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Surprising sports at the Olympic Games

8 unusual activities that have been part of the Olympics

black and white photograph, two men in the audience watching sports react with surprise
by
Marie Hartmann (Michael Culture)

As you may know, the International Olympic Committee raised a few eyebrows when skateboarding was added to the Tokyo Games, as well as when it introduced breakdancing as an additional sport for Paris 2024.

Ahead of every Olympic Games, additional sports can be added and removed, and sometimes these are quite unusual. Skateboarding and breakdancing are far from being the only surprising sports that have appeared during the Olympics.

Since its beginning in Athens in 1896, there have been a wide range of examples - from croquet to poodle clipping. Some appeared just once or a few times, while others weren't even officially featured in the Games. Let's discover some surprising sports!

Tug-of-war

black and white photograph, a group of soldiers in a tug-of-war match in a field

Tug-of-war was a sport featured in the Olympics from 1900 to 1920. Countries could enter multiple ‘clubs’, meaning teams, and could win more than one medal. For example, both the United States and Great Britain won the gold, silver and bronze medals respectively in 1904 and 1908.

The 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm

Solo synchronised swimming

colour photograph of a person doing a synchronised swimming routine

You may have noticed that in 2021, synchronised swimming was renamed 'artistic swimming'. In this discipline, two swimmers must be synchronised with their chosen music and with each other. The Olympic programme has also featured solo synchronised swimming at the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Games. Then, the swimmers had to be synchronised only with the music. This might raise the question why ballet has not been an Olympic sport? That is a question for another article…

Pistol duelling

colour photograph, a composite of two photographs, views of either side of a pistol

This sport featured at the male-only Olympic Games held in Athens in 1906 as an unofficial event. The competitors had to shoot at plaster dummies. It returned in 1908 where competitors actually fired at each other, but thankfully, no one was harmed because the bullets were made of wax and the duellists wore protective masks and uniforms.

Croquet

black and white photograph, a number of people playing croquet

Croquet has only appeared once in the history of the Olympic Games, in 1900. It was notable for being the first sport featuring women as competitors. However, it was not very popular - with only ten participants (all French) - entering the competition, and just a single spectator. It never returned to the competition, although a variation of the game called 'roque' featured in the 1904 Olympics.

Explore more stories about the Olympic and Paralympic Games

Plunge for distance

black and white photograph of a swimmer floating in water

Plunge for distance diving enjoyed its greatest popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1904, it was included as an official event at the Olympic Games in Saint Louis. The goal was to dive into and then glide in water without making any additional movement for one minute. The person who travelled the farthest won.

However, the event was neither very popular nor convincing. A New York Times sports writer described it as ‘mere mountains of fat who fall in the water more or less successfully and depend upon inertia to get their points for them’.

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Horse long jump

black and white photograph, a man in military-style uniform sitting on the back of a horse

Quite a few of these strange sports come from the 1900 Paris Olympic Games. Along with croquet, obstacle swimming and tug-of-war, the 1900 Games also featured horse long jump, an adaptation of the classic athletic event to horseback.

However, it wasn't a great success - the equestrian jumps were less long than those in the regular men's long jump. A Belgian army officer camed Constant van Langhendonck won the equestrian event with a jump of around 20 feet (6.10 metres), while Alvin Kraezlein won the regular contest with a jump of around 23.5 feet (7.18 metres).

Live pigeon shooting

black and white illustration of a number of people with dogs shooting at a large flock of pigeons in the sky

Live pigeon shooting was included in the 1900 Paris Games, and more than 300 pigeons were shot and killed during the event. They were released from spring boxes, stationed in the middle of a fenced ring. In order to score a point, the bird had to fall inside that ring, with participants eliminated if they missed two birds in a row. It was the only time this sport featured in the Olympics.

Poodle clipping

black and white photograph of a dark-haired poodle with a shaved back

Last but not least: poodle clipping. It was tried out for future Games at the Paris 1900 Olympics and never had the full status of an olympic sport, but it still seems pretty unusual. 128 competitors performed in front of a crowd of 6,000 in the Bois De Boulogne park, where they had to clip the fur of as many poodles as they could in two hours. So many questions come to mind… how did they ensure the poodles were the same size? Were they all equally docile? The winner Avril Lafoule didn’t seem to care much, having won after clipping a total of 17 poodles.

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