For four years they remain largely out of sight but now is the chance for these so-called minority sports to woo a worldwide audience.
During London’s bid to host the Olympic Games, the staging of the beach volleyball became a totem. Like holding the equestrian events in Greenwich Park, the promise to dump 5,000 tonnes of sand on Horse Guards Parade in central London was emblematic of London’s vision of a “compact” Games in iconic locations that would leave behind no white elephants and provide the best stage possible for the athletes. Horse Guards Parade is a long way from Santa Monica or Copacabana, but ever since Tony Blair joked that its siting so close to his office was a “masterstroke”, the sport has been one of the most discussed of the Games. The central London ticket has also, unsurprisingly, been one of the more popular hospitality offerings outside the Olympic Park. But the athletes themselves sometimes bemoan the fact that the highly effective presentation of the sport, complete with earsplitting music and excitable MCs, obscures the fitness and athleticism required. In both the men’s and women’s events USA and Brazil will start as favourites. The American Misty May-Treanor, who will be partnered by Kerri Walsh, is the most successful women’s player of all time.
Greenwich Park is not everyone’s idea of an Olympic three-day event venue — its limited size means the cross-country course will be shorter and twistier than usual — but it should at least be exciting. Its hilliness will make it testing and horses will find the narrowness of the path they have to thread between the trees claustrophobic. So will the 50,000 spectators who will be crammed into the park for the cross-country on 30 July. Most will be cheering for Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara Phillips, though Britain’s best hope of a medal lies with the world No1, William Fox-Pitt. But beware the brilliant reigning world and European champion Michael Jung from Germany, who is hotly tipped to complete the set of titles. But for once showjumping may have to play second fiddle to dressage, the arcane horse ballet beloved of aficionados but largely incomprehensible to everyone else.
Expect dressage to be one of the unlikely hits of the Games, topped by the appearance of Japan’s Hiroshi Hoketsu who at 71 would become the second oldest Olympian ever — Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn was 72 when he won a silver in Antwerp in 1920. Hoketsu was in Japan’s showjumping team at the Tokyo Games in 1964, then took a time-out to pursue a business career before riding for his country again in dressage at the 2008 Games — the 44-year gap must surely be a record. Hoketsu reckons he would also be in good shape for Rio in 2016, where he would break Swahn’s record, but fears his 15-year-old horse Whisper will be over the hill by then.
The gymnastics test event in January gave a taste of what to expect. A packed, purpose-built arena racked with nervous anticipation that periodically burst into huge cheers from 20,000 people — the O2, or the North Greenwich Arena as it will be renamed at Games time to comply with IOC sponsorship restrictions, will be a stunning venue for one of the blue riband events of any Games.
All eyes will be on the Americans in the women's competition as a team widely rated as the best since 1996 aims to do what no USA team has done since the so-called Magnificent Seven triumphed in Atlanta and come away with gold medals.
At each of the past two Olympics USA have arrived as world champions but won silver. In 2004 Romania took gold in Athens and China memorably triumphed in Beijing despite a fall from the beam, when USA succumbed to a combination of injuries and pressure.
The team will be fuelled by the rivalry between two team-mates — the reigning world champion, Jordyn Wieber, and Gabby Douglas, who recently beat her to the lone guaranteed spot in the team. Their chances are boosted by the fact that the defending champions, China, are in some disarray. They finished only third at the world championships and have since lost their captain, Cheng Fei, to injury.
In the men’s competition the Chinese will, as ever, start as hot favourites. But they are also considered more vulnerable than ever, with USA and Japan likely to challenge hard. Britain’s men, who qualified for the Games on an electrifying night at that event in January, will have the crowd on their side and could even be outside contenders for a medal — a situation that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Fencing is the easiest sell in the Olympics. It is simply a matter of looking at it with the right kind of eyes. Seen one way, it is an obscure, complicated sport. Look at it another way, however, and it is fighting with swords. What more could you possibly want? Except, perhaps, a duel to the death. It is like watching an old Errol Flynn swashbuckler on a spotlit stage in a silent auditorium, only with all the tedious love scenes cut out. The fencers, as befits Flynn’s heirs, tend to be both hot and cool. The men are athletic, aristocratic army-types with chiselled jawlines. And the women, like Italy’s three-time Olympic foil champion Valentina Vezzali tend to have long flowing locks of hair, which they toss around when they tear off their masks and scream in success or distress after each point. The sport is further improved if you mutter dialogue from The Princess Bride while you watch: “You are using Bonetti’s defence against me, ah?” “I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.” “Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capo Ferro?” “Naturally ... but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro.” “Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa ... which I have.”
Few events are as historic as modern pentathlon or more likely to provide a dramatic climax. With its roots in the tale of a 19th-century French cavalry officer who had to ride, fence, shoot, swim and run in order to deliver a message, the sport demands its competitors complete those same five challenges in pursuit of a gold medal. Each nation is allowed to put up four athletes; two in the men’s competition and two in the women’s, and, only adding to the appeal, this is a sport which takes place in a single, action-packed day.
It kicks off with fencing, which sees every athlete compete in sudden-death bouts, before swimming in a 200m freestyle race and then riding a horse through a 12-jump course. Points are awarded for each and the total scores are converted into a time handicap which determines the start times for the combined running and shooting. In something akin to the 1970s show Superstars, competitors must run to a shooting range and hit five targets in 70 seconds before running 1,000m, shooting a further five targets, running another 1,000m and shooting another five further targets before completing a final 1,000m.
Fast, furious and often unforgiving when players clash, handball is hugely popular across much of Europe. It is the continent’s second most popular sport, with more than 30 million players, but in most other parts of the world it is still obscure.
It is easy to follow and frantically fast, with dozens of goals per match, and most of those who attended the test events in the Olympic Park’s Copper Box went away impressed.
The historic first appearance of men’s and women’s British teams has garnered plenty of column inches. But while there is an outside chance that both could make it beyond the preliminary stage, with only two teams in each six-strong group going out, the big guns will take over from that point on.
In the women’s competition Norway are favourites, closely followed by the Russians and the French.
The Norwegians are the reigning Olympic champions and comprehensively beat France in the 2011 world championship final.
In the men’s competition France won the gold in Beijing and will start among the favourites in London. Team GB will meet the reigning champions in their second match.