The Birth of the Modern Bicycle‏

It’s easy to take the modern bicycle for granted. It’s simple, relatively cheap, and has been around from childhood on. Despite that, the modern bike has only been around for about 120 years. Before that, things were very different.

How was the modern bicycle born? And what happened to old-fashioned bikes with large wheels? The birth of the modern bicycle actually says a lot about how technology can drive huge changes in our lives.

Bicycles Have Been Around For A While

Though we can trace the modern bicycle to the 1890s, bikes have been around for a while. Surprisingly, the older they are, the more familiar they appear.

BoneshakerCommonly known as velocipedes or bone-shakers, bikes have been documented from the 1820s on. They looked similar to normal modern bikes, but with hard metal or wooden wheels and, typically, wooden frames. That was the problem. The form of the bicycle was safe and well-calibrated, but inflexible frames and tough wheels made riding them extremely painful. If you’ve ever ridden on two flat tires, you’ll know the feeling. The problems were only exacerbated by poor infrastructure, unlike the silky smooth concrete we ride on today. Like anything, mainstream adoption depended on ease and comfort. Old bikes had neither, but that was about to change.

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Blood in the Water – Cold War water polo

6 December 1956 saw one of the most violent and politically-charged sporting clashes in history, an event that came to be known as ‘ Blood in the Water ’. The occasion was the Olympic water polo semi-final between Hungary and the USSR. Played against the backdrop of Cold War politics, the game was, from start to finish, fraught with tension.

Water Polo

Olympic flagHungary was the undoubted superpower of 1950s water polo. They had won gold at three of the four previous Olympic Games, and silver at the London Olympics of 1948; and were firm favourites to triumph again at the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the first Olympics to be held in the southern hemisphere.

The Soviets, jealous of Hungary’s success in the water, had been training in Hungary in the months leading up to the Olympics, trying to learn what made the Hungarians so good at their game. Since 1949, Hungary had been a Soviet satellite and thus the Soviet team arrived, uninvited, and made use of Hungary’s pool facilities and expertise.

A ‘friendly’ match in Moscow earlier in the year had erupted in violence; the Russians having won thanks to some dubious partisan referring.

Hungarian Revolution

Hungarian Revolution 1956Then, in October 1956, came the Hungarian Revolution. The people of Hungary stood up to the oppression of a tyrannical and foreign ruler. The Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, sent in the tanks to quell the uprising and restore order. The tanks, having failed, were withdrawn. Khrushchev replaced Hungary’s hard-line communist rulers with the more populist Imre Nagy. Nagy announced his decision to withdraw Hungary from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, introduce much-needed reform and, most alarmingly for Khrushchev, spoke of independence.

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When Winning is Not Enough: the East German Athletes that Made a Dash for Freedom‏

The 19-year-old man had spent a week watching the guards, learning their routine, as they patrolled the beach on the Baltic seaside resort of Boltenhagen.

The area was known by the East German secret police, the Stasi, as a favoured spot from which to escape to the West. He knew that each hour the guards had to switch off their spotlights for a few minutes to allow the bulbs to cool down.

The young man, Axel Mitbauer, a champion swimmer and member of the East German national swimming team, had already suffered at the hands of the Stasi. Known for his fraternisation with West Germans, he had been locked-up in solitary confinement for seven weeks, deprived of light and beaten up. But Mitbauer was made of strong stuff. On the night of 17 August 1969, he made his move.

When the right moment came, Mitbauer, smeared with 30 tubes of Vaseline against the cold water, slipped into the icy Baltic. Once the spotlights returned, he swam underwater. Using the stars as his guide, he swam 15 miles until, after four hours, he reached a lifebuoy and climbed aboard to rest. Six hours later, at 7 am the following morning, he was picked up by a West German ship. He’d made it.

In 1984, 24-year-old East German, Ines Geipel (far left), along with her teammates, had broken the world record for the women’s 4×100 metre relay, clocking-up a time of 42.2 seconds.

It was the crowning moment of her career. Ahead of them lay the Los Angeles Olympics and the chance for further glory. But Geipel fell in love with a Mexican athlete, a walker, and dreamt of living in the West. She soon came to the attention of the Stasi and back in East Germany was made to undergo an operation to remove her appendix. There, they took the opportunity to mutilate her stomach, thus destroying her career and her dreams and leaving her with debilitating stomach cramps.

Twenty years later, Geipel, whose own father had worked for the Stasi, renounced her world record, citing that it had been gained under the influence of drugs.


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East Germany v West Germany – Football and the Cold War

Football is more than just a game, writes Erik E. Cleves, as the “real” world unfolds, football becomes caught up in it, and particular matches have particular political symbolism. One such typical match was when West Germany played East Germany in the 1974 FIFA World Cup.

world cup 1974From the end of World War Two, divided Germany had become a focal point for the ongoing Cold War between East and West. While the World Cup in West Germany had been decided back in 1966, the early 1970s were full of political tensions that indirectly affected the 1974 World Cup: the USSR did not participate after they refused to play a play-off match against the newly installed Pinochet regime in Chile, and security during the tournament was intense after the Palestinian terrorist attacks at the Olympics Games in Munich two years before, as well as the fear of the German Rote Armee Fraktion, the terrorist Red Army Faction, more commonly known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

It was thus part of the Cold War tension that West Germany and East Germany drew each other in the first round of the 1974 World Championship, hosted by West Germany, to play in what was surely the most politically tense match in the history of the World Cup. (The two Germanys had started the process of normalization in the early 1970s, and had only recognised each other in the Basic Treaty of 1972.)

1974 World Cup

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Max Schmeling – the boxer the Nazis tried to claim as their own

One of most politically-charged sporting events took place in New York’s Yankee Stadium on 22 June 1938 – a boxing match between the then heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, the ‘Brown Bomber’, and the German, Max Schmeling, the unwilling darling of the Nazi Party.

Born in 1905, Max Schmeling had advanced through the boxing ranks within Germany and Europe and even impressed Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion, in a friendly fight during the champion’s tour of Europe. But to be a true star of the boxing world, one had to conquer the US. And it was to America, in 1928, the 23–year-old Schmeling travelled.

The Low Blow Champion

It was an astute move, and the young German was soon a sensation winning his initial fights on American soil. In 1930, the reigning heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney, retired and Schmeling was pitted against fellow-contender, Jack Sharkey. Schmeling won the fight but not in a manner that he would have liked – Sharkey had knocked the German to the floor but was disqualified for throwing a punch below the belt, leaving Schmeling floored and clutching his groin. Thus, with Sharkey disqualified, Schmeling had become World Heavyweight champion by default. The press derided Schmeling’s victory, calling him the ‘Low Blow Champion,’ a nickname that must have hurt. Sharkey’s team, feeling grieved, demanded an immediate re-match.

As heavyweight champion, the only German to have been so, Max Schmeling dispatched a boxer called Young Stribling, before facing Sharkey again in 1932. This time the fight went to 15 rounds, and Sharkey, to the astonishment of neutral onlookers, was given the fight on points, stripping Schmeling of his title. ‘We woz robbed,’ screamed Schmeling’s Jewish trainer, Joe ‘Yussel the Muscle’ Jacobs. The newspapers, and even the mayor of New York, agreed.

Hitler’s Boxer

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Norman Wisdom and the Cold War – Big in Albania

A friend of mine recently returned to England after an adventurous trip around south-eastern Europe, taking in the sites of Montenegro, Croatia and Albania. She was very complimentary about the first two but rather damning about the latter. My colleague is Canadian and also fairly young, having been born in the seventies, so she asked me who was this guy the Albanians kept talking about, a guy called Norman Wisdom.

A household name

Aha, I said, Sir Norman, 95 years-old and a classic British comedy icon. OK, Wisdom’s slapstick humour looks a bit dated now and not really suited to our sophisticated tastes but he remains a household name in Britain – well, to anyone over 40. And, it seems, a household name in Albania.

During the long, forty-four year rule of Stalinist dictator, Enver Hoxha, Norman Wisdom’s films were amongst the few bits of Western culture or entertainment that were allowed in this small, cut-off, forgotten country called Albania, or, to use its correct title of the time, the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania. Films like Trouble In StoreA Stitch In Time and The Early Bird, made in the fifties and early sixties, had Wisdom playing the hapless Norman Pitkin, fighting against the big men in suits smoking on cigars. Hoxha saw Pitkin as the ultimate proletarian, waging a one-man war against the capitalist world of corporations and big money. This, the dictator dictated, was appropriate communist viewing for Albania’s comedy-starved masses and, as a result, our very own Norman became a huge hit in Albania.

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The First World Cup

The first two matches of the inaugural FIFA World Cup, played simultaneously, took place on 13 July. France beat Mexico 4–1 while the USA beat Belgium 3–0. In the 19th minute of the French – Mexico game, Lucien Laurent (pictured) of France ensured his place in World Cup history by scoring the first World Cup goal. Sixty-eight years later, in 1998, 90-year-old Laurent was the sole survivor from the French team of 1930 to witness his countrymen win the World Cup for the first time.

Lucien LaurentHowever, in 1930, France lost their next two games, including a 1–0 defeat to Argentina, and were eliminated. The Argentinians won all three of their games and topped the group, despite their captain, Manuel Ferreira, taking leave of absence for a couple of games to sit his law exams.

France’s captain in that first World Cup, Alex Villaplane, became a notorious Nazi collaborator during the Second World War German occupation of France, wearing the uniform of the SS and known for his brutality against the French resistance and Jews. On Boxing Day 1944, four months after France’s liberation, Villaplane was shot as a traitor.

Yugoslavia’s captain in 1930, Milutin Ivkovic, was, in 1943, executed by the Nazis.

The inaugural match at the Estadio Centenario, which featured a moat running round the pitch, saw the hosts beat Peru 1-0. Incredibly, the scorer, Héctor Castro, had only one arm, having lost an arm as a 13-year-old in a chainsaw accident.

Bolivia’s eleven players turned up for the first match, against Yugoslavia, each with a single letter printed on the back of their shirts. Once they had lined-up, the letters spelt out ‘Viva Uruguay’, a nice tribute to the hosts.

While Argentina had played three games, Uruguay, the USA and Yugoslavia had each played only twice to qualify for the semi-finals. In their group game against Paraguay, the USA won 3-0, all three goals coming from Bert Patenaude, the World Cup’s first hat-trick. (Although there was a dispute as to whether Patenaude should be credited his second goal. In 2006, 76 years after the event and 32 years after Patenaude’s death, FIFA decided in his favour). In the semi-finals, Uruguay beat Yugoslavia 6–1, and, by the same scoreline, Argentina beat the USA.

The match for third place was not introduced until the following tournament, thus in 1930, Yugoslavia and the USA shared the bronze medal.

Uruguay 1930 World CupThe first World Cup Final took place on 30 July at the Estadio Centenario. Tension between the South American rivals was high, with the Argentinians bent on avenging the Olympic defeat two years earlier. Argentinian players had received death threats. Police armed with rifles and fixed bayonets patrolled the touchline throughout the game; spectators were searched, and match officials needed escorts on and off the field. (The referee, a Belgian, fearing for his safety, insisted on having a boat ready at the port post-match to facilitate a quick exit). Tension escalated as the teams argued over whose ball to use. A compromise was reached whereby the Argentinians provided the ball for the first half, Uruguay the second.

In front of a crowd of 90,000, Argentina led 2–1 at half-time only for Uruguay to dominate the second half and win 4–2. Uruguay’s final goal, a minute from time, came from the one-armed Castro.

Jules Rimet presented the ‘Victory’ trophy, which would later bear his name, to José Nasazzi, the Uruguayan captain. The world had its first World Cup champions. Uruguay remains the smallest nation to win the World Cup. The defeat was, for Argentinian defender, Francisco Varallo, ‘a blow I’ve spent my entire life trying to get over.’ (Varallo, who died aged 100 on 30 August 2010, was the last surviving player from the 1930 World Cup).

History of the World CupRupert Colley

A History of the World Cup by Rupert Colley is now available.

Try your hand at the ultra hard World Cup Quiz

The World Cup Without a World Cup Final

The first post-war World Cup (1950) took place in Brazil and is remembered today as the World Cup tournament without a final.

Thirteen nations

Jules Rimet cupThe thirteen qualifying teams were divided into four groups although, strangely, Group 4 consisted only of two teams: Uruguay, competing for the first time since their win in 1930, and fellow South Americans, Bolivia. The four group winners would compete in another group. The winner of this group would be World Champions. There would be no knock-out matches or semi-finals or final.

Brazil, perhaps for the first time, showed the world what they were capable of, beating Mexico, Yugoslavia and drawing against Switzerland to win their group with ease.

From Group 4, Uruguay thrashed Bolivia 8-0, their star striker, Juan Schiaffino, netting four, in the only tie of the group and hence qualified.

The second round

So the second round consisted of the four teams playing within a group, the group winners winning the World Cup. Brazil beat Olympic Champions Sweden 7-1, four coming from the talented Ademir, and Spain 6-1. Uruguay had beaten Sweden but dropped a point against Spain.

So by pure luck the last game, on 16 July 1950 at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, would be the decider with Brazil, one point ahead, needing only a draw, whereas Uruguay needed to win.

A Final of sorts

Brazil, fully expecting victory in front of a home crowd of an estimated 210,000 (a record that stands to this day), took the lead early in the second half. The outcome looked certain. Schiaffino’s equalizer in the 66th minute would still not be enough for Uruguay (pictured). But then, with eleven minutes to go, the unthinkable happened and Uruguay scored a second. They held on and won. The two points were theirs, and so was the World Cup.

The Pope, Frank and I

After the game, the scorer of Uruguay’s winning goal, Alcides Ghiggia, said, “Only three people in history have managed to silence the Maracana with a single gesture: the Pope, Frank Sinatra and I.”


Brazil reeled in a state of shock, victory songs composed for the occasion remained unperformed and medals struck with the players’ names on them were never presented. Brazil had always played in white shirts with a blue neckline but after 1950 the strip was considered jinxed and they changed to the yellow shirt that is so familiar today.

History of the World CupRupert Colley