Earlier this morning I was flipping through the channels when I came across the Olympics. The event? Women’s 20 kilometer “race walk.” It’s a type of foot race in which, apparently, you have to move as fast as possible while having at least one foot on the ground at all times (which you don’t when you run). Here is a video of some race walking:
The first thing I thought was that if this is an Olympic sport than those middle-age women that jog in the suburbs with fanny packs are basically world-class athletes, because I see no real difference between what they do and what race walking is. It seems patently ridiculous that this is involved with the Olympics, an event already cluttered with dozens of strange events that don’t seem to really belong, or that nobody has ever heard of or watched. Curling in the winter games is often talked about in this light (though I personally think it is awesome).
Out of curiosity, I began researching Olympic events, past and present. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
Basque pelota. This wallball-on-crack event was an official sport at the 1900 summer games in Paris; only one match was played, with Spain beating France for the gold medal. It was briefly revived in 1924, 1968, and 1992 as a demonstration sport (those Olympics were in Paris, Mexico City, and Barcelona, respectively). If you like racquetball but don’t like rackets, this is the sport for you.
Jeau de paume. Essentially indoor tennis (which was originally played with bare hands, for some reason) mixed with racquetball. It debuted as a demonstration sport at the aforementioned Paris 1900 Olympics (which on another note was also the only Olympics to feature croquet as an official sport), and as an official sport at the 1908 Olympics in London. Luckily, the U.S. team beat those limey bastards for the gold. Also, apparently the jeau de paume world championship is the oldest ongoing annual sports championship, held continuously for about 250 years, which is just about the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.
Roque. The Americanized version of croquet, which through what is possibly the most hilarious politicking of all time replaced croquet as an official sport at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. All 4 players were Americans. Apparently in the early party of the 20th century roque was considered the big new thing. The “Game of the Century.” Which is absurd in any number of ways.
Tug of war. I shouldn’t have to explain to you WHAT tug of war is, though even if I wanted to I can’t begin to explain WHY it was once an Olympic event. In fact, unlike all of the above which were more or less one-off things, tug of war was an official sport from 1900 to 1920, at 5 separate Olympics. On a side note, looking through the medal breakdowns on Wikipedia, at the time the IOC apparently allowed people from different countries to play together in team events. Which seems like it kind of defeats the purpose. Embedding on the video is disabled, but if you go here, you can see footage from the 1912 Olympic tug of war events in Stockholm, between Sweden and the UK. Apparently the entire membership of both teams were from the respective police departments of Stockholm and London.
Art. Yes, that’s right, I said art. From 1912 to 1952, the Olympics awarded medals for various works of art inspired by sport, spanning a number of mediums (architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture). In 1954, the practice was discontinued, officially under the pretense that the competitors were all professional artists, whereas the Olympic ideal is amateur competition. Though I like to imagine somebody at the IOC finally just spoke up and said, “Seriously guys? Architecture?” (Actually, since 1954 each Olympic games has been accompanied by a largely unheralded and ignored “Cultural Olympiad” that supposedly recognizes achievement in the arts).
A lot of questions can be raised about how you appraise works of art in such a fashion as to be compatible with the Olympic system. Apparently, nobody raised these questions before 1954, because in the 1928 Olympics the gold medal for architecture went to the design of the stadium those Olympics were held in. Some individual categories included town planning, epic poetry, chamber music, watercolors, and medals. Yes, there were medals given out for designing medals, though I can’t find any evidence that anybody ever won a gold medal for designing that very Olympic gold medal. Also, conflicts of interest be damned, the President of the IOC itself won a gold medal for art in 1912. The silver medalist in 1948 was 73 years old, making him the oldest Olympic medalist (to my surprise, the oldest non-artistic medalist was 72, for a shooting event).
More could probably be said on the topic, and I am sure a thorough review of Olympic history would turn up some even strange stuff. But, hey, this isn’t my day job.