The 5 Greatest Sports Hoaxes of All Time (and 4 Others)

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The origins of April Fools’ Day are murky.

It might have began several centuries ago as a way to poke fun at people who began the New Year in the Spring. And it could have something to do with a misreading of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which describes a chicken who falls for a trick played by a sly fox “Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two.”

Whatever the history of April Fools’ Day, our culture has set aside the first day of the fourth month of each year as an occasion for pranks, hoaxes, and other foolishness. To commemorate this holiday, which occurs this Sunday, here is a list of the greatest hoaxes from the world of sports.

First, here are a few honorable (and dishonorable) mentions:

Rosie Ruiz takes the subway?

A dishonorable mention goes to Rosie Ruiz, who finished first in the 1980 Boston Marathon. Ruiz crossed the finish line with a time of 2:31:56, which would have been a Boston record and the third best female marathon time ever had it been legitimate.

Boston was only Ruiz’s second marathon. Her first was the 1979 New York Marathon, which she finished in an impressive 2:56:29. Following her first-place finish in Boston, Sports Illustrated wrote:

[Ruiz] said she had been training hard only for a year and a half, although she had run track in high school and college. Her best time for the mile, she said, was 5:30. She is a member of no club, trains 60 to 70 miles a week, and most crucially, was seen by no other woman runner in the race. Asked about this, Ruiz said, “I paced myself off the men. Since it was only my second race, I’m not familiar with watching out for where everybody is.” She could recall no splits for the intermediate distances. Indeed, the term split had to be explained to her.

Ruiz couldn’t answer the simple question of when she knew she was in first place and didn’t appear fatigued enough for someone who had just run a marathon at a 5:46-per-mile clip. Eight miles into the race runner Jacqueline Gareau was told she was in the lead; at the seventeen-mile mark runner Patti Lyons was told that she was in second. No one ever saw Ruiz pass Gareau or Lyons, and two Harvard students reported seeing Ruiz emerge from the crowd and run onto the course a few miles from the finish.

The previous fall a spectator at the New York Marathon named Susan Morrow ran into Ruiz in the subway during the race. Ruiz said that she had hurt her ankle at the ten-mile mark, and Morrow helped her to an injured runners tent not far from the finish line. After Morrow left, Ruiz took off from the tent and “completed” the race in 11th place, with a time good enough to qualify her for Boston.

No one knows exactly what shortcut Ruiz took in Boston. She still maintains that she ran all 26.2 miles. But Boston officials decided, less than a week after the race, that Ruiz’s miracle marathon had been a hoax and awarded the trophy to Gareau.

—–

Kevin Hart commits to Cal

Nevada high school football player Kevin Hart wanted nothing more from life than to play Division I football. And when he held a Signing Day press conference at Fernley High School in 2008 to announce his college plans, the offensive lineman appeared to be on his way. Hart, whom Rivals had rated a two-star prospect, had narrowed his choices down to California and Oregon. During the press conference he put on a Cal cap and told the local media that he was headed to Berkeley.

Not long after the press conference, it surfaced that Cal had never offered Hart a scholarship nor formally recruited him. The press soon discovered that Oregon hadn’t either. Bloggers asked whether Hart had been the victim of a hoax. Had someone posed as Cal coach Jeff Tedford and offered Hart a fake scholarship?

A couple days later Hart released a statement saying that he wasn’t the victim of a hoax. Rather, he was the perpetrator. When Division I offers didn’t come, Hart decided to hold a fake press conference so that he could have the Signing Day experience he’d always dreamed of having.

Hart ended up playing at Feather River College, a junior college in Quincy, California. After two years at Feather River, Division I-FCS Appalachian State offered him a scholarship. This time around, Hart decided that playing Division I football wasn’t as important to him as it had been a couple years earlier and signed with Division II Missouri Western State.

—–

Bruno Banini: the Tongan luger with the funny name

The Pacific Island nation of Tonga, where the coldest month of the year has an average high temperature of 75 degrees (24 Celsius), has never produced a Winter Olympian. But Tongan Princess Royal, Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita, has said that it is her dream to see one of her country’s citizens compete in a cold-weather event at the Olympics.

Last year a Tongan luger named Bruno Banini arrived on the scene. Banini was notable both because he came from a country devoid of snow and ice and because he shared a name with a German underwear company. Bruno Banini, a company whose slogan is “not for everybody,” is known for making racy undergarments. The German media became infatuated with the son of a coconut farmer (so the story went) with the coincidental name.

The man known as Bruno Banini was from Tonga, and he was a luger, but his actual name was Fuahea Semi. A marketing firm named Makai signed Semi and came up with his Bruno Banini alter-ego. Makai used Semi’s son-of-a-coconut farmer backstory to promote Bruno Banini’s new “Coconut Power” product line. (In reality Semi’s father is a cassava farmer, not a coconut farmer.) Makai secured a passport for Bruno Banini and the sports media and the International Luge Federation referred to Semi exclusively as “Banini.”

Semi, as Banini, won a bronze medal in the luge at the American-Pacific Championships last December in Calgary. The following month the German magazine Der Spiegel exposed Semi’s ruse.

Semi/Banini’s chances of qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are not good. He finished 34th of 37 at last month’s World Championships. If he does qualify, he will be allowed to compete as Bruno Banini, as long as he has all of the proper name-change documentation. Still, Olympic Committee Vice President Thomas Bach is on record saying that Semi’s name-change was in “bad taste.”

Fuahea Semi, or Bruno Banini, during this year's Luge World Cup. (Karl Mathis/Keystone/AP Photo)

—–

The Turk: the chess-playing automaton

Nowadays, there’s nothing unusual about a chess-playing machine. A quick search on my phone brings up no fewer than five dozen chess applications, all of which could defeat me without much trouble.

But in the eighteenth century, nearly two hundred years before the invention of the integrated circuit, a chess-playing robot was one of the wonders of the world.

Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen introduced his automaton chess player in 1770. His machine became known as “The Turk” because the player was a life-size model of a man dressed in Turkish robes and a turban. The Turk sat behind a large cabinet topped with an 18 inch-by-18 inch chessboard. The cabinet housed an assortment of gears and cogs that supposedly enabled the Turk to counter his opponent’s moves. The entire contraption was littered with doors, which the presenter could open to disprove the suspicions of onlookers who were convinced that a human chess master was hiding inside.

The Turk toured Europe and the Americas for 84 years, taking on dignitaries such as Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the 1820s, after the Turk had been on the road for more than fifty years, a man named Robert Willis revealed that the the automaton chess player wasn’t actually an automaton. There was a man—an operator—hiding inside the Turk all along. The operator had a sliding seat that allowed him to move out of the way when the presenter was showing audiences the Turk’s inner workings. The presenter communicated with the operator using numbers on a pair of rotating brass disks—one on the inside of the box and one on the outside.

The operator had his own chess board inside the box, as well as a metal pointer that was attached through a series of levers to the Turk’s arm. When the operator placed the pointer on a square on the interior board, the Turk would move his arm to the same space on the actual board. The operator could then make the Turk open and close his arm and lift and drop pieces. Even though the Turk couldn’t play chess on its own, it was nonetheless an impressive piece of machinery.

The Turk, which was eventually destroyed in an 1854 fire, is one of the greatest, most elaborate hoaxes in recorded history. If I could be convinced that chess is a sport, the Turk would be number one on the list that follows.

A 1783 engraving of The Turk (Photo from Wikipedia)

 

* * * * * * *

Incredibly, these four hoaxes above weren’t great enough to make the top 5 greatest sports hoaxes of all time. But hoaxes from the worlds of soccer, baseball, college basketball, and the NHL did, each remarkable in both its imagination and execution.

Continue reading to learn about the five greatest hoaxes in the history of sports.

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About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

Comments

  1. What about Sidd Finch?

  2. Coolinall says:

    Danny Almonte?

  3. Bum Ruben says:

    I actually drafted Sidd Finch for my Rotisserie (now fantasy…dur) League

  4. What a great blog post! Thanks for sharing it on your site.

  5. Dice K and the unhittable screw ball.

  6. elmer simendinger says:

    Dennis Rodeman pretending to be a basketball player

  7. Beach Guy13 says:

    Sidd Finch was obviously a joke from the start, never a believable “hoax”

    • sportsman says:

      B.S. beachie.  I remember the article and anything written by George Plimpton was more than acceptable.  And Jim, Dice K’s pitch was basically a badly thrown slider, quite the opposite of the screw ball.  He did have a great forkball or split-finger. 

      • Actually it is a changeup. Why would anyone mistake a slider which would break away from a right-handed batter with a screwball which breaks in? The pitch that was called a scewball, or even worse the mysterious gyro, is a circle change with moderate movement in on the hands of right handed batters.

  8. Lawsonbob says:

    I read in Sport Magazine long ago about a hoax involving a fake college team and its fake star player, a Chinese or Japanese running back who ate two bowls of rice every halftime. Somebody would call in the stories of this fake team and the back’s exploits every week to the New York papers and the guy was being touted as a potential all-America until the hoax was revealed, with two false games remaining.

    • Yes I remember that too. The running back was named John Chung or something,referred to as a ‘stellar Chinese halfback’

  9. The best April Fools joke would be “TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS MAKE PLAYOFFS”

  10. 5years2go says:

    “the runner” magazine ran an article similar to “sidd finch” in the 80’s (not sure of the year. it could have been the same year as the plimpton article.) it told the story of a young african woman who ran 20- 30 miles daily in her bare feet. although she had never competed before, the author clocked her on a dirt track doing 26.2 in 2:19 and change. (at that time, no woman had run a sub-2:20 marathon). i fell for it hook,line, and sinker. in this case, the first letter of each paragraph spelled out april fools. still one of the best sports bios i have read, even if it wasn’t true.

  11. deadbugman says:

    @Lawsonbob  That hoax was perpetrated in 1941 and involved a running back named Johnny “Celestial Comet” Chung playing for a non-existent Plainfield Teachers College in New Jersey.

  12. Gulraider says:

    Doesn’t anyone remember the runner at the olypics who ran into the stadium like they were the leader?

  13. Gulfraider says:

    olympics

  14. Kevinbellin says:

    The greatest sports hoax of all time was 1989.   The Minnesota Vikings were faked into a trade that was to result in the super bowl win.  The fanfare was not for Minnesota, but for the Dallas Cowboys who acquired eight draft picks, including three first rounds. Among the players Dallas got with those picks were Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, and eventually Russell Maryland through another trade. All three were core players in Dallas’s Super Bowl dynasty in the 1990s.  

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