For many athletes, the Olympics is the ultimate competition one can participate in, unrivalled by no other. After years of dedication to their craft, sporting stars find themselves with the opportunity to shine in front of millions on a world stage, as they pursue a medal and ideally a gold medal. The sheer mix of sports hosted during the 16-day long event makes it a sporting occasion truly like no other.
Although there is no questioning its prestige, the actual selection of sports to feature at the Olympics does frequently come under fire. Research carried out by polling specialists FiveThirtyEight found that equestrian and synchronised swimming were the two sports deemed to be ‘the worst’. Golf, on an account of not needing an Olympic event, and rhythmic gymnastics also fared very poorly.
No matter what your views are on the above selection though, we are confident that you still fancy them over most of these weird sports that have featured at the Olympics at some point in history.
Competitive Sports – Summer Olympics
We will start by looking at the strangest sports ever to have featured at the Summer Olympics and there some real corkers here.
Live Pigeon Shooting (1900)
Shooting has been a regular fixture at the Olympics but not quite like this. In the 1900 Olympics in France, competitors took aim at actual real-life pigeons rather than clay discs. During each round, six birds were released 27 metres away and a shooter would be eliminated once they missed two birds. Given the high standard of shooting involved, the event saw around 300 birds killed.
Having a floor littered with blood-spattered bodies would not go too well with TV audiences today so it is for the best that the event never became a regular fixture. The IOC actually seems keen not to bring it up at all with the results from the pigeon shooting not included among official IOC records nor the overall medal table. For any animal lovers out there, be glad to know that this is the only time during the Olympics that animals were killed on purpose.
Horse Long Jump (1900)
Novel animal-based events were clearly a priority for those tasked with organising the 1900 French Olympics. In addition to pigeon shooting, part of the equestrian events featured a long jump. Rather than a traditional long jump, where someone jumps and the distance is marked, the horse long jump became progressively harder. If riders were able to clear the first jump, the take-off point was moved further back.
The gap itself that needed clearing was a very shallow pool of water, making it easy for the officials to spot any horse that failed to make it over. Riders had to clear the initial jump of 4.5m and this gradually increased to 4.9m. Once they had overcome this final distance, they were free to choose their own length. Most did not make it this far but the gold medallist jockey, Constant van Langhendonck, did with his successful leap of 6.10m.
Town Planning (1928 to 1948)
We are not quite sure where to begin with this one but yes, unbelievably, town planning was part of the Olympics schedule in 1928, 1932, 1936 and 1948. It fell under the umbrella of the ‘art competitions’ which included five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture, all of which had to relate to or be inspired by sport-related themes. In truth, we could have chosen absolutely any of these five to feature on our list but town planning produces some of the best stories.
One we enjoyed the most was that in 1936, the gold medal went to a German pair for their designs of the Olympic Stadium that was being used at that very moment. We know home advantage is a real phenomenon but this is taking it to the extreme. Not wanting to show too much bias, second place went to an American urban planner, Charles Downing Lay, for his plans for a marine park in Brooklyn. Despite winning this silver medal, his plans were never developed.
Solo Synchronised Swimming (1984 to 1992)
So far, the three sports to have featured on our list were introduced many, many decades ago, so we can excuse their weirdness a little. Solo synchronised swimming is, by Olympics standards, a fairly modern creation though and we still do not know what the thought process was. The few supporters it had claimed that swimmers were synchronised to the music but for most, the idea of solo performances being synchronised was laughable.
Although the failed solo event did not last long, it did evolve into the team synchronised swimming events we still see today. Although many would say it is not a huge improvement, at least now it has an actual synchronised element. Another point to note is that even when performed solo, men were not permitted to compete as synchronised swimmers and this holds true today. In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, synchronised swimming was just one of three events, alongside rhythmic gymnastics and the balance beam, not open to men.
Croquet/Roquet (1900 & 1904)
The appearance of croquet at the 1900 Olympics was little more than a stat-padder for hosts France. Only 10 competitors took part, across three events, all of whom were French. Branded a sport with “hardly any pretensions to athleticism” by an official report of the Paris Olympics, it failed to capture any public interest. Well, that is not entirely true as the event did manage to attract one paying spectator.
Despite proving to be an absolute box-office bomb, organisers of the Missouri Olympics in 1904 added roque, a form of croquet played on a hard court, to their schedule. A whopping four players ended up taking part, all of whom were American. Everyone played each other twice and the player with the most victories took the gold medal despite it seeming more like a school sports day event.
Rope Climbing (1896, 1904, 1924 & 1932)
As a spectacle, it looks a bit silly but at least rope climbing required a high degree of strength and athleticism. Despite what you might think though, it did not start as a simple race to the top. When part of the inaugural Olympic Games in 1896, competitors were judged not only on the time it took to climb the 14-metre long rope but their style too. In the three other Olympics appearances, only the time was taken into consideration and the rope was made considerably shorter.
Usually, the format involved giving competitors three attempts and then taking the best time from the trio. It turns out that man can propel himself up a rope very quickly indeed with the gold medal times ranging between 6.7 and 7.2 seconds. The pace at which some athletes climbed even took other competitors by surprise. In the 1932 Olympics, the two Hungarian athletes did not bother with their second and third attempts having seen the three Americans reach the top so much faster.
Demonstrated Sports – Summer Olympics
Up until 1992, both the Summer and Winter Olympics held a small number of ‘demonstration’ sports. In some cases, these were just like their competitive counterparts in that they would involve different countries going head-to-head in the pursuit of medals. Not all demonstration sports featured medals, however, and even the ones that did never counted towards the official medals count.
Given that demonstration sports were never part of the proper Olympic schedule, you may be wondering why they featured at all. Well, the point was to increase awareness of a particular sport. Sometimes these demonstration sports ended up becoming part of the full Olympic program, others however merely appeared once or twice and never returned. The latter applies to the odd sports we are about to look at.
Pistol Duelling (1908)
After featuring as part of the 1906 Intercalated Games, duelling also went only to run alongside the 1908 Olympics. Officially, demonstrations did not exist until 1912 so in 1908 it was more a case of duelling running simultaneously with the Olympics, despite not being a part of it. Thankfully, the sport was not as deadly as it might have been as each shooter wore protective equipment covering the face, torso and hands. More importantly, the bullet fired was made of wax rather than metal. Competitors would be either 20m or 30m apart, depending on the competition, before turning to fire and in all cases only men could take part.
No sport we have mentioned so far boasts any sort of modern-day popularity. Kabaddi, however, is an extremely well-followed sport in India and several neighbouring countries. In Bangladesh, ‘ha-du-du’ as the locals call it, is actually their national sport. Despite being a game that requires rapid reactions, athleticism and tactical thinking, the whole thing looks so bizarre to the unfamiliar.
To give you a brief overview, the attacking team will send one of their players, the ‘raider’, to touch as many defenders as possible. After doing so they must then try to return to their own half of the court without being tackled, all in a single breath. When watching you will often see some jumpy lone man, surrounded by seven others who instantly pounce on him the moment he makes contact with anyone else. It is actually quite enthralling at times but definitely a bit weird.
Very keen to show the world something new, the Berlin Olympics also gave spectators a glimpse of what Olympic gliding might look like. Having gathered some momentum in Germany and surrounding areas in the 1920s, there were enough keen pilots willing to take part. In total, the event attracted 21 pilots from seven European nations with Lajos Rotter of Hungary registering the longest pre-declared flight at 336.5km.
Despite the death of one pilot, Ignaz Stiefsohn, the IOC did agree to include gliding in the 1940 Olympics but this never took place due to WW2. Subsequently shelved, it remained on the list of optional sports until 1956 when the list itself was abolished.
Demonstrated Sports – Winter Olympics
There would have been just cause to categorise about 10 current Winter Olympic sports as ‘weird’. The biathlon, a sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting, would definitely be there. Curling would be a strong contender too given that involves furiously rubbing the ice with a broom to manipulate the path of a large polished stone. None of them quite match the ridiculousness of some of the sports that have been demonstrated at the Winter Olympics, however.
It may sound like we have just made up a Swedish in our heads but this is a real sport derived from the Norwegian skikjøring. The general term relates to a person on skis being pulled by an animal such as a horse or reindeer, or more recently, by a machine. Initially, the Sami people had simply used it as a convenient means of transportation but by the early 20th century a thriving competitive scene had emerged.
Prior to its demonstration at the 1928 Winter Olympics, skijoring had featured in several Nordic Games all involving reindeer on snow. At St Moritz though, horses were used to pull riders across a frozen lake with all horses running simultaneously. Three Swiss athletes claimed the medals although it really seems like it would have been fairer had they gone to the horses. They were the ones doing most of the work after all.
Ski Ballet (1988 & 1992)
This artistic creation is a bit like figure skating only the routine is performed by a skier on a ski slope. You might not think that being on a downward slope with long sticks attached to your feet would facilitate some elaborate moves but there is a lot that participants managed to pull off. The video below shows Fabrice Becker’s winning 1992 routine as he dazzled the Albertville crowd with his flips and twists. Honestly, we are more impressed with it than we thought we were going to be. You can watch it here.
Winter Pentathlon (1948)
The modern pentathlon, which has featured at every Olympics since 1912, is definitely a bit weird to us now but there is some background to it. The five sports simulate what a cavalry soldier might have faced in the 19th century so fighting with a pistol, fighting with a sword (fencing), horse riding, plus the need to swim and run. We can see the logic here but the winter pentathlon combined cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, shooting, fencing and horse riding. The only person to have engaged in all these activities in one day outside of the Winter Olympics goes by the codename 007.
Speed Skiing (1992)
There is not a massive difference between speed skiing and the well-established Winter Olympics sport, slalom skiing. In both, competitors zoom down an extremely steep, snowy hill as fast as they can. The key difference with speed skiing though is that rather than weaving in and out of poles/gates, you only need to ski in a perfectly straight line. You might be thinking that this does not sound so weird, and in many ways it is not, but it is unusually dangerous even by Winter Olympics standards.
The safety aspect is the main reason the sport failed to take off as it had absolutely nothing to do with limited spectator interest. Indeed, the 1992 speed skiing event produced some truly incredible scenes that left audiences with their jaws open. People are used to seeing skiers go fast along the ground but this was on a completely different level to anything witnessed before. Michael Pruger, a medical doctor by trade, clocked the best top speed of 142.480mph. He was far from an outlier either, as the video below shows most competitors reaching top speeds of around 140mph. This is 20mph faster than a human would reach in complete free-fall. You can watch it here.