[Zim’s Note: With the 2012 Summer Olympic Games beginning tomorrow in London, I decided to do a quick search of Olympic sports that are no more. Luck would have it that I was not the only one thinking about these by-gone activities. Today, National Geographic published a slide show of “6 Lost Olympic Sports.” In my opinion, there are a few of these that should still be in the Olympic Games…]
[Zim’s Second Note: …but not the pigeon one…]
Solo Synchronized Swimming
The seemingly oxymoronic sport of solo synchronized swimming is just one of a gaggle of lost, generally unlamented activities you won’t see at the 2012 Olympics in London. Practiced above by U.S. Olympian Kristen Babb Sprague in Barcelona in 1992—solo synchronized swimming’s third and last Olympic year—the discipline isn’t as odd as it sounds. Technically speaking, it’s the music, not other athletes, that the swimmers are supposed to be in sync with.
While the sport—still practiced competitively in other venues—does require tremendous flexibility and stamina, many viewed it as something of a joke.
“It’s just sort of making pretty figures in the water,” said Bill Mallon, a past president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “Like floor exercises while you’re floating—jumping, toes pointed, spins, smiling, waving your arms.”
Unlike many discontinued Olympic events, tug-of-war was a crowd favorite. “It’s actually a great sport to watch,” said Mallon, the historian.
A staple of the Summer Olympics from 1900 to 1920, the sport was forced into retirement when the International Olympic Committee decreed that each Olympic sport needed to have a global governing body, which tug-of-war lacked.
Despite the sport’s current connotations of school yards and playgrounds, turn-of-the-century tug-of-war could be surprisingly high-stakes.
At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, for example, the U.S. team protested an upset by the home team, crying foul over the Brits’ heavy, spiked, and apparently illegal boots. The U.K. team (pictured against Ireland), though—most of them police officers—explained that they simply hadn’t changed out of their work boots.
Jeu de Paume
Jeu de paume (pictured in an undated illustration) ricocheted into the 1908 London Olympics and hasn’t bounced back since, perhaps for lack of audience. “It’s a very elitist sport,” Mallon said. “There are only about 20 courts left in the world right now,” most of them in France.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, the “palm game” is the original form of tennis, though it more closely resembles racquetball, in that walls are very much in play.
Jeu de paume parts ways with modern tennis too in its emphasis on finesse over force.
“The game is not so much [about] power as it is about placement and spins,” Mallon said.
Rope climbing hung on as part of the Summer Olympics’ gymnastics program from 1896 and 1932, with Greece’s Georgios Aliprantis (pictured) taking the gold in 1906 in Athens.
In that time, though, the sport made only four Olympic appearances, mainly because it was popular only in the U.S. Perhaps not surprisingly, rope climbing was more likely to make the cut when the games were held in the states.
“It’s important that the sports included be popular around the world, but when [the Olympics] are in America … well, Americans have a little more say,” Mallon said.
At its introduction at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, rope climbers were judged on form, speed, and—in cases where competitors failed to reach the top of the 42-foot (13-mater) rope—height. In 1904 and 1932, medals were awarded based solely on speed. Judges in 1924 again factored in style, which backfired slightly when 22 competitors achieved perfect scores.
The 1900 Paris games were folded into a massive world’s fair, resulting in a flood of demonstration sports that wouldn’t have been included otherwise (and never would be again). Case in point: hot-air ballooning (pictured). In fact, there were so many activities, Mallon said, that it was difficult to tell which sports were Olympic.
Balloon pilots at the Paris Olympics were judged on distance traveled, time in the air, and ability to land at predetermined coordinates. France swept the event.
The sport was removed from the Olympic roster, not due to ridiculousness but because of a ban on motorized sports. And though the ban’s recently been removed from the Olympic Charter, Mallon said he doesn’t expect that ballooning will make a comeback.
Live Pigeon Shooting
The inclusion of live pigeon shooting in the 1900 Paris games—like ballooning, a world’s fair one-off—marks the only time in the Olympic history that animals have been killed on purpose.
The rules of the game were straightforward: Shoot down as many birds as possible in the allotted time, with two misses resulting in elimination. The event—in which Australia’s Donald MacIntosh (pictured) took the bronze—was predictably messy, which may have contributed to pigeon shooting’s brief Olympic life span.
[Personally, I would watch the tug-of-war if it were in the Olympics again. Here is a video of the tug-of-war meet between Sweden and Great Britain during the 1912 Stockholm Games.]