An illustrated guide to some of the Olympic disciplines that did not stand the test of time.
When we think of the Olympic Games, many well-known sports and events come to mind. From 100m sprinters running the length of the track in less than 10 seconds, to gymnasts executing perfect eye-catching routines which may have been practiced hundreds of times. However, there are many disciplines and events which are long-forgotten by today’s generation of Olympic spectators.
Here we take a look at some of the most interesting and obscure events that did not stand the test of time and no longer feature in the Games. Some, from over a hundred years ago, didn’t make it beyond just one Olympics.
200m obstacle swimming
This event, a combination of an obstacle course and swimming in the Seine river, was only presented during the games in Paris in 1900.
To today’s casual observer, tumble turns and diving from the blocks are the two main challenges Olympic swimmers face, beyond, of course, motoring through the water as fast as their limbs and lungs can propel them. But for swimmers at the 1900 Paris Olympics, things were a little more challenging –certainly for competitors in the 200 metres obstacle race. It never lasted beyond that edition of the Games, and its rules were more than a little complex. The race featured competitors climbing a pole which hovered just above the water, and both scrambling over and under rows of boats before reaching the finish line.
Australian Frederick Lane swam, climbed and clambered to gold, beating Austria’s Otto Wahle into silver. Briton Peter Kemp struck bronze, although more than half of the original 28 entrants failed to even start the race, which was axed from the programme soon afterwards.
Plunge for distance
The UK Amateur Swimming Association defined it as “A head-first stand-up dive from a firm, springless takeoff”. Variations like this, entering with the feet, were also practiced under warnings of the danger they represented.
1904 was the first Olympics to feature diving, and the programme was certainly more experimental than it is today. One event, axed after just the one Games, was the Plunge for Distance. Won by American William Dickey, gold went to the diver who could dive into the pool from a standing position and travel underwater furthest without moving their body for as long as possible.
Distance traveled by the best plungers
Rules stipulated that the diver’s body had to remain motionless until their face rose above the water. Dickey came top of an all-American sweep –the event only featured five competitors and all were from the New York Athletic Club.
Underwater swimming was featured in the 1900 Olympics in Paris but was dropped for later editions due the lack of spectator appeal according to the IOC reports.
The event took place in the Seine river and had a limit of 60 meters for swimmers who received one point for every second they stayed underwater and two points for every meter that they swam underwater.
Frenchman Charles Devendeville won gold with an underwater effort of one minute and eight seconds after reaching the maximum distance of 60 meters. He beat fellow Frenchman Andre Six by three seconds.
100m for sailor
In arguably the most niche sport in Olympic history, the 1896 Athens Games hosted a 100m swim open only to sailors of the Greek Royal Navy.
On the morning of April 11, 1896, nine sailors from the Greek Royal Navy were supposed to join this exclusive Olympic Games event created just for them. However, only three of them showed up, guaranteeing all a medal.
Times of the best swimmers
IOC records note that the sailors were slower swimmers than expected, with the winning swimmers in the open category covering the same distance in almost half the time, perhaps explaining why the curious event was so short-lived.
Cesta punta is a variation of the Basque Pelota game. Historians say the sport stems from an ancient French game known as jeux de paume, a common ancestor of tennis.
An official sport at the 1900 games in Paris, perhaps unsurprisingly Spaniards Francisco Villota and Jose De Amezola scooped gold. The Games of 1924, 1968 and 1992 included Basque Pelota as a demonstration sport.
The rules of Cesta Punta
The court for playing Basque Pelota has high walls at the front, left and back, the right side of the court is reserved for the audience. Players must throw the ball against the front wall while the opponent has to catch the ball in the air or on the first bounce. If the opponent doesn’t catch the ball and throws it again, the player who threw the ball gets the point.
The ball in this game is very hard, has a consistency similar to that of a golf ball but is of a slightly larger size. A Basque pelota ball can reach a speed of 270 kilometers per hour when thrown against the wall during the match.
Long jump and high jump
Known as Puissance in the equestrian world, equine jumping made its first appearance at the Olympics when horses were still a must-have mode of transportation in the 1900s. Horse jumping gained popularity in the West around the 18th century when English aristocrats erected fences on their lands.
The highest jump ever recorded took place in February 1949 by Alberto Morales riding Huaso ex-Faithfull scaling 2.47m. During the 1900 Games France’s Dominique Maximien Garderes won gold with a jump of 1.85m.
In the long jump, the initial distance set was 4.5m, which the 17 competitors achieved easily. However, most failed when the distance was increased by 40cm. The wheat separated from the chaff, eventually first prize was won by Extra Dry, an eight-year-old horse ridden by Belgian Constant Van Langhendonck, jumping 6.10m.
Tug of war
The Oxford Dictionary published in one of its volumes that “tug of war” originally meant “the decisive contest; the real struggle or tussle; a severe contest for supremacy”.
Originally classified by the International Olympic Committee as part of Athletics, Tug of War was later moved to its own category away from any other sports.
Tug of War, Pulling the Rope, or Rope War… the discipline is known almost everywhere in the world with slight name changes. There are records in rock carvings in the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the ancient Greeks practiced it, as well as the ancient Chinese dynasties among many others.
In all, Tug of War appeared five times as an official sport of the Olympic Games, with tweaked rules ranging from five to eight team members. During the 1900 Games, the winning team was a Danish-Swedish mix. Mind you, they only had one bout to win – against Racing Club de France.
All-Round Dumbbell Lifts
This weightlifting contest was designed to determine who was the strongest man among the strong. It had a complex method of scoring, judging through a series of 10 exercises over two days.
Each competitor was required to complete a series of heavy dumbbell lifts over two days. On the first day, they were to perform five instructed lifts. On the second day, they had four instructed lifts, plus a freestyle lift to end the competition with a flourish.
Scoring the event was weirdly complex. The first nine events were scored with 5 points for first place, 3 for second place and 1 for third place. The last freestyle event was at the discretion of the judges, awarding a total of 25 points among the top three competitors.
The 1904 gold was awarded to Oscar Osthoff – better known for being an award-winning swimmer rather than a weightlifter.
Army rifle shooting
The program of the 1896 Olympic Games included categories of Men’s Army Rifles of 200 and 300 meters. Men could also sign up to shoot with army pistols from a distance of 25 meters at events held at the Kallithea firing range in Athens.
During the Athens 1896 games, host Greece took gold in the Men’s Army 200m Rifle category after scoring a perfect score hitting the target 40 out of 40 times. But in the Men’s Army 25m Pistol category, the US took first place for hitting the target 25 out of 30 rounds.
After Athens 1896, the organizer of Paris 1900 introduced a variation of the Army Rifle categories to include 300 metres standing, kneeling and prone.
Running deer shooting
One of the events featured at the Olympics from 1908 to 1924 was the running deer shooting. No live deer was involved in the competition, but the target was a piece of wood in the shape of a deer mounted on a cart on rails.
One of the most notable athletes in this sport was Sweden’s Oscar Swahn, who won his first Olympic gold medal aged 60 at the 1908 games in London. Swahn returned to the Olympic Games after World War I at the age of 72. At the 1920 Games he won a silver in the running deer double-shot team event, becoming the oldest Olympic medallist.
The always evolving Olympic program
The Olympic programme is always evolving and Tokyo 2020 will feature, for the first time, surfing, skateboarding, climbing and karate. Some have fallen by the wayside – including cricket and croquet – but could never be ruled out from making a comeback.
The events illustrated above are only a small sample of those which no longer exist at the Olympics. There are also entire disciplines, or sports, which have been discontinued at the Games. According to IOC records, a total of 56 disciplines have featured between 1896 and 2012. Of those, 14 are not on display at Tokyo 2021. Some of the sports are well-known such as Cricket, Lacrosse and Croquet, while lesser-known Olympic sports such as Water Motorsports, and the early form of racquetball called “Rackets” have also featured at the Games.
Since the 1900 Olympics in Paris, a series of demonstration sports have featured as part of the Games, with no medals awarded to winners. Competitions like Pigeon racing involved 166 participants, while Angling attracted 600 participants. Many others were mainly for exhibition purposes like the 18 ballooning events; kite flying, and even firefighting, were among the options for spectators to enjoy.
Simon Scarr and Shri Navaratnam
Records of the International Olympic Committee; Encyclopedia Britannica; Federacion Internacional de Pelota Vasca (FIPV)
Consulted books Historical Dictionary of the Olympic Movement -5th Edition, By Bill Mallon and Jeroen Heijmans. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015. Swimming, by Archibald Sinclair and William Henry. Longmans, Green and co, 1916.
Correction An earlier version of this story shows the date “1986” in the section titled “100m for sailor”; it has been corrected to 1896.