If a Martian landed on Earth and watched the Summer Olympics on prime-time television, it would probably conclude that the games consist of a handful of sports: swimming, gymnastics, diving, soccer, basketball and track-and-field events. In reality, the London 2012 Olympics will feature 26 sports in 302 medal events. Since the inaugural of the Modern Olympics in 1896, sports have been dropped and added as popularity and/or feasibility waxes and wanes. Here's a look at a few of those obscure or obsolete sports, which may leave you scratching your head and muttering, "What were they thinking?"
The Rope Climb
Shades of a 1960's era gym class! Shinnying up a rope was once an Olympic event! Rope Climbing was included in the gymnastics program from 1896 through 1932. Competitors were required to ascend a suspended vertical rope, using only their hands. They started from a seated position on the floor and were timed. (Apparently in the 1896 event, style points were also awarded.) In 1896, the rope was 14 meters long (almost 46 feet!!!). Only two men, both Greek athletes, made it to the top. For future events, they lopped off about half the rope! And as all who suffer from a distinct lack of upper body strength sigh in relief, the powers-that-be (the IOC) dropped the rope after 1932. Unfortunately, sadistic gym teachers around the world kept the activity to torture their students throughout elementary and high school.
Swimming Obstacle Race
This one-time-only event was held in 1900 at the Paris Summer Games, but I am guessing that it might be ripe for a revival and a return to the Olympic roster, given the popularity of such TV shows as "American Ninja Warrior" and "The Amazing Race," which feature all sorts of crazy obstacle course challenges. Could become a new fan favorite! As a combination swimming event/obstacle course, the competitors had to climb over a pole, then clamber over a row of boats, and then swim under another row of boats (total distance 200 meters). Since this event was held outdoors in the River Seine, the competitors also had to contend with the current. Might be a way for Michael Phelps to continue competing into his thirties...
Pierre de Coubertin, sports fan and poet
I kid you not. From 1912 to 1948, the Olympics included competitions in the artistic categories of architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. In fact, the "father of the Modern Olympic movement," Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, won a gold medal in literature for his poem "Ode Au Sport" in 1912. I know what you're thinking: they gave it to him because he was the boss. Actually, he submitted the entry under a pseudonym. Of course, when he won, he had to present the gold medal to himself. Scandalous!
W.E. Dickey, gold medalist, 1904 plunge
Plunge for Distance
When we were kids, we used to call this "Dead Man's Float." You know, you dive in the pool and then see how far you can travel underwater without using your hands or feet to help propel your body. The one who gets the farthest before his head surfaces wins. This event was only held once at the Olympics, in Paris 1904. I wonder why...
(Photo courtesy of Missouri History Museum)
(Not to be confused with T.E.G.W.A.R., the notorious card game from Mark Harris' novel Bang The Drum Slowly)
Yes, another children's game was a sanctioned Olympic Summer Games event from 1900 through 1920. Tug-of-war was part of the track & field events. Perhaps it was included as an homage to the Ancient Olympics of Greece, where it was a highly anticipated contest. In the modern Olympics, the tug-of-war event pitted two teams of eight contestants. In order to be victorious, one team had to pull the other six feet in order to win. If after 5 minutes no team had achieved this, the team which had pulled the greatest distance was declared the winner.
You can read more about about discontinued and obscure Olympic sports here, here and here, if you have an inquiring mind.
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