Naked Boxing, Pistol Duelling, Rope Climbing & More!
The Weirdest Olympic Events Of All Time
Think the Olympics are boring? Think again. The games have given us some of the strangest sporting events of all time including naked boxing, stick fighting, pistols at dawn, rope climbing, obstacle swimming, painting swimming and chauvinistic show-boating. Come with me on a trip through time, from ancient Greece right to the early 20th Century and all the way up to the present to discover the absolute weirdest Olympic events of all time. You'll never think of the Olympics the same way again!
I used to always sympathise with Homer Simpson, who famously stole the Olympic torch to prevent his favourite TV shows from being side-lined by the games. "The Olympics? Didn't we just have those?"
But that was before I learned about the fascinating history of the games and the bizarre and exotic events that they've given us over the years – and quite a number of years they've been too.
Olympic Events of Ancient Greece
The Olympic Games, as you're probably already aware, began in ancient Greece. Indeed the very name comes from Mount Olympus, the home of the ancient Greek gods.
The games were meant not just to celebrate human endurance and skill, but also to honour the gods.
Zeus, the king of Mount Olympus, was said to be especially fond of the games. After a hard day chucking thunderbolts at unfortunate humans, or turning himself into a swan for the purpose of naughtiness, he loved nothing more than to put his feet up on a cloud, crack open a can of Mythos and watch sports. (One lives in hope he might come out of retirement as there's a few Olympic judges he could be chucking thunderbolts at right now.)
Traditionally only true, free Greeks (i.e no foreigners and/or slaves) were allowed to participate, though of course "Greek" in those days meant different city states, Athens, Sparta and so on.
In later years this changed; even the Roman Emperor Nero had a go at the chariot event and was proclaimed a winner – because he was an erratic, bloodthirsty loon and nobody dared contradict him.
As this was ancient Greece, modesty didn't come into the equation. Athletes participated au natural, with a healthy slathering of olive oil taking the place of clothing.
Many of these ancient events will be familiar to us and, as such, haven't changed much since ancient times; running, pentathlon, high jumping, discus and javelin events.
Other events, however, included hoplite running (running in ancient battle armour) and chariot racing. (Events of particular interest to Ares, the god of war.)
The First Rule Of Greek Club
Martial arts events, namely boxing and wrestling, were later introduced. Again these events bore many similarities to today's modern games, though obviously not quite as sanitised and regulated.
Boxers, for example, wore leather straps around their fists instead of gloves though the effect was essentially the same – to protect their knuckles.
No holds, kicks or gouges were allowed, but you could punch, slap, chop and whack your opponent pretty much however and wherever you could manage to.
There was no ring, no time limit, no rounds, but there was a referee – with a leather whip to maintain order.
There were no classes or divisions and fights went on until one opponent was knocked out, or capitulated.
So basically, it was like the ancient Greek version of Fight Club – with added olive oil.
It's a similar story with wrestling. The game formed the basis of our modern game and many of the rules were the same; no kicking, punching or grabbing the family jewels. The aim was to pin your opponent on the ground, force your opponent to concede, or throw your opponent out of the ring.
Except of course modern wrestling isn't conducted in the nip, and you don't get flogged by the referee for tiny infractions. (Plus giant foam fingers hadn't been invented yet.)
The "Modern" Olympic Games
The inauguration of the modern Olympic Games, in 1896, was a momentous achievement for its time. In those days Queen Victoria was our head of state and the world consisted not of nations, but of empires.
Not surprisingly many of the events of those early days were a little, eeh... let's just say vintage.
In the first ever games, in 1896, one of the events was rope climbing – something I was very good at as a small child but am hopeless at as a large adult. Whoever climbed the rope fastest won – riveting!
Everyone's favourite rope game also featured in those early days – tug of war. Personally I don't quite know why this game was phased out, as it's possibly the one event I'm best suited for. I could even represent my country in it. Sure I might not be good at climbing ropes, but I can lean back to tire the other side out before dragging them all roaring over the mud to my side. So petition the Olympics to bring it back, and I'll bring you back gold! That's a promise!
Another early event, which featured at the games in 1924, was a type of stick fighting known as La Canne. Now, if you're thinking big hard sticks like you get in hurling, think again. The name should be a clue, it's French, so it was really more like like fencing, but with a gentleman's walking cane. The sort of thing well-to-do Parisian dandies might employ to fend off a potential mugger, provided said mugger wasn't carrying a knife or a pistol (which they often were). In other words, not much good in the real world, but perfect for the Olympics.
Of course true colonial gentlemen settled scores of honour with pistols, which is why pistol duelling was an Olympic event back in 1906. Traditionally, as a duellist, you would take ten paces then turn and (hopefully) blow your opponent's head off. Though obviously this is the Olympics, not The Running Man, so life-like dummies were used instead.
Sadly this enlightened view didn't apply to the animal kingdom. In 1900 a total of 400 pigeons were shot, outraging animal rights groups who campaigned vigorously until the introduction of clay pigeons in 1902.
Up, Up And Away….
Pigeon slaughter aside, the second Olympics, in 1900, had some fairly nifty events including kite flying, fire fighting, life saving, cannon shooting, horse sledding, the horse long-jump and poodle grooming. The reason for this was because the games overlapped with the World's Fair, which was also held in Paris at the same time.
Of all of these games the most spectacular has to be the ballooning event where the great nations came together to decide, once and for all, who had the most hot air. (It was a tough contest.)
…Just Keep Swimming…
Another event at the 1900 games was Obstacle Swimming, which saw participants swimming a river, leaping and climbing obstacles, including boats, swimming under other obstacles (again including boats) and climbing poles.
But Ireland surely has won the most bizarre swimming-related medal, won by none other than Jack Yeats, the famed painter and brother of poet W.B Yeats, who won a silver medal for painting – yes, painting – back in 1924 for his work The Liffey Swim.
Painting may seem like a bizarre event for the Olympics but of course, these games also took place in France.
Sorry ladies, but this event is for men only – though in 1908, with the Suffragette movement still just gaining traction, that could be said about most things. Meanwhile the 1908 Olympics, held in Britain that year, featured motor boating as an event. Though really there were only two participating nations, the British and the French. And much to their chagrin the host nation lost.
As for the ladies, there weren't that many events they could take part in back in those days, except for croquet – a far cry from speedboats in the excitement stakes.
Of course crazy Olympic events aren't just the domain of guys in togas or top hats, there's still plenty of crazy to be found in more recent times.
How about synchronized swimming? That's still a thing. And indeed, until after Barcelona '92, we still had a sport called solo synchronised swimming. Sounds like a contradiction in terms right? But yeah, that was a sport, you swam to music, on your own and… well, that's it. Not sure what the rules are but it sounds like something pretty much any of us could do in a bath tub.
Barcelona 1992 also saw the addition of Roller Hockey as an Olympic event. If you've no idea what that is don’t worry, is it's the one and only time that the sport ever made it to the Olympics. Basically it's like ice hockey, though since there's not much ice in the south of Spain players moved about on roller skates. A strange choice for an Olympic sport, to be sure – still sounds like a whole lot of fun though.
Year after year millions of people petition the Olympic Committee to add new sports and events, these range from pole dancing (yes, like you might see at a strip club, not that I'd know about that sort of thing, but some naughty boys told me about it), rodeo games and, of course, since we Irish aren't known to be shy either, let's not forget hurling!
Think that's too strange to happen? Well, it actually did. In the 1904 Olympics, held in Saint Louis, Missouri, hurling was added as an unofficial event with two American GAA clubs scoring gold and silver – just goes to show that in the Olympics anything's possible!
Let The Big Games Begin!
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