The beginning of the modern Olympic Games were far from the spectacle-driven, human-interest story and controversy-riddled global event of today. At their founding 120 years ago, the Olympics were so different that only men were allowed to compete, the marathon was won by a Greek shepherd and One Direction received no consideration to play the Closing Ceremony. There were also a handful of now-defunct sports that were once on the official Olympic program. (No exhibition events. Sorry hot air ballooning.) Some of the events rightfully remain off the schedule. Others need to make what would be an awesome, welcome comeback to the Summer Games. Here they are:
1. TUG OF WAR – Before knowledge of tug of war’s one-time existence went mainstream, it was like the favorite indie band for the Olympic fan, who’d use it to test you on your Olympic knowledge and then discuss bringing it back as a pie-in-the-sky cause de rigueur. You didn’t love the Olympics unless you knew about the war-tugging. Now it’s so well-known being touted in previews for HBO shows. Anyway, the whole affair was pretty much like your standard elementary-school game of Tug of War (back when elementary schools allowed students to actually, you know, compete): First team to pull the other team over the line wins. After a time limit hits, the team who’s made the most progress wins. ToW was contested in six Olympics, starting with the 1900 Paris Games and ending in Antwerp in 1920.
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Sometimes teams were made up of athletes pulled from different events (the Americans had to withdraw from the first-ever event because three of its tuggers were still in the hammer throw), other times entire police forces entered as a single team and won gold. One time, a journalist had to be pulled down from the stands to help with Denmark’s pull. (Who would an American Tug of War team pick today in the same circumstance? I’m thinking Al Roker.) The U.S. swept the ’04 Games in St. Louis with the fellas from the Milwaukee Athletic Club winning gold. Then, in 1908, a major controversy broke out when the Liverpool Police was accused of using illegal boots to help get traction. They denied it, the U.S. withdrew in protest and Liverpool lost to London Police for the gold. But all was forgiven 45 years later when Liverpool gave us the Beatles.
2. STANDING HIGH JUMP – What better way for all those dudes who post their so-called "impressive" standing high jump exploits on YouTube without any context to show us how impressive these jumps are than to enter a competition and possibly get served.
There were also standing long jump events. So, basically, the NFL Combine was an Olympic event, only it was interesting and mattered.
3. FREESTYLE JAVELIN – This sounds like it could be the greatest thing ever. I’m imagining this as a judged event in which athletes have their choice of how to compete, free style. They call could play for accuracy and call their throws like H-O-R-S-E. They could snap the javelin in half, turn it into stilts and then challenge Usain Bolt to a race. They could play a version of javelin dodgeball. They could challenge each other to a rap battle about javelins with the winner having to clinch victory by throwing a javelin so accurately that it hits a button that brings up Lil’ Yachty and 1972 javelin gold medalist Klaus Wolfermanm on a hydraulic stage dancing while DJ Khaled drops a beat and yells javelin-related things. In actuality though, freestyle javelin merely allowed athletes to hold the javelin in whatever position they liked. But after all of them realized the middle of the stick was the ideal, the event was shelved.
4. ONE-LAP CYCLING RACE – Cycling – the velodrome kind, not the road kind – is one of the great Olympic events, combining strategy, placement and speed like no other. Back in the day, only one of those attributes mattered in the one-lap cycling race which, as you’d expect, was just one lap (exactly 333.33 meters). There’d be no jockeying for position or mind games to be played there. Just an out-and-out sprint for Olympic glory.
5. EQUESTRIAN HIGH JUMP – Horse high jump sounds like the greatest thing ever. Plus, it would make PETA mad, so – bonus! Okay, so I want you to think about this. The world human high jump record is 8 ft 0¼ inches. What do you think the equestrian high-jump record is? Higher? Lower? A lot? A little? I’ll give you time. Time’s up. The record, set in 1949 (presumably because horse high jump is no longer in favor), is 8 feet 1¼ inches, just one inch higher than a human! I don’t know why that surprises me so much but here we are. I mean, I guess a horse can’t do a Fosbury Flop so it’s more of a hurdle which, come to think of it, could be another fun race for humans. "The highest hurdles." Snoop could referee.
6. SWEDISH SYSTEM GYMNASTICS – Evidently the Swedish System, which sounds like a diet that’d be advertised at 11:30 a.m. on a Sunday before an NFL pregame show, focused on calisthenics and different aspects of "medical, aesthetic, military and pedagogic" activity. These events were competed in just two Olympics, probably because the forerunner to physiotherapy doesn’t exactly sound crowd pleasing and the Swedes won both times because, duh.
7. GOLF – Golf was played in two Olympics – 1900 (Paris) and 1904 (St. Louis) – and never heard from again in the Summer Games. Wait, what’s that? It’s back? And with a star-studded, 60-man, powerhouse lineup that includes SSP Chawrasia, Mikko Ilonen, Cheng Tsung Pan, Seamus Power, Espen Kofstad, Roope Kakko, Nino Bertasio, Siddikur Rahman, Wen-Tang Lin, Gavin Kyle Green, Rodolfo Cazaubon, Jose-Filipe Lima, Danny Chia, Hao Tong Li, Wu Ashen, Joost Luiten, Miguel Tabuena, David Hearn, Ricardo Gouveia, Yuta Ikeda, Jaco Van Zyl, Thomas Pieters, Emiliano Grillo, Felipe Aguilar, Adilson da Silva, Julien Quesne, Fabrizio Zanotti, Jeunghun Wang, Scott Hend and Gregory Bourdy. That’s half the entrants in the Olympic golf tournament, by the way. HALF.
8. DUELING PISTOLS – Yup, it’s exactly like it sounds, except instead of going straight Hamilton-Burr style, dummies were dressed in frocks with bullseyes painted on their thorax. Write a musical about that, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
9. DEER SHOOTING – If this were still around today, can you imagine the televised human interest stories on the fawns whose parents didn’t return home because of the running deer event in the Olympics? It’d be all soft lighting, tears from all parties, an interview with an uncomfortable suit trying to defend the practice or, I don’t know, maybe they’d just show the first 20 minutes of Bambi. Except the deer shooting events of the early 20th century didn’t feature actual deer. They were painted onto moving targets. Other animals weren’t so lucky.
10. PIGEON SHOOTING – These birds were very much real and after a single time contesting the event – which involved releasing 300 pigeons that were shot at by competitors – organizers realized it wasn’t the best idea. That’s nice and all but you’d have thought they wouldn’t have needed that one time.
11. STUFF YOU USED TO DO IN THE SWIMMING POOL AS A KID – From 1896-1904 these were actually Olympic events: swimming obstacle course, underwater swimming (which measured how far and how long you could stay under water), plunging for distance and Marco Polo. Okay, I’m kidding about Marco Polo but all the others were legit. Thank goodness they stopped them because that underwater swimming one could have led us to a world in which the words "David Blaine, Olympic gold medalist" were a reality.
12. CROQUET – There was apparently just one spectator to the first, and only, croquet competition in Paris in 1900. Hmm, so he must have known what a Jaguars fan feels like.
13. ROPE CLIMB – Even back in 1896, Olympic events were making themselves unnecessarily complicated. Rope climb. Pretty simple, right? Whoever climbs the highest the fastest wins. But no, there had to be "style" points involved, as if climbing a rope is a chic practice detailed monthly in Vogue.
14. CROSS COUNTRY – The first two cross-country events seemed to go fine – running in the woods, you know the drill. The third time was not the charm. Among the problems with the Parisian course of 1904 (as noted by Olympic historian David Wallechinsky): "stone paths that were covered in knee-high thistles and weeds," "a [nearby] energy plant that was belching out poisonous fumes" and "scenes of carnage, as various contestants were overcome by sunstroke and vomiting" while hours later officials were still "searching the sides of the road for missing runners." Olympic legend Paavo Nurmi won (with no problems to speak of) but cross country was no more, which is a shame because it’d be pretty fun to watch even on a course that wasn’t like Mad Max: Fury Road.