Yesterday Deadspin editor Timothy Burke and writer Jack Dickey revealed that Lennay Kekua, girlfriend of star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, never existed.
Kekua’s supposed death of leukemia in September had become a big part of the Manti Te’o mythos. ESPN, NBC, Sports Illustrated, and any number of other media outlets passed along the story that Te’o missed Kekua’s funeral, at her request, to play against Michigan State, one of the best games of his career. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly even gave Te’o the game ball in Kekua’s honor.
But, as Notre Dame officials learned on December 26, and everyone else learned yesterday afternoon, Kekua was a hoax.
We don’t know for sure whether Te’o was in on the hoax (and, if so, what his motivations were for doing so) or whether the Heisman finalist was a victim, suckered into a relationship with a woman who lied about her identity and later staged her alter-ego’s death.
Either way, the story of Lennay Kekua is as fascinating as it is absurd. While it is morally reprehensible either to lure a young man into a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist or to strum the heartstrings of the sports-loving public under false pretenses, the Kekua hoax nonetheless was impressive in its execution.
The sports world has been fooled by its share of hoaxes over the years. Some were humorous; some were hurtful. Here’s a run-down of nine sports-related hoaxes:
1. Rosie Ruiz takes the subway?
Rosie Ruiz crossed the finish line in the 1980 Boston Marathon 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.
The achievement was especially remarkable because 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.”
4. 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.
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Continue reading to learn about hoaxes from the worlds of soccer, baseball, college basketball, and the NHL, each remarkable in both its imagination and execution.