Day 209: The Olympic Junk Drawer

originally published July 27, 2012

Unless you’ve spent the last few months bolted to a large slug’s wall, awaiting a princess disguised as a bounty hunter to liberate you from your carbonite enclosure, you are probably aware that the 2012 Olympics are kicking off today in London.

I’m not sure if Ms. Wiki’s Random Article button is bursting with global pride or merely a slave to the happy chuckle of coincidence, but she invited me to check out the results for softball at the 2008 Beijing games this morning. I was impressed; after winning gold in three consecutive Olympics, the Americans were upset by Japan by a score of 3-1 in the gold-medal game. I hope the two teams meet again this year for a thrilling revenge match.

Except they won’t. Softball was dropped from Olympic competition and won’t be played in London. This is a shame, because that means we won’t get to see the high-speed skills of Jennie Finch, and she was truly an inspiring pitcher.

Media coverage will no doubt drench you in stories and statistics for every sport offering a juicy gold medal to its champion this year. I’m going to follow Wikipedia’s advice and have a look at some former Olympic events for which athletes sacrificed and struggled their entire lives to achieve world dominance. Sports that, for the next two and a half weeks, don’t officially matter.

So many Olympic sports are centered on pure speed. A few, like weightlifting and – if they accept my application – manatee-dragging, are all about brute strength. Between 1900 and 1920 strength was embodied by the manly game of Tug of War.

The reason Tug of War didn’t survive as an Olympic event is probably due to sporadic attendance. There were only two teams participating in 1900 and 1912, and complete dominance by teams from individual countries on two occasions (three American teams won the medals in 1904, three British teams in 1908). 1920 saw the first impressive field of competitors (40 teams), but by then the sport had been yanked off the Olympic stage for the foreseeable future.

The teams weren’t always culled from the strongest countrymen either; the Swedish team that won in 1912 and all three UK teams that took home medals in 1908 were police squads. 1908 would have been a stupid time to resist arrest in London, I suppose – their cops would crush your bangers into mash.

Gliding was an Olympic sport for four hours and thirty-one minutes. That’s how long it took for Hungarian pilot Lajos Rotter to fly from Rangsdorf to Kiel during the demonstration event for the sport at the 1936 Berlin Games. Gliding as an event was accepted by the Olympic Committee and put on the schedule for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, but those games were cancelled due to the war. The 1944 games were also scrapped, and by 1948 gliding had flown off the Olympic radar.

Jeu de Paume is essentially indoor tennis with a droopy net and walls where the sidelines and baselines would be. In fact, the British name for this sport is ‘real tennis’, while the stuff they play at Wimbledon is ‘lawn tennis.’

As an Olympic event, the sport was only played once, in the 1908 games in London. It was a singles event, with Jay Gould II from the United States bringing home the gold. The kooky French name stems from the sport’s invention in France, and its original incarnation as a handball activity with no racquets. The rules are similar to tennis, though of course the walls are part of the playing area. Also, there are a number of different varieties of serve, including the giraffe, the bobble, and the poop. No, I’m not making those up.

Longue Paume is an outdoor version of Jeu de Paume. While that sounds like it should simply be tennis, it’s actually an elaborate game with six players on each side, like some sort of group tennis orgy. Longue Paume was a demonstration sport at the 1900 Paris Games, but never made it in as an official sport.

A number of other demonstration sports vied for acceptance in the 1900 Games, including ballooning, cannon shooting, fire fighting, kite flying, life saving, and pigeon racing. I would tune in if each of these were brought back for another go. I want to see the world’s greatest competitive kite flyer.

Croquet didn’t get a lot of attention when it debuted in 1900, so in 1904 it was replaced by roque, which is the same sport played on a solid, smooth surface. Its fans claimed roque to be the sport of the century, much faster and more intense than croquet, with tiny walls around the perimeter of the playing area to allow for some skillful rebound shots.

The ‘sport of the century’ attracted four athletes to the 1904 Games in St. Louis, all of them Americans. Needless to say, the US earned three medals from the event, and one guy went home feeling like a schmuck.

Roque plummeted in popularity during the 20th century, but is still played today by tens, if not dozens of people. In fact, Jack Torrance’s weapon of choice was not an axe in Stephen King’s The Shining novel. It was a roque mallet.

Wax bullets, while showing up in this particular Wikipedia category, was never an official event. It was, however, a huge attraction at the 1908 games. A tent was set up in which people (probably just men) dressed up in protective gear and dueled with one another using pistols loaded with wax globs.

I have no idea if this was ever considered for Olympic competition; every mention I could find online seemed to express a similar curiosity. I’d like to see them try this one again. It would have to work better than some of the other demonstration sports they’ve pitched.

In addition to the above list from the 1900 Games, there are dozens of other demonstration sports that have peppered the Olympics, some having graduated to actual event status.

Other demonstration events have included angling (it turns out watching fishing at the Olympics is just as dull as watching fishing any other time), auto racing, hurling (a Gaelic paddle-lacrosse type game, not competitive vomiting), Gaelic football, Australian rules football, American football (in 1904, pre-NFL), cycle polo (which is exactly what it sounds like), la canne (people hitting each other with sticks), savate (kickboxing), korfball (which sounds fake), and waterskiing.

The International Olympic Committee has nixed demonstration sports since the 1992 games, mainly because the actual games had gotten big enough that the IOC didn’t want to divert their focus. Or something. I don’t know, I think it would be great to keep introducing maybe-sports to see if they might stick in the global sports appetite.

Besides, after two weeks of watching people jump into water, row through water, and run around a track, I think audiences would crave some competitive fire extinguishing. Maybe for the 2016 games in Rio we can campaign to see a form of the TV show Wipeout brought in as an international competition.

Enjoy the games!

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