The Wildest Forgotten Olympic Sports

The Wildest Forgotten Olympic Sports

Some feats of strength and endurance just couldn’t stand the test of time

When we think of the Olympics, we get mental pictures of familiar track and field races, swimming and gymnastics. And then there are a lot of sports and disciplines that we only see every couple of years when the Games return. Last time, during the Rio Games, I was introduced to the intense indoor track cycling that’s raced on a pitched velodrome. Often, the sports that seem strange to us at home are more popular globally than in the United States.

Then again, some events - particularly in the early days of the Games - were a mix of traditional sports and misplaced add-ons, says Jeremy Fuchs, author of the new book, Total Olympics. “That, in turn, made the final product comically out of place in an athletic competition.”

American Olympic team in Sweden, 1912

After the 1920 Games, the International Olympic Committee decided there were a few too many events and far too many participants competing, so they decided to remove a number of so-called sports. Unfortunately, some of those were my childhood gym class favorites - tug of war and rope climb. Perhaps if they were still on the Olympic docket, my life could have been different.

Tug of War

Originally classified by the IOC as part of the traditional track and field athletics, Tug of War was later moved to its own category. It appeared five times as an official sport of the Olympic Games, as teams pulling in opposite directions on a rope tried to drag their opponents over a line. Interestingly, the number of participants on a team varied over the years, and contestants from different countries could participate on one team.

Rope Climb

That old school gym classic favorite (or fear) was once an official Olympic sport. The event appeared in five Olympics, ending after the 1932 Los Angeles Games. Competitors climbed a suspended vertical rope, using only their hands. The rope ranged from 25 to 32 feet and the climbers were judged on both speed and style. Though not quite the same, sport climbing will be contested for the first time at the Tokyo Games. 

Live Pigeon Shooting

Shooting disciplines have long been part of the Olympic program. However, in 1900, the Paris organizers used live pigeons in the trap shooting event. The idea was to shoot as many birds as possible. Six pigeons were released at once, for each competitor. Some 300 birds were shot down during the competition. It was the first and last time live animals were used as targets - now clay pigeon discs are used for similar trap events.

One-Handed Weightlifting

This weightlifting event was on the Olympic Program in the years 1896, 1904 and 1906. This event, for men only, was similar to the modern snatch weight lifting event. Only one hand was allowed in lifting the weights. The lifters were allowed three attempts. After each had lifted three times, the top three received three more attempts. Contestants had to perform lifts with each hand, with the winner determined from the combined score of both hands.

Tandem Bicycle

Two wheels, four legs...and three sets of medals up for grabs. The men’s-only dual rider race was a 2,000 meter sprint which first appeared at the 1908 Games in London. It resumed in 1920, where it would go on all the way through the 1972 Games. Of course, it’s largely forgotten now and considered more of a casual ride for hopeless romantics on vacation.

Plunge Diving

The 1904 Games in St. Louis were the first to feature diving. But one event wouldn’t last past one Olympic cycle: Plunge for Distance. Competitors dove into the pool from a standing position and their distance was measured after either 60 seconds passed or their head broke the surface (whichever came first). Rules stipulated that divers could not propel themselves through the water after the initial dive, and had to remain motionless in the water.

Obstacle Swim Race

This was a lot like the races you’ll watch in today’s Olympics, with one big twist. Once in the water, the swimmers had to grapple with obstacles in their way. Only seen at the 1900 Paris Games, the competitors had to climb over a pole, scramble over a row of boats, and then swim under another row of boats…for a total distance of 200 meters. The swimmers also had to contend with the strong current of the Seine River.

Basque Pelota

If you’ve ever seen or heard of jai alai, then you might recognize Basque pelota. Known to some as the world's fastest sport, the game exists these days in northern Spain and southern France. The idea is to take a ball (similar to a baseball) and slap it barehanded against a wall - though now a basket racket is often used. The game had an official appearance at the 1900 Games in Paris and three runs as a demonstration - as recently as 1992 in Barcelona. This brutal sport, often resulting in bloodshed, doesn’t seem likely to return.

* FYI: The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will include several new (and returning) sports: Baseball, softball, surfing, skateboarding, karate, and sport climbing.
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