s MVP? This way the logo would remain current and even provide a new, interesting revenue stream for the NBA.

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