Some sports are all but synonymous with the Olympics. Gymnastics, which is nearly impossible to find on TV in the periods between Games, is suddenly everywhere during them — the same goes for figure skating during the Winter Games, as Norm Macdonald so memorably opined in the aftermath of the Kerrigan attack. (“I think it’s time that we come together as a society, and make it clear that we’re not gonna tolerate thugs solving their problems with violence, and we’re not gonna tolerate TV executives making us watch hours and hours of figure skating, when there are good hockey games not even being televised.") Gymnastics may be so popular because they are guaranteed to provide at least one great Olympic moment, and the same applies to swimming, diving, and the various events clustered under the remarkably uninformative umbrella title of “Athletics”: marathon, pole vault, long jump, the 100 meter dash, and others.
We can easily appreciate these sports because most of us know what it’s like to run around the track, do cartwheels on the grass, or take place in an impromptu race across the pool — we’ve done some version of them ourselves, and therefore have some sense of just how difficult it must be to perform them at an elite level. We understand them not just intellectually but viscerally: we remember the sensation of sprinting, arms outstretched, for the finish line, even if the only time we ever did it was in eighth grade gym. And even if our memories of the time when we thought we would be the next Carl Lewis or Mark Spitz are somewhat hazy, these are sports that show us not just athletic grandeur but a pure kind of beauty, as well: who can deny the splendor of the human body as it attempts the high jump or dives into water from a seemingly impossible distance, with seemingly impossible control?
Some sports, however, are less reliable as crowd pleasers, and require a bit more preparation on the viewer’s part, and a bit more willingness to watch for the humbler of the Olympic moments. Perhaps the most famously dull (and oddly compelling) Olympic sport is curling, which is played in the Winter Games, and which despite or because of its slowness has gained a cult following and been the subject of a popular Canadian romantic comedy. Still other sports were played at past Olympics but have (sometimes for obvious reasons) been removed from the lineup, and there are a few new events we can look forward to at this Games (though, sadly, we’ll have to wait until 2016 to see Olympic golf).
In a little while, we’ll look at the more obscure Olympic sports — but today belongs to the ones that are no longer with us.
- Baseball and softball (No longer played as of this year because most of the best players could not participate due to contractual obligations, thus making it more all-American than ever.)
- Basque pelota (More commonly known today as Jai alai.)
- Dueling pistols (Sadly, duelists took aim at a dummy dressed in a frock coat, not at each other — though presumably they were ranked for etiquette as well as aim.)
- Indian club mixed event, or club swinging (Held only once, at the 1904 Games, this was combination of choreographed weightlifting and juggling, using wooden Indian clubs ranging from one or two to fifty pounds, which were in vogue at the time. An explanation of its appeal might be best left to George H, Benedict, author of 1886’s Manual of Boxing, Club Swinging, and Manly Sports:
Man is so constituted that every organ, mental or physical requires to be exercised; without it the functions of the body get out of order and disease takes the place of health. The Indian Club exercise has an important influence on the physical development, it squares the shoulders and strengthens the chest, back and arms; it is the gymnastic specific for pulmonary complaints; and the best possible exercise for the hectic and narrow chested portion of the community, it imparts a perfect command over the balance of the body, besides creating graceful movements and easy manners.
In other words, club swinging seems to have been a fad exercise regimen that made its way into the Games, albeit for only a short time. Sadly, Benedict’s follow up book, Spalding’s Manual of Roller Skates, which was advertised as being profusely illustrated and promised to teach readers the rules of POLO ON ROLLER SKATES seemed to have had little impact on future Games.)
- Jeu de Paume (A precursor of tennis, played with paddles.)
- Live pigeon shooting
- Plunge, or distance diving (Was contested only once, at the 1904 Olympics, with a winning distance of 62’6”.)
- Rope climb
- Roque (Essentially croquet, but played on a hard surface.)
- Standing high jump
- Swimming obstacle race (Held only at the 1900 Olympics, swimmers had to climb over a pole and a row of boats and under another row of boats; as Paris hosted the Games that year, the event took place in the Seine.)
- Tug of war (Yes, really.)
- Walking (1500, 3000, and 3500 meters, and ten miles)
- Water motorsports (Not as diverse as it sounds, sadly: five laps around a course in a motorboat.)
Olympic demonstration sports were officially adopted at the 1912 Games but were included beginning in 1900, as a way for lesser-known sports to promote themselves on the world stage. (In some cases, the term “sport” is used very loosely.) Often the host country included one of its signature sports, as in the case of Frisian handball at the 1928 Amserdam Olympics, Australian-rules football at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and so on.
Winter Olympic demonstrations have included military patrol, skijoring (in which a skier is pulled by a dog or horse), sled dog racing, bandy (also known as winter football), Bavarian curling, disabled alpine and Nordic skiing, and ski ballet.
Side note: if you are ever depressed about the state of the world, two simple words can make you forget all your worries, and those words are “ski ballet.”
Below are some notable summer demonstration sports. A few, such as baseball, basketball, and badminton, became competitive sports at later Games, but most did not.
Sadly (officially for those of us who enjoy our epic narratives with a side of absurdity), demonstration sports were discontinued after the 1992 Games, as officials realized that the diversity of competitive sports and the number of athletes competing within them had become so great that it was all but impossible to organize any ancillary events. Officials did allow an unofficial demonstration of wushu at the 2008 Olympics, however, so there may be some hope that demonstration sports will return someday, and that the cycle polo players of the world will finally have a chance to shine.
1900, Paris: Angling (600 fishermen participated; the results have been lost to antiquity), ballooning, cannon shooting, firefighting, kite flying, lifesaving, and pigeon racing.
1904, St. Louis: Basketball, Gaelic football, hurling, motorcycling.
1908, London: Cycle polo (exactly what it sounds like).
1912, Stockholm: Baseball, glima (Icelandic wrestling).
1920, Antwerp: Korfball.
1924, Paris: Basque pelota, la canne (similar to fencing, but using a wooden cane instead of a sabre).
1928, Amsterdam: Frisian handball.
1936, Berlin: Gliding.
1948, London: Swedish gymnastics.
1952, Helsinki: Finnish baseball.
1956, Melbourne: Australian-rules football.
1964, Tokyo: Budō.
1972, Munich: Badminton, water skiing.
1988, Seoul: Bowling.
1992, Barcelona: Roller hockey.
In addition, between 1912 and 1952 the Olympics also hosted art competitions, at which architects, sculptors, painters, writers, and musicians submitted works inspired by the Games, and were awarded medals for the winning entries. Two artists — Walter Winans, an American, and Alfréd Hajós, a Hungarian — who had previously medaled in athletic events also medaled for artistic achievement at later games.
Sarah Marshall is highly skilled at peeling grapes and hard boiled eggs, both of which she hopes will be adopted as demonstration sports at the 2016 Games.