Wednesday, July 18, 2012


What We Won't Be Playing in the London Games

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.

Discontinued Sports

- 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.)

- Cricket

- Croquet

- 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.)

- Lacrosse

- Live pigeon shooting

- Plunge, or distance diving (Was contested only once, at the 1904 Olympics, with a winning distance of 62’6”.)

- Polo

- Rope climb

- Roque (Essentially croquet, but played on a hard surface.)

- Rugby

- 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.)

- Tumbling

- 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.)

Demonstration Sports

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.

Previously: "Only You, Mary Lou": In Search of the Olympic Moment.

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.

70 Comments / Post A Comment

RK Fire

Rugby is coming back to the Olympics, but only in the form of sevens! Also, since rugby wasn't in the Olympics for very long, the US can claim to be the longstanding gold medalists in rugby (union, 15s).

these facts are brought to you by an American rugby enthusiast who hopes the women's team can bring home the gold in Rio

Coal Tar Epoxy

@RK Fire I am so excited for rugby to come back to the Olymipcs! I'd prefer to watch some good old 15-a-side rugby union but I guess 7s would be more interesting for people who don't know the game.
Signed, A Canadian Rugger Who's Indefinitely on the Injured List

RK Fire

@The Angels Have the Phonebox I know, I'd prefer 15s too (as a former flanker I think 15s is more fun to play) but I can see why they chose 7s--there's a lot more parity at the international level, which works out well for both of our countries!

p.s. I have heard that the Canadian women's team is now redonkulous--true or false?

Coal Tar Epoxy

@RK Fire 15s is way more fun to play! And true, it's an exciting time for women's rugby!


I have just discovered ski ballet. I may be 31, but I plan on bringing back ski ballet for the 2018 winter Olympics so I can compete! @n


New Winter Olympics sport coming in 2014: Women's ski jumping! I am so excited and hope it will get some airtime (on TV, yuk yuk yuk).


@cuminafterall Yes! I have been waiting for women's ski jump forever. The IOC disallowing it for so long was ridiculous!


@cuminafterall Yes! Ski jumping is one of my favorites. It's like they're flying!!

Evan Weiss@twitter

I want Olympic tug of war. Please. Somebody. Make it happen.


@Evan Weiss@twitter THIS! But the coverage (at least for the women's team) would probably all be about the size of the athletes.

Evan Weiss@twitter

@Xanthophyllippa Whatever it takes.


Just for the record, Finnish baseball is freaking weird. Here, have a link! Pesäpallo!

Tuna Surprise

Do you ever wonder about the politicking it took behind the scenes to get certain sports into the Olympics? A current favourite of useless has to be canoe slalom, whose logo must certain be "if it worked in snow, it can work on water".



Oh, I am old enough to remember watching ski ballet as a child! I was never sure if it really existed or if my memory was confused or if it was a fevered, half-remembered dream.... Thank you for bringing (at least the memory of) ski ballet back into my life.

P.S. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE WORLD that there is no longer ski ballet?

hahahaha, ja.

@CeciliaLushington: So this was my first time seeing ski ballet, and at first I went "ho hum boring" but then THE FLIP OVER THE POLES, and I was like whoa and then THE JUMP, and I had to send the video to everyone I knew.


@ietapi I know, right?! I was amused by the haters on the comment thread on YouTube complaining that the sport was "so gay." I felt like responding ... "Your point BEING?"

hahahaha, ja.

@CeciliaLushington: Try this.


@CeciliaLushington I had totally forgotten ski ballet even existed until this post, but I very clearly remember watching it and think we should revisit this sport! Ski Ballet at 2014 Winter Olympics!

I'm also old enough to remember when the winter and spring games were held on the same year. So clearly, I'm ancient.


@CeciliaLushington I had never heard of ski ballet until this post went up, and it is making my day (and possibly my week).


@ietapi Oh oh oh! That is awesome! Herp derp, herpa derpa herny heeny.... I now imagine only the Swedish Chef comments on YouTube videos!


@CeciliaLushington I know, what is not to love about ski ballet? The man is wearing a sequined skirt! He puts on a serious game face at the beginning! His beautiful, beautiful eighties hair!


@EternalFootwoman And his glorious, flourishy bow/wave to the "crowd" at the end! I'm pretty sure almost no one was cheering, and the gesture was all out of proportion to the imagined kudos. But I was cheering, Hermann -- across an unbridgeable chasm of space and time, in the virtual netherworld twilight cast by computer screen, silently to myself and never to be heard by you -- I was cheering.


@CeciliaLushington And I love that the video caption calls him "the master of ballet ski". You are, Hermann, you truly are.





@Emby Wait, but trivia night is just *all about* random knowledge that someone either has or hasn't randomly come across and/or retained in their life? They could have learned about these events from here, or a wikipedia rabbit hole, or any of a dozen other sites talking about this (example: http://listverse.com/2008/09/24/10-odd-discontinued-olympic-sports/)


@Emby OH MY GOD, I hope you're my trivia person. Stan, is that you??? I AM GOING TO WIN ALL THE BAR GIFT CERTIFICATES!


I'm still sad that the US Men's Soccer won't be playing...but I hope the ladies do well and win gold because they are pretty fantastic. Still, would have liked to see the U23's play.


What is Korfball and how can I join a league?


@Dancercise I actually know a person who plays Korfball! I think he is the only one in America, because I had only ever heard about it from him, and I was flying somewhere not long ago and one of the Airline magazines had an article on weird sports, including Korfball, and wouldn't you know it, there was my acquaintance/friend being interviewed about it right there in my airline magazine! So he is STILL the only one who has told me anything about it.
Anyway, it's actually pretty neat, and since nobody knows how to play, nobody is very good, and therefore very little athletic talent is required. I'm SURE my acquaintance/friend could hook you up with a league if you are for reals interested (he talks about Korfball a lot).

Oliver MacLean@facebook

@Dancercise According to Wikipedia a newspaper wrote that "Korfball is a monster that spreads its claws to all sides", because women played with men. A friend said it's very similar to netball.


I would actually like it if something other than swimming, gymnastics, and track & field got airtime. Diving, rowing, and velodrome in particular. Also badminton, now that it's no longer a demo and is instead a real competition.

ETA: I think the fact that U.S. baseball players couldn't make the contract thing work is a reason in FAVOR of bringing it back to the Olympics. I'm just SO disgusted with pro athletes in the Olympics -- what, they don't get enough press/attention already? Let the amateurs have their day.


@Xanthophyllippa I love watching diving. And SYNCHRONIZED diving, which is completely insane.


@Xanthophyllippa To be fair, a lot of the athletes you watch in Olympic sports are professional athletes - a good chunk of the gymnasts on this Olympic team are pro, and won't become college athletes due to forfeiting their NCAA eligibility.

But yeah, baseball players are jerks, and synchronized diving is awesome.


@Xanthophyllippa : I KNOW. Fencing! Sabre is best, but foil is pretty good too.


@ImASadGiraffe Yeah - I'd like it if ALL the athletes were amateurs. It seems like a good way to honor athletes who might not have all the access to fancy trainers/coaches or who train on their own after work.* It might not change gymnastics and a few others a whole lot, but it might equalize the field a little in some other sports for smaller countries or countries where a sport isn't as popular as elsewhere. I'd love to see Israel pull a medal in, say, men's basketball, for example.

Also, @HeyThatsMyBike SYNCHRONIZED DIVING!! Yes. It's a totally ridiculous idea but holy crap, the skillz it requires. I would suck at it.


@Xanthophyllippa Synchronized diving makes me so conflicted--I mean, it's a totally insane, made up sport but I CANNOT LOOK AWAY.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@Xanthophyllippa : Modern pentathlon is my absolute favorite Summer Olympics sport, and it's always impossible to find live-streaming for it. It's got everything: Epeé fencing, freestyle swimming, 3km cross-country running, pistol shooting(!) and show jumping on horseback (!!!). It comes in men's and women's varieties, and the Hungarians and Swedes always dominate like crazy.


@Gef the Talking Mongoose I want this to be my next sport!!


@Xanthophyllippa I think the pro players not being available was an excuse -- the real reason was the same three teams (Cuba, Japan, and the US in baseball; US, Australia, and China in softball) won pretty much all the medals every time. And if you want to get conspiracy theorist about it, most of the voters on the IOC committee that decides what events are in or out are from European countries, which are WAY behind everyone else in developing talent in those two sports.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

@Xanthophyllippa : The best part is, it's all five events in a single day. This year, it's even more exciting because they now do the shooting and the running at the same time (kind of like the winter biathlon -- a round of shooting, followed immediately by a 1000m run, repeated three times).

Also, since the final stretch of running is at the end, they stagger the start times based on accumulated points so that the first person to cross the finish line will be the overall winner. It's a total nailbiter!

I love modern pentathlon waaaay too much.


@Gef the Talking Mongoose Now I REALLY want to try that! I'd be DFL by the last event, but it sounds like a blast!

@bitchycrosstownexpress Oh, interesting! I wouldn't have guessed. But I wonder then why basketball would still be in, given how often the U.S. and the Soviet Union dominated for gold and silver? Can we blame this on the French judge somehow??


What about synchronized running, octuples tennis, and tetherball?!


@charmcity Monkey in the middle!


I love all the stuff that's popular in the Olympics very very much (especially the gymnastics and swimming), but one of the special joys of the event is finding random things like ping-pong to watch. Online coverage has been getting better and better for this sort of thing.

Also, curling is one of the best things about the winter games, and anyone who says otherwise hasn't seen the Norwegian team's pants.


@Inconceivable! NBC is actually live-streaming EVERYTHING this year! Very exciting (for those with a participating cable/dish provider-- proles with antennas [like me] are excluded).


@cuminafterall I know! Already thinking of ways to have a video constantly playing in a small corner of my monitor at work...


@Inconceivable! https://www.facebook.com/NOCTP :-)


@CeciliaLushington Heeeeee, I am already fan (member? I dunno the terminology now that there aren't groups like there used to be).


@Inconceivable! I see that since there "is no curling in summer," the group has recommended that we all like "The United States Olympic Beach Volleyball Team's Shorts." Squee!


@CeciliaLushington Ha! Those do look pretty great, but I feel I must see them in action before I can like them in good conscience.


@Inconceivable! I agree. I will be reserving judgment. Let the Games begin!


Cycle polo in 1908? Someone was doing it a hundred years before hipsters made it mainstream then!


I am very interested in how walking is judged. Is it speed? Form? Style?

I'm guess it's just a race, but one foot has to be touching the ground at all times or something?

Either way, I would NAIL this one.


@LinaLamont *guessing, that is.


@LinaLamont You do have to have one foot on the ground at all times. There are some other form-related things. They are FAST. I've seen some speed-walking events at large track meets and it's incredible but also kind of silly.



This video is insane. In-freaking-sane.


@EternalFootwoman I don't know whether to be disgruntled that they walk faster than I run or wildly entertained by all the falling over. Seriously, how much would it suck to have to explain to someone that you lost a walking race because you fell over? You'd have to show the video so they knew you weren't talking about, like, an easy amble to the grocery store.


@Xanthophyllippa Yeah, when I was in super-excellent high school track form, I could have maybe run a 5k (on the track, not in the woods) in those times. But they're walking!

It's hard to tell, but I think she fell from exhaustion. It kid of looks like that in the replay. How much does that suck? It may be walking, but it is still the Olympics.


@EternalFootwoman Speed-walking is also definitely the funnest sport to pretend to do in your house. The wiggle! It is great!


@EternalFootwoman Oh, definitely - it was definitely exhaustion. But something about people falling over will (almost) always be funny to me. Probably because I'm twelve.


@OhMarie My friends and I used to race each other to the bar in the speed-walking motion (we were always already drunk). We never ceased to find ourselves hilarious.

But overall, does it look like that would be REALLY hard on your hips in the long run? Plus their legs are bending at really bizarre angles.


I know this is an old thread, but I totally saw a man speed-walking down the street last night! He had a headband. I was tempted to stop and ask him about his sport, but thought that might be creepy.

Keelin Yenney-Henderson@facebook

@LinaLamont It isn't called speed walking. It is called race walking and is among one of the most difficult track and field sports. The rules are that one foot must remain on the ground at all times and the knee, as it passes under your body, must remain straight...this is what causes the "wiggle" as the walkers swing their hips to get greater extension in their stride. Funny looking, yes, but NOTHING to laugh at.

Keelin Yenney-Henderson@facebook

@HeyThatsMyBike See my comment above for a longer description, but yes....it is killer on your hips. Race walking is a lot less-efficient motion than running, so it is actually a greater strain on your body. Although more strenuous overall, the muscle groups used are VASTLY different than running, making it a great alternative (or x-training activity) for for injured or bored-with-running runners.


Polo's cool but they don't get swords and lances. I'm all about tent-pegging now.



Hey, everyone go read this totally fun article about how smaller countries should pick sports that give them a good chance for a medal! It's pretty awesome.


@Xanthophyllippa ARRRGH, lost the link. But it was part of yesterday's NYTimes and had to do with using a pared-down form of sabremetrics.


@Emby OH MY GOD, I hope you're my trivia person. Stan, is that you??? I AM GOING TO WIN ALL THE BAR GIFT CERTIFICATES!


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