Thursday, September 16

the most unusual sports of the Olympic Games


Special Envoy to Tokyo

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On December 7, newspapers around the world announced, between surprised and outraged, that the International Olympic Committee had decided to include break dancing as an official sport in the Paris 2024 Games. For many commentators, and not a few athletes, That decision, which also led to the suppression of karate, was more than daring: it was a painful affront, almost a sacrilege. Decidedly, it was shocking to see break dancing occupying space next to such venerable sports as athletics, handball or the modern pentathlon. The IOC, which has never denied its intention to rejuvenate the Games, had already decided to include other urban sports, such as skateboarding or street basketball, in the program, but it had never gone this far … Or had it?

Gymnast George Eyser was hit by a train. His left leg was amputated and a wooden prosthesis was fitted in its place. Eyser, a German born in Kiel and emigrated to St. Louis (United States), was not discouraged and enthusiastically continued to practice his favorite sport. The third Games of the modern era, in 1904, were held in his adopted city and Eyser decided to participate. At that time there were no Paralympic Games, which were not organized until 1960, and there was no competition for countries either, so Eyser signed up for all gymnastic events with his team, Concordia. It went well. With his wooden leg, he won three gold medals, two of them in apparatus that are still in the Olympic program today (parallel bars and jumping) and another in a forgotten discipline: freehand climb a rope.

Rope climbing, which today has been reduced to a school sport, was Olympic for many years (from 1896 to 1932). So was the rope game, tug of war or sokatira, in which two rival teams, firmly clinging to a very thick rope, try to attract the opposite side to each other. It is still practiced in popular festivals and is a classic of children’s camps, but the rope game achieved Olympic glory during five consecutive editions of the Games (from 1900 to 1920). The images of the time show that it was an electrifying and popular sport, whose challenges drew a large audience.

The history of modern Olympism shows how the boundaries of what we understand by sport are more porous than we usually think. One tends to imagine, for example, that swimming has always developed in pools of calm waters, without currents and at the right temperature, with harmonic giants like Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps gliding gracefully on a thin sheet of water. However, at the 1900 Games, held in Paris, swimmers jumped unceremoniously into the River Seine. Sports historian André Drevon, author of the book ‘The Forgotten Olympic Games’, says that at that time it was understood that swimming should exemplify “the fight against nature in hostile waters”; a purpose that was admirably served in one of the most popular tests: the 200 meters obstacles. The participating swimmers were not limited to stroking, but had to overcome three obstacles placed in their path: a ribbon and two boats. Before reaching the finish line, the 12 intrepid had to pass under the bar and one of the boats and climb over the other. The Olympic champion of swimming in the 200 meter hurdles was not just any adventurer, but the best swimmer of that time, the Australian Frederick Lane (1880-1969).

The bad reputation of Paris 1900

The Olympic Games of 1900, the second of the modern era, have a bad reputation. Baron Pierre de Coubertin wanted to celebrate them in his country, to the anger of the Greeks, but he saw how his initial idea was ruined by being encompassed under the umbrella, then much louder, of a Universal Exhibition. Many participants did not even know they were competing in a Games and there was an explosion of creativity when designing the competitions. They took place from May to the end of October and were disputed 477 events, some as picturesque as cannon shooting, the release of homing pigeons, the rescue of wounded or the long jump on horseback. Drevon estimates that they reached 58,000 participants. More than a hundred years later, members of the IOC and historians, frightened by this excess, tried to determine which of those competitions deserved to go down in the Olympic sports category and which were cornered in the attic of occurrences. It was a largely arbitrary purge because in Paris 1900 those distinctions were not made and swimming was as official (with or without obstacles) as the pigeon shooting, in which authentic pigeons were gutted and in which a Spaniard, the Marquis from Villaviciosa, he got a brilliant second place.

In that subsequent scrutiny it was decreed that the hot air balloon race, which aroused so much expectation then, was not worthy of being listed in the annals. In this way, the status of Olympic champion was stolen from Count Henry de la Vaulx, a French adventurer, passionate about aviation, who on the day of the final got on his balloon, gave it gas, took off in Paris and 35 hours later he masterfully landed in Korostychev, a municipality near Kiev (Ukraine), at that time part of the Russian empire. He had traveled 1,925 kilometers nonstop, which became a world record. The locals, who had never seen anything like it, took him for a divine entity and went to prostrate themselves before him and kiss his hands. Worse fortune was the runner-up, Jacques Balsan, who descended on another Russian village, Opoczno, and was shot by astonished villagers.

In those first editions of the Games, sports such as croquet or lacrosse were admitted, which today have fallen into disuse, and almost all the possibilities of what a man could do on horseback were explored: long jump, jump jump. height, obstacle course, carriage hitching… At the Antwerp Games, held in 1920, vaulting was incorporated into the equestrian disciplines, in which riders rehearse gymnastic postures on a horse that turns at a gallop through a circular stage. Belgian Daniel Bouckaert was the only gold medalist in the discipline in all of history. Although its Olympic glory was reduced to the Antwerp event, vaulting is still practiced around the world and is one of the events included in the World Equestrian Games.

Only time will tell if skateboarding or break dancing are the fate of motorboating (which was only Olympic in London 1908) or if they are definitely on the Games program. In any case, purists should remember that, as the British historian Eric Hobwsbawn has warned, even traditions that seem more solid and unflappable are often more or less recent inventions.

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