Every four years the Olympic Games give attention to sports that you may never have heard of, never mind sports that you have never played. Sports so obscure, unusual and just plain odd that it makes you wonder why anyone would ever play them. Some may question why some sports are allowed at the Olympics (Beach volleyball, Rhythmic gymnastics) while others are not (Mixed martial arts, Ultimate frisbee, Baseball). Rest assured, though, that the Olympic Games have tried on many different sports over the centuries, whether during the Ancient Greek games of 776 BC to 391 AD or the modern games that began in 1896 in Athens, Greece.
The modern games adopted most of the sports played in the ancient games, such as discus, running and wrestling. While some of these sports may have been adapted over the centuries between ancient and modern times, they would still be recognizable to an ancient Greek dropped down in Rio 2016. But the sporting world has changed a lot since the fall of the Greek and Roman empires, so the modern games organizers wanted to add newer sports. Which games to choose, however, has proved to be a hit-and-miss process. Below is a list of some misses. Many of these sporting cast-offs simply stopped being popular, and they fell by the wayside to more up-and-coming sports. Other of these former Olympic events proved to be too random or unsettling for long-term inclusion in the games. Some of these are so bizarre, in fact, that it might be worthwhile putting some of them back in. For the entertainment factor, if nothing else.
Think of MMA but with fewer rules. This ancient form of hand-to-hand combat premiered at the Olympics way back in 648 BC. Biting and gouging (poking opponents in the eyes, nose and mouth) were off-book, but other than that, anything went, at least in the Olympic version of the game. All moves from boxing and wrestling were allowed. Fighters could punch, use choke holds, and kick each other in the stomach. A match ended when one of the two combatants gave up. Modern aficionados of Pankration have revived this sport, but today’s Pankration is wimpy by comparison. The Ancient Greek fighters had to fight naked, for example.
14. Running with Armor
Ancient Greek sports were derived from soldier training exercises, so it is somewhat surprising that this sport, called Hoplitodromos, was one the last footraces to join the Ancient games, in 520 BC. Unlike other Olympic athletes of the time, competitors were not naked. Instead, they had to wear armor–a helmet and greaves (shin guards)–and carry a shield. It turned out that running with leg armor caused a few injuries, so the greaves were dropped out of the sport a couple of hundred years into the games. Competitors ran down a straight track, or stade, and depending on the location of the games on any given year, had to run 2 to 15 lengths. A stade was 600 Greek feet, a measurement that was not standardized. Based on archaelogical evidence of Greek ruins, a stade could be 581 to 738 feet long in today’s measurements. The track was not curved, so event organizers helpfully set up turning posts at both ends that runners could grab and spin around to change direction.
13. Jumping with Weights
Many Olympic stadium events derive directly from Ancient Greek events, though always with qualifications. One example of a significant difference between the ancient and the modern sports is provided by the long jump. In the Ancient Greece version, the long jump did not have its own event: it was only part of the pentathlon. Also, jumpers held two to nine-pound weights (halteres) while they jumped. At first, people were not sure how exactly this worked. In 2002, however researchers in England directed athletes through experiments with different kinds of jumps and weights. They discovered that the Greeks had genuinely thought through this thing: for a standing long jump and with proper techniques, the weights helped athletes jumped farther.
12. Swimming for Sailors
The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens. Along with the resurrection of many of the ancient games’ events, new events were introduced. The recent novelty of swimming for exercise caught organizers’ attention right away, and since then numerous pool events have been introduced. In keeping with the idea that the Olympics derived from military training, the Greek organizers created the most narrow category ever in the Olympics. Competitors for the men’s sailors 100 metre freestyle all had to be members of the Greek navy. Were Greek sailors good swimmers? The winner, Ioannis Malokinis, had a time of 2:20.4. For comparison, the gold medallist for 100 metre freestyle for men (non-sailors), Alfréd Hajós of Hungary, had a time of 1:22.2. Greek sailors, it turns out, had nothing on Michael Phelps.
11. Obstacle Course Swimming
The second modern Olympic Games were held in Paris in 1900. Among the swimming events presented that year was the 200 metre obstacle course. Held in the River Seine in Paris, the twelve participants from five countries had to swim, yes, but they also had to climb over a pole, clamber over three row boats, and swim under another set of row boats. After a three-heat semifinal round, Fred Lane of Australia won the gold in a time of 2:38.4, with Otto Wahle of Austria winning the silver and Peter Kemp of Great Britain the bronze. Incidentally, Lane also captured the gold for the 200 metre freestyle (a non-obstacle version). The swimming obstacle course event was never to be seen in the Olympics again, though contemporary versions of this exercise (I am reluctant to call it a sport) have appeared in the World Games, your local amusement park, and Japanese-inspired game shows.
10. Basque Pelota
This ball-and-wall game originated in the Basque region of France and Spain, which explains the only two competing countries at the 1900 Games: France and Spain. The single-game medal round for this sport, officially called Basque pelota Men’s Two-Man Teams with Cesta, was won by Spain. The qualifier “Basque” is important because “pelota” just means “ball,” and other sports, including other Basque ball sports, have that word in their names. Basque pelota is played in a two-wall court using a long narrow glove to pitch the ball to the other wall, sort of like lacrosse meets handball. The South American sport Jai Alai is a variation of Basque pelota. Basque pelota players have been known to throw the ball at speeds of up to 300 kilometres per hour, so one of those ancient running-with-armor helmets would come in handy for this sport.
9. Live Pigeon Shooting
1900 was a good year for kooky sports at the Olympics. The pigeon shoot, however, went beyond strange and entered cruel and unusual territory. Considering that trapshooting–shooting at inanimate objects–was being carried over from the 1896 games as a medal event, the animate object version seems like overkill. Overkill also describes the outcome of this event–300 dead and dying pigeons sprayed all over the otherwise picturesque Cercle du Bois de Boulogne. In this hunting game, six pigeons were released in front of each of the 56 rifle-armed shooters. If the shooter missed two of them, he was eliminated. The shooter with the most kills won. This was an out-of-medal competition with two separate tournaments. The winner of the more prestigious 1900 World Expo Prize, Leon de Lunden of Belgium, was awarded 20,000 francs for killing 21 pigeons. He generously split the prize with the next three top finishers. Perhaps in this spirit of generosity and humanity, the Olympics never held this event again.
8. Pistol Dueling
It may be only fair that if pigeons are getting shot at human athletic competitions, people should be getting shot too. However, the duels held in 1906 in Athens did not result in human death. The duels were one-sided. The shooter, bearing an actual duelling pistol (a muzzle-loaded .45 or similar calibre), aimed at a nattily dressed mannequin placed, depending on the distance category, either 20 or 25 metres away, with the bulls-eye in the mannequin’s upper chest. The mannequin was unarmed. In later Olympics, the mannequins were replaced by less humanoid targets and the word “dueling” was removed. A vestige of this sport is today’s rapid fire pistol. The International Olympic Committee no longer considers the 1906 games a “real” Olympic tournament, so finding references to this application of an aristocratic pastime involves skirting official sites.
7. Long Jump For Horses
Arguably, the equestrian sports, which involve a person being propelled by a four-legged assistant, imply the sanctioning of performance enhancement. Nevertheless, equestrian events are solid with the Olympic Games. All except long jump for horses. This is another 1900 Paris Games experiment that came and went. The gold was won by a Belgian horse-human team that soared over a long pit of sand for a distance of 6.1 metres. In the meantime, the gold medalist for the human-only long jump, Alvin Kraenzlein of the United States, jumped a distance of 7.1 metres. It turns out the humans jumped farther than the horses. So much for performance enhancement.
Roque is an Americanized form of croquet that made an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis Games. Croquet itself had been in the 1900 Paris games, and St. Louis opted to replace it with a Yankee version. The difference between croquet and roque are small but not unsubstantial. Roque is played on a hard, sanded surface, for example, and the court is walled, allowing players to bounce balls off the sides like in pool. Not surprisingly, the United States provided the only roque team for the competition. What other national variation of this game might exist is not for Olympic fans to worry about, since 1904 ended this particular IOC experiment.
5. Plunge For Distance
The 1904 St. Louis games also premiered the aquatic sport called plunge for distance. Each American competitor (there were only American competitors) dove into the water and coasted below the surface, immobile, for sixty seconds. The swimmer who coasted the farthest won. American William Dickey won the gold for his 19.05-metre performance. This medal-worthy version of dead man’s float has not surfaced at the Olympics again. Nevertheless, American divers Kristian Ipsen and Abby Johnston expressed an interest in reviving the sports for the 2024 Los Angeles games, though, it’s true, they were laughing when they said it.
4. Club Swinging
The closest thing to juggling or baton swirling to make it into the Olympics was the Indian club, or meel. The club is a narrow wooden object reminiscent of a bowling pin. This sport arose from the same Victorian-era health craze that brought the world boxed breakfast cereal and, frankly, the modern Olympic games. The 1904 St. Louis games called it club swinging, and the 1932 Los Angeles games called it Indian club. The object was not to throw the clubs but to swing them around in ways that made judges give you points. If this sport were part of the Olympics now, it would definitely be part of rhythmic gymnastics. Rhythmic gymnastics actually has a “club” for its apparatus events, but it doesn’t look like an actual club anymore since it has to be held by a tiny girl.
3. Jeu De Paume
This antique French precursor to all sorts of racket sports was a medal event in the 1908 Olympics. The game was popular in the middle ages, and over time, the bare hand (the “paume” in the sport’s name) was covered with a glove that eventually sprouted into a racket. The English term was “real tennis,” with the term “lawn tennis” reserved for the outdoor net and racket game now usually just called tennis. It was a non-medal sport at the 1924 Olympics under the name real tennis. On the surface, Jeu de Paume seems like tennis inside a racketball court, but the rules are more complex than either of the two games. The ball is bounced on the court’s walls and the netted windows as well as over the court-level net. Different points are awarded depending where on the wall the ball hits. Yard lines on the court affect the strategy and point scores as well. Precision, not power, characterizes this game, which still has its aficionados in France, England, and Australia. It has fallen far behind lawn tennis in popularity, however, such that some old Jeu de Paume courts have been converted into museums, storerooms and squash courts. Still, the oldest international sporting championship still in existence is the Jeu de Paume men’s singles, which started in 1740.
Jumping with the help of a horse might very well be no different than rowing or sailing very fast with the help of a motor. Those who object to horses being allowed in the Olympics might be annoyed to find out that, for a brief time at least, motorized sports constituted an acceptable athletic activity. Motorboating was beginning to be taken up by the European and American elite by the time of the 1908 Olympics. In the only motorboating competition of the games’ history, France won the gold for the open class, while Britain won gold in the 60-feet-and-under class and in the 8-metre-and-under class.
1. Solo Synchronized Swimming
Synchronized swimming normally involves multiple people doing gymnastic and dance routines in the water, with points awarded for moving in time with each other. What is being synchronized when one person is in the pool? The synchronization, said the apologists for solo synchronized swimming at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, is with the music. Olympic organizers stopped listening to the apologists after 1992. Today, the word “synchronized” is taken more seriously for this team Olympic sport.