For those of you mourning the fact that baseball will not be part of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London (or the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro), don’t worry because you’re not alone — there are legions of croquet enthusiasts, tug-of-war fanatics and solo synchronized swimming fans out there who have experienced a similar loss.
At the first modern Olympic Games held in Athens in 1896, nine sports were contested: wrestling, fencing, athletics (track and field events), cycling, tennis, swimming, weightlifting, gymnastics and shooting. Over the years, that number has increased significantly with the inclusion of everything from table tennis to taekwondo, from basketball to badminton. While many of these new additions have stuck around, others have been phased out indefinitely for one reason or another by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in recent years capped the number of sports contested at the Summer Olympics at 28 (there will be only 26 at the 2012 Summer Olympics). Some sports, such as tennis and archery, have been discontinued and then, years later, reinstated. Currently, to be included in the Summer Olympics, a sport must be practiced by men in 75 countries spanning four continents and by women in 40 countries across three continents. Also, unlike some early Olympic events, no motors are allowed.
Here’s the thing: In the early years, the Olympics were a more loosely organized affair and sports tended to come and go with the organizing country having final say on what sports and disciplines were included. Plus, up until in 1992, demonstration sports were also held in an effort to promote up-and-coming or regionally popular sports (baseball, for example, started out as a demonstration sport in various Olympics and eventually graduated to official sport status).
Of course, many of these discontinued Summer Olympic sports and disciplines, both of official and demonstration variety, fall into the “odd” and/or “obscure” category. Here’s a look at nine of them, listed alongside the year that marked their last — and in many cases, only — appearance. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to play a game of korfball.
Croquet — 1900, Paris
While croquet doesn’t exactly fall under the “enthralling” category, this genteel — but no doubt competitive … just ask the “Heathers” — form of lawn recreation that was briefly all the rage in Victorian England was indeed an official sport in the Olympics program. Much to the dismay of croquet enthusiasts everywhere, it was a short-lived phenomenon. During the Summer Olympics of 1900, the croquet event had only one spectator, an Englishman. And the players were all French. Croquet (kind of) reappeared at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis in the form of roque, an Americanized variant of the game in which the traditional grass playing surface is replaced by a hard court and the mallets have shorter handles. And to be clear, although croquet was the lawn game du jour in mid-19th century England, an earlier variation of the game called paille-maille (“ball-mallet”) was popular across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Live pigeon shooting — 1900, Paris
Shooting has long been an integral part of the Summer Olympics (save for 1904 and 1928). In fact, it was one of the nine original events at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Clay pigeons have traditionally — and understandably — been used as moving targets with the exception of the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris in which live pigeons were used, making it the first and only Olympic event that involved the slaughter of animals. As legend has it, more than 300 birds were shot from the sky during the 1900 Olympics, with Belgium’s Leon de Lunden taking top prize (21 kills). Pigeon racing, not shooting, was also an Olympic event that year, albeit an unofficial one.
Hot air ballooning — 1900, Paris (unofficial)
In addition to now-discontinued official sports such as croquet, Basque pelota (a hybrid of racquetball and tennis) and both obstacle course and underwater swimming (!) races, the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris was jam-packed with decidedly offbeat unofficial events ranging from firefighting to kite flying to surf lifesaving to our personal favorite, hot air ballooning. It’s unclear as to what countries took top place in the Olympic hot air balloon races, but we do know this much: This is one event that wouldn’t, ahem, fly nowadays even though we’d like to see it resurrected. And on the topic of wacky contests from the 1900 Summer Olympics, contrary to popular Internet rumor, a well-attended Olympic poodle clipping competition “won by Avril Lafoule, a 37-year-old farmer's wife from the Auvergne region of France, who successfully clipped 17 poodles in the allotted two-hour time frame,” never actually went down.
Tug-of-war — 1920, Antwerp
If there was a single sport that we’d like to see reinstated at the Summer Olympics, our vote would enthusiastically go to tug-of-war, the grueling, grunt-inducing game of strength that, despite being phased out after the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, lives on at corporate retreats, family reunions, church picnics and summer camps everywhere (and we don’t think we’re alone with this). Tug-of-war actually had a decent run at the Olympics, debuting at the 1900 Summer Games in Paris (a mixed team of Swedes and Danes took gold that year) and reappearing in all of its ropy, muddy glory for the 1904 Summer Games in St. Louis (the U.S. walked away with all three medals), the 1908 Summer Games in London (Great Britain claimed gold, silver and bronze), the 1912 Summer Games Stockholm (host country Sweden yanked its way into first) and, finally, the 1920 games in Antwerp (once again, those brutish Britons took top honors).
Glima — 1912, Stockholm (demonstration)
Two men demonstrate glima in 1934 in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Photo: Willem van de Poll [CC by 1.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
Back before the IOC stepped in and ruined all the fun in 1924, the Summer Olympics were somewhat of a free-for-all as organizers were left in charge of selecting which sports, both official and unofficial, would be included in the Games. A shining example of this was the inclusion of a form of Icelandic folk wrestling known as glima in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. In addition to glima, Greco-Roman wrestling was an official sport, but host country Sweden forbade boxing, a former Olympic crowd-pleaser. And the other demonstration sport that appeared (for the second time) at the 1912 Summer Olympics? It’s one that’s not quite obscure as Icelandic folk wrestling — baseball. Unlike glima, after years of appearing as a demonstration sport, America’s Favorite Pastime graduated to official Olympic sport status at the 1992 Summer Olympics and remained part of the official program up until 2008. In 2005 and 2009, the IOC eliminated both baseball and softball from the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympic programs, making them the first sports to be voted out since polo in 1936. Replacing them in 2016? Not tug-of-war and ballooning (we wish), but golf and rugby sevens.
Korfball — 1928, Amsterdam (demonstration)
Debuting as a demonstration sport at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp and reappearing eight years later at the Summer Games in its ancestral birthplace, Amsterdam, korfball is a hugely popular international sport (yeah, we’d never heard of it either) that didn’t quite manage to catch on at subsequent Summer Olympics. Played either indoors or out, korfball is a coed, basketball-ish sport that managed to raise eyebrows back in the day due to the fact that each team was composed of four guys and four gals. Scandal! Today, the sport is a big deal not just in the Low Countries, but in numerous nations including Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Taiwan. Intrigued? Head over to the United States Korfball Federation to learn more about the small but well-organized stateside korfball movement, a movement which seems to be centered around Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in Clinton, N.Y.
Club swinging — 1932, Los Angeles
Club swinging was obviously serious business. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])
Men’s club swinging, an official discipline in the Summer Olympics gymnastics program in both 1904 and 1932, is exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of dudes in tights twirling bowling pin-shaped wooden clubs of different sizes and weights in immaculately choreographed patterns. Yessir. Club swinging, or Indian Clubs, was actually a fad-ish method of strength training back in the day before Jane Fonda and Shake Weights hit the scene. And get this: Indian swinging clubs actually served as the inspiration for the modern day juggling club (and of course, the Clubbell). Who knew? In addition to club swinging, other phased out Olympic events in the artistic gymnastics department include rope climbing (1896, 1904, 1924, 1932) and tumbling (1932).
Photo: “Manual of physical training for use in the United States Army”
Water skiing — 1972, Munich (demonstration)
Although the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich were overshadowed by terrorism-related tragedy, let’s not forget that two intriguing demonstration sports debuted that year: Badminton, which would reappear again as a demonstration sport during the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and go on to become an official event at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and water skiing, which, sadly, has never been part of the Games, officially or unofficially, since. Shuttlecocks, not water skis, get all the love, apparently. The 1972 water skiing competition included a total of six events for both men and women – slalom, figure skiing and ski jump – with over 35 athletes from 20 countries participating. Representing the U.S., Water Ski Hall of Fame-r Ricky McCormick took first in the men’s jump and figure skiing events while another American, Liz Allen-Shetter, took first in women’s slalom. Other top contenders hailed from France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Australia.
Solo synchronized swimming — 1992, Barcelona
Women’s duet synchronized swimming has been part of the official Summer Olympics aquatics program since the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. And for a while there, so was solo (yes, solo) synchronized swimming with top athletes, including Tracie Ruiz and Kristen Babb-Sprague (USA), Caroline Waldo (Canada) and Miwako Motoyoshi (Japan). The video above why solo synchronized swimming was axed after the 1992 Summer Olympics and replaced with team synchronized swimming. Pretty ridiculous (yet oh-so-hypnotic) right? If the IOC ever decides to resurrect solo synchronized swimming from its watery grave at some point down the line (and we’re not-so-secretly wishing they would), we definitely think they should open up the event to the fellas, mainly to this guy.
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