There is only one truly kosher sport when it comes to the Olympics: athletics. All those ancient Greeks did was run around in the dirt butt naked. It took over fifty years for them to add a second sport: more running, but in a wild twist, a race over twice the distance as before. Over the years more sports were added, including one involving running in full armour, which much have provided much-needed advertising canvas for Classical games sponsors.
After the revival of the games in 1894, various sports have been added, some successfully, whilst others fell by the wayside. Take a tour with me now down the boulevard of broken dreams that is my non-exhaustive list of discontinued Olympic sports.
1. Basque Pelota
The 1900 Olympic Games were held in Paris as part of the World’s Fair, somehow stretching 19 events out to 5 months (and there wasn’t even an over-scripted opening ceremony to pad things out) . Basque Pelota is a bastard offshoot of tennis, typically played by whacking a ball at an opponent either directly or by rebounding it off a wall. Various tools are on hand, and sometimes the game is simply played on hand, presumably by French peasants too busy eating catgut to make it into a racket. Around 1850 someone thought it would be pretty badass to mould a basket-claw to his hand like some kind of post-Napoleonic Mortal Kombat character, allowing him to throw the ball at astonishing speeds whilst screaming “Liberté, égalité, FATALITIÉ!!!”. Only two teams competed in the 1900 event and inexplicably, the event never appeared in the Olympics again, except as a museum piece.
2. Jeu de Paume
Uproariously translated as “game of the palm”, this was not in fact a sport dedicated to feverishly masturbating in front of a stadium filled with thousands of cheering spectators, however entertaining that might have been. The preferred English translation is “real tennis“, which itself is an abbreviation of “real MAN’S tennis”, as once again it was played without the benefit of the rackets those namby-pamby upper class Henrys used whilst trotting like feather-bedded ponies across the perfectly manicured gardens of “lawn tennis”. Eventually, all that bludgeoning balls with naked hands led to large swathes of the population crippled by limp wrists which couldn’t defend French territory, and bourgeois rackets were grudgingly admitted to the game. Jeu de paume appeared in the 1908 Olympic games held in London, where the plucky Brits set the tone for the next century of olympiad success by losing to the Americans. Displaying the same good sportmanship evident following our defeat to Australia in an early inter-podean cricket match, jeu de paume was struck from the Olympic register and never mentioned again.
Rocky by name and rocky by nature, the 1904 Olympic Games in St Louis were remembered for being the first held in the fledgling nation of the United States of America, and also for being a piss-poor, badly-managed shambles. To pick one example from the generous spread of comedic error on offer: American Frederick Lorz dropped out of the marathon after nine miles, but on seeing him trudge back into the stadium to collect his clothes, officials mistakenly thought he had completed the race and crowned him winner. Less well remembered was the introduction of the “Game of the Century”, roque, a form of croquet so derivative that even the name is aggressively uninspired. Displaying the same good sportmanship that would confirm success in wars across the Asian continent later that century, the US was the only country to enter the roque tournament, taking home the gold, silver and bronze medals.
4. Water motorsports
Not to be outdone in the battle for most farcical Olympic event, the British upped the game in 1908 with the introduction of water motorsports. As is the tradition in this country, events were undertaken in spite of the weather, not because of it, and all three boat races were held in the midst of a howling gale. In the first, “open class” event, the Wolseley-Siddely was apparent victor after the only other boat to compete, the Dylan, was forced to abandon the race.
Similarly, only two vessels arrived for the second event, one of which, Gyrinus, had recruited an extra crew member whose sole job it was to bail out the boat. It won after the Quicksilver‘s crew abandoned the race due to the very technical problem of their boat being full of water. Two more boats competed for the third race, one of which was towed off the course following engine failure. During the afternoon, the British insisted to a skeptical crowd that the weather really had brightened up quite a bit, and the open class race was run again, this time with the Wolseley-Siddely competing against the French Camille. The British boat ran aground on a mud spit, and gold went to the uncontested French.
5. Tug of war
Even today, men and women of the world lie awake at night, tossing and turning, projecting their anguish to an uncaring world, shouting silently: “Oh, how I missed my calling in life! If only, if only tug of war could be recognised for the sport of champions it is, and not relegated to debasing performances by Volvo-driving middle aged men at church fetes and children’s parties!” For too brief a shining moment, that world was real, and the principal athletes of the time battled for supremacy over eighty feet of plaited hemp. From 1900 to 1920, tug of war was an Olympic sport. Scandinavian teams in particular did well, with Sweden (no doubt helped by their incredible facial hair) bagging their first ever Olympic gold in this event, after defeating a team put forward by reigning champions from the City of London Police. There is currently a Facebook ‘campaign’ to reinstate tug of war as an Olympic sport, which has attracted one person fewer than is needed to play tug of war.