So the Olympics is done and dusted for another four years and our attention now turns to Tokyo in 2020.
An IOC decision a few years ago allows the host nation to include one-off sports that are popular in the host country, so Tokyo 2020 will see the inclusion of surfing, sports climbing, skateboarding and karate, as well as the return of baseball and softball.
None of these sports may survive beyond Tokyo, though golf made a comeback in Rio after a 112-year absence and Rugby Union (in the Sevens format) made it back on the program after a 92-year absence, and both remain on the 2020 program.
While this may seem like the IOC is pandering to commercial interests to boost ratings and attendances, and making a pitch for a younger audience – both of which are true – the Olympics does have a history of including one-off sports that, while popular with the locals, haven’t survived beyond a single Games.
Just some of the sports that made a one-off appearance on official Summer Olympics programs are:
I Olympiad, Athens – 1896: 100m Freestyle for Greek Sailors.
II Olympiad, Paris – 1900: Men’s 200m Obstacle Swimming, Men’s underwater swimming, Basque Pelota, Croquet and Cricket.
III Olympiad, St Louis – 1904: Roque.
IV Olympiad, London – 1908: Jeu de Paume, Running Deer Shooting, Rackets and Power boating.
VI Olympiad, Antwerp – 1920: Equestrian Vaulting.
There are also several sports that appeared at several Olympics in the early part of the 20th century but failed to capture the imagination of the modern audience.
Who amongst us would not welcome the return of tug-of-war, standing high jump, rope climbing and club swinging? An entire class has arguably been disenfranchised with the omission of Polo – last played in 1936 – the Yanks love lacrosse and the bizarrely named solo synchronised swimming should remain on the program just to confuse people every four years.
Above: Olympic ‘Tug of War’ 1900 Olympics, Paris
The Summer Games have also had trouble with the ‘summer’ aspect of the Summer Olympics, twice including Figure Skating (1908 & 1920) and once Ice Hockey (1920) on the program before they were eventually permanently transferred to the winter games program in 1924.
The only one of the above sports that has an outside chance of returning in the near future, as far as I can see, is cricket – there is a lobby pushing for it to return in 2020.
That aside… here’s some background to the sports that have had their Olympic moment in the sun but failed to capture the public’s imagination.
Above: Standing High Jump in Stockholm, 1912.
1. The 100m Freestyle for Sailors
The award for the most shameless appeal to local interests ever has to go to this event, held only once in the very first Olympics, in Athens in 1896.
The event is bizarre as an ‘Olympic’ sport because it was open ONLY to sailors in the Greek Royal Navy.
Unsurprisingly, the Greeks made a clean sweep of the event; Ioannes Malokinis won gold in a time of 2:20.4, Spiridon Chasapis won silver and Dimitrios Drivas the bronze medal. Malokinis’ time was nearly a minute slower than the winner of the open 100m freestyle.
2. Men’s 200m Obstacle Swimming
With Paris bidding for the 2024 Olympics one can only wonder what bizarre sports they may add to the Olympic legacy. The II Olympiad is famous for including five sports – the 200m obstacle swim, the underwater swim, Basque Pelota, croquet and cricket – that never felt the warmth of the Olympic flame again.
Image sourced from www.olympics.org.
In this strange swimming event competitors had to climb over a pole, over a row of boats, then swim under another row of boats over a 200m course, while contending with the currents in the River Seine.
There’s a particularly Australian flavour to this event because the one and only time it was held at an Olympics it was won by Australia’s Frederick Lane – who also won the 200m, individual freestyle.
3. Men’s underwater swimming
Charles Devendeville is the proud holder of the Olympic record and the only gold medal ever awarded for the men’s underwater swimming competition.
Apart from its lack of spectator appeal in the era before underwater cameras, this event might go down as the only swimming event in Olympic history to reward the winner for swimming slower than their opponent.
Competitors had to swim as far as they could and hold their breath for as long as possible. Points were awarded for both distance – 2 points a metre – and time – one point for each second you held your breath.
Devendeville managed to cover 60m under water in 68.5 seconds, edging out his compatriot André Six by just three points. M. Six stupidly covered the same distance in only 65.4 seconds. Curiously, the bronze medallist, Denmark’s Peder Lykkeberg, had a good case for being awarded a gold medal. He easily out lasted his opponents under the water, holding his breath for an impressive 90 seconds. One does wonder though what he was actually doing under water, as he only managed to cover a distance of 28.5 metres in the time he was submerged.
Perhaps, being Danish, he was distracted by a Little Mermaid!
4. Basque Pelota
Basque Pelota, despite only being contested at the 1900 Olympics, has threatened to make a comeback several times. It was a demonstration sport in 1924, 1968 and 1992. The sport is basically a variation on squash, but played with a wooden bat, known as a Palas or Paletas. Think of kids playing downball in the schoolyard and you’re close.
It originated in the Basque region of Spain – hence the name obviously – and is still widely played today in the Basque regions of south-western France and north-eastern Spain, as well as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Philippines, Guatemala, Italy, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, United States, Venezuela, Netherlands, Sweden, India and Greece.
The reigning Olympics champions in the sport are Spaniards José de Amézola y Aspizua and Francisco Villota. They defeated the only other entrants in the event, Frenchmen Maurice Durquetty and his partner Etchegaray.
This was another shameless pitch for medals by the French, up there with the ‘Greek sailors swim’. All 10 competitors in the event were French. Gaston Aumoitte was the most successful player, winning gold in the singles – one ball and partnering Georges Johin to gold in the doubles.
Croquet being played at the II Olympiad in Paris
If you thought Rio had difficulty filling venues, the Croquet at the 1900 Games is notable for possibly being the lowest attended sporting event in history. The Olympic website www.olympic.org reports only a single paying spectator turned up for the event, held in the Bois de Boulogne.
“An Englishman travelled all the way from Nice to watch the women’s croquet event, which consisted only of French players. According to the records, his was the only entry ticket sold for the competition!”
The event is also notable for being the first appearance of women at the Olympics, although Madame Després, Madame Filleul-Brohy and Mademoiselle Ohier lost in the first round.
Cricket did briefly find its way back into the Commonwealth Games in 1998 and there is a push on to include the 20/20 format in the 2020 Olympics – no pun intended.
There are also rumours that Rome, if it wins’ the right to host the 2024 games, will include cricket on the program. That should be interesting given the Italians long tradition of playing cricket.
However, Australian’s with an Italian passport shouldn’t be buying your whites just yet, as there is no certainty Rome’s bid for 2024 will go ahead. The current Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi – the first woman elected to the position in 2800 years (yes that figure is correct) in June 2016 – opposes the city hosting the games and has called for a referendum on the issue.
To date, however, cricket’s one and only moment in the Olympic sun remains Paris 1900 – and an unusual moment it is too for many reasons.
The short version is Great Britain defeated France by 158 runs. However…. the format officially featured 12-a-side for probably the only time in international cricketing history and, while we might say ‘Great Britain’ played ‘France’ – the touring team The Devon and Somerset Wanderers represented England, while the ‘French’ team was made up of largely British expats.
The French required 185 to win on day two of the two-day match but were in considerable trouble after losing 10 wickets for 11 runs. Their only choice was to try and play for a draw, which they nearly did, losing their 11th wicket only five minutes before the close of play.
The winners received a silver medal, the losers a bronze and both ‘nations’. The problem was neither ‘nation’ had any idea they were competing in the Olympics, thinking instead the game was part of the World’s Fair, also on in Paris at the time.
It wasn’t until 1912 that the IOC recognised the game as an Olympic contest and upgraded the medals to gold and silver, though the game never received first class status.
This game is an American version of croquet and, like croquet in the previous games, only attracted competitors from the host nation. So Charles Jacobs joins an elite band of one off reigning Olympic champions who are unlikely ever to be unseated and the USA athletes made a clean sweep of the event.
One does feel for poor William Chalfant though. Mr Chalfant finished fourth in the field of four and not only missed out on one of the cheapest medals in Olympics history, but never got the chance to avenge his fourth place.
The rules are similar to croquet, with some technical variations but the basic principle is the same – use a mallet to hit balls on a flat surface through little arches.
8. Jeu de Paume
This is probably better known as Real Tennis, or Royal Tennis. If you’re wondering what a court looks like, there’s a great scene in the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the pair play ‘questions’ on what is a court similar to a Real Tennis Court.
The game is still played, with 43 courts remaining worldwide and half of those in Britain. The oldest surviving court is the Royal Tennis Court at Hampton Court Palace. Constructed in the 1620’s it’s built on the site of an even older court that was constructed in 1528.
Alas, Real Tennis lost the Olympic racquets sports battle to badminton and ‘lawn’ tennis and is unlikely to ever bask in the glow of the Olympic flame again.
9. Running Deer Shooting
My daughter asked me the other day, “Who is the oldest Olympic Medallist?” (I think she vaguely thought I might still have a chance of entering the Olympics if I could just find the right sport.)
We discovered that the oldest Summer Olympic medallist of all time was one Oscar Swahn from Sweden, who was 72 when he won a silver medal at the VII Olympiad in Antwerp, 1920. He was 64 when he won his third gold medal in 1912. What was more interesting, however, was that Swahn won his medals in the unusual sport of Running Deer Shooting.
I had visions of a bearded Swahn stalking through the English countryside in 1908 – he also won two gold medals in London – followed by a massive spit roast when the competition ended.
Alas, the ‘deer’ was merely a deer-shaped target that made 10 runs of 75 feet, with the shooter firing one shot during each run. The runs lasted about 4 seconds each and took place 110 yards from the shooter.
There were three concentric circles on the target, with the smallest counting for 4 points, the middle for 3, and the outermost for 2. A hit outside the circles but still on the target (except on the haunch) counted for 1 point. The maximum possible score was thus 40 points.
This is still a current international sport – the world champion is a guy names James Stout from Bermuda – though it’s one and only appearance at the Olympics was in London, 1908.
In 1908, Evan Noel won the men’s singles gold and Vane Pennell and John Jacob Astor teamed up for the doubles. It was arguably the most inclusive event in Olympic history as each of the seven competitors won a medal of some colour.
11. Power Boating
Held for the one and only time in London 1908, because England is renowned for it’s water sports, this event is notable for two reasons – 1908 was the only time it was ever on the Olympic program and it’s one of the few sports where ONLY gold medals have ever been awarded.
Emile Thobron (France) won gold in the Class A – Open, Great Britain won the Class B – Under 60 feet and the same crew – John Field-Richards, Bernard Boverton Redwood and Issac Thomas Thornycroft won gold in the Class C – 6.5-8 metres.
12. Equestrian Vaulting
This event could only be described as P.T. Barnum joins the Olympics and featured once in the Games of the VII Olympiad in Antwerp, 1920
The gist of it is single or multiple ‘riders’ performing tricks on the back of a horse. There was a team and an individual event and competitors were required to perform tricks both with a saddle and bareback.
This was another one of those events where every country got a medal. Only three entered – Belgium, France and Sweden. The Belgian’s dominated the medals, winning gold in both the teams and individual.
And … The Ones that never made it!
As a little footnote to this list there are also numerous sports that have appeared as demonstration sports at the Olympics.
Paris probably wins the medal again for the strangest collection of demonstration sports ever. These included angling, ballooning, boules, cannon shooting (my personal favourite), fire fighting, kite flying, life saving, longue paume – a variation of tennis – motor racing, motorcycle racing, pigeon racing and water motorsports.
Probably the most bizarre amongst them is Live Pigeon Shooting. The winners received a 20,000 Franc purse and more than 400 birds were killed during competition.
There were two categories, one requiring a 20-franc entry fee the other 200 francs. Australian Donald Mackintosh won gold in the 20 franc category with 22 consecutive kills and tied for third in the 200 franc category with Crittenden Robinson from the USA with 18, three behind the winner, Belgium’s Léon de Lunden.
Needless to say, the event never made it officially on to the Olympic program after animal rights campaigners protested.
Léon de Lunden, Gold medal in the Live Pigeon Shooting, Paris 1900.
Among the other sports to appear as demonstration sports at the Olympic games are American Football (1932), Bowling (1988), Budo (1964), Finnish baseball (1952), Gilma (1912), Gliding (1936), Kaatsen (1928), Korfball (1920 & 1928), La Canne (1924), Roller hockey (1992), Savate (1924), Swedish gymnastics (1948), Weight training with dumbbells (1904), Water skiing (1972) AND, you guessed it, Australian Rules Football.
Aussie Rules was played at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne as a ‘native’ game. It’s most notable for being possibly the only time the Amateurs have ever beaten a group of VFL/VFA players.
A combined team from the VAFA (Victorian Amateur Football Association) defeated a combined Victorian Football League/Victorian Football Association team 12.8 81 to 8.7 55.
Sourced from Wikipedia, original publisher unknown.
Of course the professional playing in the VFL/VFA weren’t allowed to play because of the amateur rules governing the Olympics but the VFL/VFA teams still included some big names such as Ray Gabelich (Collingwood), Brendan Edwards (Hawthorn), Denis Cordner (Melbourne), Laurie Dwyer (North Melbourne) and Brian Walsh (St Kilda).
Maybe it’ll catch on one day?