Olympic sports are weird. There are worldwide classics like basketball, soccer, and hockey, sure, but there’s also synchronized swimming and dressage. And what the fuck is biathlon? If triathlon is swimming, cycling, and running, I guess it only follows naturally that biathlon is skiing and shooting a gun. I’d make fun of eventing and skeleton too, if I had any idea what those sports were.
But as silly as some of them seem, I kinda love that they’re included in the Olympics. What’s better than watching the intense performance of someone who’s been training their whole life at some bizarre activity you’ve never heard of? If you’re an internet commenter on any website this week, your response is “anything” — people hate the idea of more than five sports existing. “That’s not a sport!” they allege from their couches.
Deciding what is and isn’t a sport is impossible. Googling “what makes a sport a sport” pointed me to a dozen articles that cited a dozen different definitions by a dozen dictionaries. Internally, I think everyone has their own definitions that include the sports they play or take seriously and disinclude everything else. Arguments about the merits of one would-be sport often tumble down the slippery slope of unwanted precedent. If we let skateboarding in, what’s next? Competitive Segway racing? (Hopefully).
At the risk of running into the problem of competing standards, I think my internal definition of “sport” is “any competitive game that competitors and/or spectators care enough about to call a sport”. That’s a liberal definition, and it opens the floodgates for obscure entries. That’s good.
Biathlon is weird. But it’s kinda fun to watch. So is curling. So is table tennis.
This year, the Olympics introduced 6 new sports: skateboarding, surfing, karate, sport climbing, baseball, and softball. Baseball and softball make it on the list because, despite having been played at the Summer Olympics as recently as 2008, they were removed from the program for 2012 and 2016, and they’re not set to return for 2024. The other four are brand new, but they’re not guaranteed to stay.
In the lead-up to the Tokyo games, the International Olympic Committee came up with Agenda 2020, a plan to change the games to allow host cities to propose and hold events outside of the official set of 25 sports.
But that list of “25” is misleading. The Olympic Committee really likes the solid, quarter-century number, but after years of trying to kill Greco-Roman wrestling, they’ve never actually succeeded at striking the event from the list. It’s too oiled up and slippery. Adding on to that, Golf and rugby sevens were added in 2016 and have made it onto every program since, so our 25 looks more like 28.
Before 2020, the process of adding a sport to the games was complicated and required a years-long struggle through the IOC bureaucracy. Now, as long as they can cover the big 28, anything extra is up to the host.
Japan picked the six sports listed above. In 2024, Paris will bring back skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing. They’ll also add in breakdancing. The Los Angeles list isn’t final, but they’ve proposed baseball, softball, cricket, and flag football.
The addition of these on-request event sports might be the thing I’m most excited about for Tokyo 2020, because I’ve been wanting to write about Olympic one-off sports for a while. The process for adding these games to the schedule is brand new, but the practice of having bonus sports alongside the big guys goes back almost as far as the Olympics themselves.
Back in the day, they were called demonstration sports, the idea being that these were smaller, unofficial events to be played alongside the heavy hitters. Unlike today’s events, they had the distinction of being medal-free. But what they lacked in recognition, they made up for in being very cool.
From the outset, Paris’s 1900 games included motorcycle racing. In London in 1908, we had bike polo and fucking dueling, which, as a sport, apparently involves shooting wax bullets at mannequins. Sure.
Between the two, at the insane St. Louis games in 1904, the Americans added in baseball, basketball, American football, hurling, and Gaelic football. Also on display: racism.
These first three games (the second, third, and fourth after Athens in 1896) held their events before organizers had officially defined a “demonstration sport”. There’s disagreement over whether or not the French motorcycle racing event counts. (I’ve decided: it does.)
The 1912 Stockholm Olympics were the games that gave a name and designation to demonstration sports. The games brought back baseball and added in glima, a form of Nordic folk wrestling where opponents try their best to throw each other at the ground.
1920’s Antwerp games introduced the world to korfball, the first Olympic sport to allow men and women to play on the same team.
Paris’s 1924 games saw the addition of all sorts of shit, from canoeing, kayaking, and volleyball, to basque pelota (a sort of Iberian tennis), savante (a form of French kickboxing), and canne de combat (a French martial art where contestants smack each other with walking sticks). I hope I’ve made my point already: demonstration sports are amazing.
In case I haven’t, by all means, let’s continue. The 1936 Olympics, hosted by everyone’s least favorite guy, Hitler, included gliding and kabaddi (think tag, but the Indian full-contact team sport version).
Demonstration sports give host countries a way to show off their unique athletic culture. In Helsinki in 1952, they played Finnish baseball. Australian rules football games took place in Melbourne in 1956. In 1948, Swedish gymnastics were on display in London, which is notably not in Sweden, but still.
Munich 1972 showed off water-skiing. Seoul 1988 gave us badminton, bowling, taekwondo, and judo. Barcelona 1992 had roller hockey.
Then, like they never existed, after 1992, demonstration sports disappeared. The International Olympic Committee had a lot on its mind, being busy dislodging the Winter and Summer games, which until that point had always taken place in the same year.
For more than a decade and a half, the legacy of demonstration sports continued to fade. Some cities held unofficial events alongside the Olympics, like a wushu tournament in Beijing in 2008 and, amazingly, an IOC-approved StarCraft II tournament in South Korea in 2018, but nothing met the expectations of the demonstration sports of old.
But something changed. In 2016, in outlining the official platform for the 2020 games, the IOC moved away from their traditional sport-based program and decided to adopt one that focused instead on individual events, allowing host cities to propose events that they would hold but that future Olympics were under no obligation to continue. That’s how we got here.
To say that demonstration sports are back, though, is an understatement. Demonstration sports carried more weight than semi-affiliated wushu and StarCraft tournaments, but they were always second class events. Athletes who defeated their opponents in cane-fighting and motorcycle racing didn’t go home with gold medals. Starting this year, though, Olympians who demonstrate the best surfing, sport climbing, and skateboarding, those who best their opponents in karate, and the teams that win their respective baseball and softball tournaments, will all bring home gold. Except for baseball and softball, the eternal twin stepchildren of Olympic sports, medalists in these events will be the first ever.
The inclusion of unorthodox sports at the Olympics is one of the best things I think organizers can do to make the games inclusive, educational, and interesting. Of the sports we take for granted as iconic Olympic events, several of them started out as demonstration sports. Even if we don’t see skateboarding make that same leap, isn’t it cool to have given its best competitors a shot to show it off? At the very least, even if you’re not convinced that these are as cool as I am, you have to agree that including them is worth it if it opens the same doors that allowed for the 1948 St. Moritz winter pentathlon, a competition involving cross-country skiing, rifle shooting, downhill skiing, fencing, and horse riding. What the fuck?
All sports are made up. The rules for soccer, football, basketball, and winter pentathlon were all written by humans. At one time, each one of them was new. People had to be convinced to watch.
Give underwater hockey a shot in the summer Olympics. Add snowball fights to the winter games some year. Give us more cultural events, like sumo wrestling or buzkashi or calcio fiorentino. Make something crazy up like sextathlon, taking the traditional triathlon and adding in horseback riding, archery, and horseback archery. Mongolia needs a tailor-made gold medal event.
If I haven’t made the case for these events, I’m not going to. The Olympics are my Sports Christmas, and you’re an awful scrooge. I’ll leave you with one final appeal: These games are our alter-yearly opportunity to see demonstrations of peak athleticism and human ability on an international stage. Why limit ourselves to the classics?