That's A Sport? Summer Olympic Games Have Some Weird Events

Posted: September 25, 2000

The problem with these Summer Olympics - beyond the fact that they're being held in late September and subject to a 15-hour tape delay - is that there aren't enough trampoline events.

Just the individual men's and individual women's competition. No team competition. No doubles or mixed doubles. Not even synchronized trampoline.

Surely, the freeloading Burghers of the International Olympic Committee, who spent a good deal of their last site selection time accepting goodies to throw the Winter Games to Salt Lake City, can afford to spring for a few more gold, silver and bronze medals for all those budding trampoline hopefuls throughout the world.

Or perhaps they've already broken the budget over the last 10 years by adding mountain biking. And softball. And beach volleyball - the only Olympic competition that is clothing-optional.

Like them or not, these newfangled, so-called sports are all part of the Sydney Olympics, which, even for the Land Down Under, seem downright weird.

Some of the strange ones have been around since the modern games were introduced in 1896. Hammer throw, anyone?

Other sports with a lot less history have been added in recent years, introduced by host countries or pushed by the IOC and sports federations in an apparent attempt to appeal to younger television audiences and profit from the injection of professionalism into formerly amateur competitions.

"The frame of reference has changed dramatically," said Olympics expert Dr. Michael Real, director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and author of several books on the Games.

"For the first half of the century, it was the vast idealism of ancient Greece - anything done in the ancient games and other sports that were accepted by the IOC, at the time an aristocratic, privileged body.

". . .Now they've found this huge cash cow. Now the decision-making bodies are the marketers."

As a result, we have Mountain Dew sports like mountain biking, and mass-media sports like baseball and soccer and tennis, which was reintroduced to the Games in 1988 after being dropped in 1924.

Their impact clearly has been mixed.

"Some of these sports are aimed at younger audiences and that's something the Olympics need," said Real.

"The closer they get to extreme sports, the closer they're going to reach to the snowboarders and skateboarders and tap into that whole culture."

On the other hand, mainstream sports may be diluting the uniqueness of the games.

"The uniqueness of the Olympics is not really watching what amounts to a warmed-over NBA practice," said Real, referring to the mostly boring and uncontested march of the U.S. basketball "Dream Team" to Olympic gold over an uncompetititve field.

"In recent years, the Olympics got into an awkward situation of being second-rate competition for some sports," said Real. "There is a sense that the really big sports already are established and decided in much larger and important arenas," like the World Series or World Cup or Wimbledon, he said.

"One of the issues they're trying to sort out is that the Olympics is trying to be a vaudeville show," said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University communications professor who specializes in media and sports in culture.

"Vaudeville had the opera singers and actors - some of the meat-and-potatoes, good old-fashioned stuff," he said. "But they also had a flea circus and juggling acts.

"There is something appealing about seeing gold medals given out for something you played last weekend," Thompson said, admitting that some events don't even meet this standard.

"When, in any context, would you need the skills of synchronized swimming?" he asked. "It's not exactly the kind of thing you used to do at summer camp."

For a sport to get into the games, the IOC rules say it must be "widely" played on three continents and require a "high degree of athleticism."

Let's see how the wide world of wacky Olympic sports being played out in Sydney stack up:

Rhythmic gymnastics

A sport only a frustrated semaphorist could love.

While gymnastics competitions date back to the ancient Greek games, which began in 760 B.C., rhythmic gymnastics was not added until the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

It makes sense. Can you imagine the very first Olympians of Athens intimidating the Spartans with a 20-foot ribbon-on-a-stick? (Greek soldier: "Take that, Felonius!" Trojan soldier: "Oooh, that tickles!")

Synchronized swimming

Another gift of the '84 Olympics, first made famous by Esther Williams in the 1930s, but truly immortalized by Harry Shearer and Martin Short in a "Saturday Night Live" spoof of a duet that could not swim and used life preservers.

Another goofy event with dubious athletic requirements, save holding your breath while staying in a "crane" position and hoping your makeup doesn't run.

Trampoline

A first-timer in Sydney. Competitors can soar up to 30 feet in the air before landing on the metal frame side and snapping their tibias.

Badminton

Twenty people attended a recent match between Germany and Denmark, making the sport just slightly more popular than the Phillies.

Its origins date back to China in the 5th century B.C., where it was known as Ti Jian Zi, or "shuttlecock kicking."

The modern version developed in India, where it was called Poona. And the Olympic version debuted as a medal sport in 1992 Barcelona, where it was called boring.

Mountain biking

From the foothills of Marin County, Calif., to its debut in Atlanta in 1996, this "fat-tired" Gen X cycling event requires durability, stamina and the ability to consume a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew, with burrito, during a mountain descent.

Softball

True, it was widely played before its '96 debut - at picnics. And true, it requires a high degree of athleticism - bending down to pick the ball up between bites of hot dog. But something's missing here. Oh, yeah. The keg.

Beach volleyball

There was no compelling reason to add another volleyball event, save the idea that traditional volleyball in synthetic gym uniforms circa 1973 is not even as sexy as women's softball. So enter the beach competition in '96, the only event where no one knows - or cares - what the score is. How can you, when you're surrounded by sun, sand, surf and babes wearing little more than zinc oxide?

Hammer throw

History is mixed on this one. Some say it evolved from the Scottish and English sport of sledgehammer throwing or the Tailteann Games of ancient Ireland, which involved the hurling of a weight attached to a rope. Others place the date as much more recent, circa 1988, when Norm Abrams attacked Bob Vila on "This Old House."

One of the originals from 1896, hammer throw enjoys a status not unlike that of Flounder in "Animal House." If it's a legacy, you have to let it in.

Table tennis

It is supposedly the most popular racket sport in the world, with over 10 million tournament players every year. To us, however, it's Ping-Pong. Seen by most in this country as a rec room hobby, this sport, introduced to the Games in Seoul in 1988, nevertheless requires great hand-eye coordination to consistently land the little white ball in the plastic beer cup.

Triple jump

First you hop. Then you skip. Then you jump. How this one has stayed under the radar for 104 years - bracketed by the long jump and the high jump - is a mystery. Hard to tell what skills it specifically challenges, save a future career on the pro Hopscotch circuit.

Of course, one man's Triple jump is another man's trampoline.

Each country's media provides their nation with a "boutique" version of the Olympics, said Real.

As in this country, the different peoples of the world are likely to get coverage of the events that mean the most to them in their homeland. Badminton, for instance, is very big in China, which is a very big place.

"There is a whole subculture built up around each sport," said Real. "There are officials of the sport and federations whose lifeblood is tied up in these things."

So don't hold your breath expecting synchronized swimming to get out of the pool.

Send e-mail to nolanj@phillynews.com

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