A look at Olympic events then, now and in the future

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The Olympics are now in their third century. In that time, the spirit of the Games hasn’t much changed — seemingly everywhere, people have followed them and been swept up in the euphoria of it all — but the events that are part of it have changed and evolved with the times. Some have enjoyed a brief moment in the spotlight never to be seen again, either officially or as demonstration events; others have dropped off the program and found their way back on it again. Here’s an overview of what’s new for London 2012, some of the more interesting events from Olympics past and a couple that are comeback-bound for 2016.

New Events & Updates

The International Olympic Committee announced a number of tweaks to this year’s London Games, adding some events while removing others, and making alterations to existing events. The changes implemented for 2012 are meant to reflect the IOC’s commitment to bringing more women into the Games:

Women’s Boxing

Apparently, the Executive Board of the IOC was sufficiently impressed with the overall growth and technical progress of women’s boxing that it OK’d the event for 2012. Three women’s events will now be featured alongside 10 men’s events, displacing one of the previous men’s events and adding two.

Modern Pentathlon

Sometimes the IOC acknowledges the need to spice things up in an event. Back in 1996, after more than 80 years of running the modern pentathlon as a five-day event, they finally conceded to making it a one-day extravaganza of exhaustion for the participants. In 2008, after the Beijing Games, the decision was made to combine the running and shooting portion of the event simultaneously, in similar fashion to the combined ski/shooting of the winter biathlon. Controversy reigns in the world of the sport, with people asking if it’s still really a pentathlon, or merely a triathlon with a biathlon attached. And for the athletes, it’s no small change — they’ll likely have to rethink their strategies entirely, from the guns they choose to how they approach their running games.

Canoe Sprint – Women’s K1 200m

The International Canoe Federation (yes, really!) requested the replacement of the men’s C2 500m with the women’s K1 200m, which is perfectly consistent with the IOC’s mission to include more women in the Games. It’s also consistent with the trend of shorter races, as the men’s 500m races have now all been replaced by 200m sprint events. We think this is to cater to the spectators’ ever-shortening attention spans.

Handball

The big news in the world of Olympic handball is that the placement matches that had previously been part of the tournament have now been eliminated. This shows that cutting to the chase is also an emerging theme for London 2012.

Tennis – Mixed Doubles

This has to be regarded as a pretty exciting development if for no other reason than it provides an event for top-rated men and women to compete on the same field of play — or court of play, in this case. The mixed doubles event will draw from the same pool of players competing in men’s’ and women’s’ events, so the number of players will not increase — but the opportunities for medals will.

 

Returning in 2016

There was a bit of controversy in 2009 surrounding the events that are poised to re-enter the Olympic field. Rather than put the seven events in contention up for a vote by the whole committee, the Executive Board, under the direction of IOC president Jacques Rogge, put forward the following events at the expense of the others, with no explanation given as to why — a decision that irked some of the IOC’s members. However it happened, here’s what will be new again at the 2016 Games:

Golf (Last Seen: 1904)

The return of golf to the Olympic fold for the 2016 Games has interesting implications: Economically, it’s a boon for the course development industry here in the U.S. — they’ll be exporting their services to countries that are short on golf facilities and that want to cultivate their players. But in addition to the fact that less-developed countries are likely to be left out in the cold, it’s also hard to imagine the best U.S. players approaching the opportunity for Olympic gold with the same zeal that they have for the major championships and tours that take place each year.

Rugby (Last Seen: 1924)

Upon hearing the announcement of the vote overwhelmingly approving rugby for Olympic inclusion in 2016, proponents of the sport nearly went bananas. “We were ecstatic and wanted to jump on the table,” former New Zealand player Jonah Lomu told The Associated Press. “It was just fantastic for the game.” Somehow, we don’t think we’ll see men and women on the same playing field in this event, but anything’s possible.

 

Deleted Events: The Controversy

The Olympics wouldn’t be the Olympics without politics and the drama of international controversy. The IOC took heat from American athletes for its dismissal of baseball and softball from the roster of events to be featured at the London Games, which also won’t feature squash, karate or roller sports. At the time of the decision, IOC president Rogge was singled out for his role in quashing the sports that were deemed “too American” for world competition. “Rogge has basically conspired against the sports to get them removed,” American softball pitcher and three-time gold medalist Lisa Fernandez asserted at the time. “I feel one person, the president of the IOC — a person from Europe — has taken it upon himself to ruin the lives of millions, actually billions of women.”

The feeling that the Americans had too much of an edge is easy to allege: During the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Americans cumulatively outscored their opponents 51-1. But for the athletes who achieved that victory, having their success used as a justification to deny others the right to compete is a shameful episode. “If [our success] did play a role in the decision, then that’s pretty pathetic,” gold medalist Crystl Bustos said in the wake of the news. “It’s supposed to be the best of the best, and if you get knocked for your excellence, then that’s just not right.”

 

Deleted Events Past

The history of the modern Olympics is mottled with events that have had brief moments in the spotlight only to disappear into the dust of the record books. And whether they’ve been demonstration events or part of the legitimate competitions, it’s still amazing, in 2012, to look back and think of some of the fascinating, sometimes downright freakish events that have become part of Olympic history — particularly the one event that never really happened. (Which one do you think it is?):

Two-Hands Javelin (Last Seen: 1912)

No, it wasn’t two hands at the same time. In this case, the javelin was thrown twice, from each hand, and the end distances averaged for a final score. Similar variations for discus and shot put existed, as well.

Tug of War (Last Seen: 1920)

Now, this they should definitely bring back — if only as part of the closing ceremonies to settle any leftover grudge matches. A feature of the ancient Olympics, the tug of war in its modern form had two teams of eight striving to pull each other six feet to win. In an ignominious 1908 episode, after America lost to Britain, the Yanks accused their opponents of wearing illegal footwear. So the British challenged them to a rematch in their socks — and humiliated them by winning.

Motor boating (Last Seen: 1908)

Rome’s plans to host the 1908 Games were squelched by an inconveniently erupting Mount Vesuvius, but the bigger disaster was arguably Britain’s decision, after stepping in to take on hosting duties, to take things out to sea. With top speeds of roughly 19 mph, these races didn’t exactly thrill crowds, most of whom couldn’t see them, anyway. Famously bad British weather scotched six of the nine scheduled events, after which none were to return to the Olympic forum.

Swimming — 200m Men’s Obstacle Course (Last Seen: 1900)

You could almost see them reintroducing this today, in the era of Wipeout!, no? Participants in this race had to clamber their way over both a pole and a row of boats before facing the dreaded third obstacle — another row of boats that they had to swim underneath. With all due respect to the participants, it’s almost hard to know whether the French would have been laughing or crying when the British took gold in this one-time event.

Basque Pelota (Last Seen: 1900)

An antecedent to what we know as jai-alai, this extremely fast-paced sport had its only official tournament at the 1900 Games in Paris, though it did reappear as a demonstration sport numerous times, even as late as 1992.

Solo Synchronized Swimming (Last Seen: 1992)

Some of you may remember this ill-fated entry that had a lot of people scratching their heads, wondering, “Synchronized with what??” Well, they meant the music, apparently, but it wasn’t enough of an explanation to save this fad-buoyed event.

Rope Climb (Last Seen: 1932)

Part of the inaugural Olympics in 1896 and last seen in 1932, the rope climb was essentially no different from the gym-class nightmare you remember it being. And it was just as difficult: Back in 1896, only two of the participants made it to the top at all.

Live Pigeon Shooting (Last Seen: 1900)

Belgian Léon de Lunden holds the distinction for being the only athlete in modern Olympic history to win a gold medal for killing a living thing — or in his case, 21 living pigeons. In all, some 300 pigeon carcasses piled up during the event’s singular appearance with live targets. They were replaced with clay pigeons in St. Louis’s Games four years later, and by 1924, the event was gone altogether.

Roque (Last Seen: 1904)

A cousin to croquet played on a hard surface, roque was a curious entry in St. Louis’s Olympics that, like the 1900 Games in Paris, were part of the World’s Fair. Four participants — all Americans — played against each other, with only William Chalfant walking away empty-handed. (But he made this article!)

Horse Long Jump (Last Seen: 1900)

Horses are powerful and graceful beasts, but someone should have told the IOC of the era that they’re also heavy. A horse named Extra Dry took gold at the Paris Olympics with a jump of just over 20 feet. (That’s roughly nine feet, four inches shy of the current record for humans.) Does it somehow seem wrong that they gave the medal to his rider?

Poodle Clipping (Last Seen: 1900)

Gotcha! In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, London’s Daily Telegraph punked much of the world with a well-timed April 1 piece suggesting that among the bizarre events showcased at the Paris 1900 Olympics was this highly idiosyncratic poodle-clipping event, supposedly won by an “Avril Lafoule,” a 37-year-old farmer’s wife. The story picked up speed and before long, was being included in pieces like this one all over the Internet. Congrats on a great prank, Britain!

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Photo: ZUMA Press/Newscom

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