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Reliving quirky sports in Olympic history

Long before the corporate sponsorships and billion-dollar television deals, the Olympic Games were more like games kids might play in the backyard, reports John Marshall. The Forbidden City.
AP | By John Marshall
UPDATED ON JUL 08, 2008 11:16 PM IST

If you’ve been swimming, you probably tried it at least once: Dive into the water and see how far you can get without taking a stroke. Coast past 19 metres and you could have earned a gold medal at the 1904 Olympics.

The tug-of-war you played with friends at school? That could have been worth a podium spot at six Games. A gym class favourite like the rope climb and a game that looked like hopscotch also were once medal events.

Long before the corporate sponsorships and billion-dollar television deals, the Olympic Games were more like games kids might play in the backyard. Some of the events may seem a bit strange but there was certainly a fun factor to the early days of the Olympics.

“It’s was a different thing, kind of catch as catch can, particularly the very early days before it got formalised,” said David Wallechinsky, vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

“Eventually, as it got bigger, they had to take it a lot more serious.”

The first few modern Olympics, which started in Athens in 1896, were loosely organised. Athletes could just sign up, pay an entry fee and compete. Besides, the host countries were allowed to pick what events were to be held. That changed after World War I, when the International Olympic Committee took over selection of the Olympic programme because Sweden wouldn't allow boxing at the 1912 Stockholm Games.

And while there has always been a political slant to the Olympics — St Louis pulled a back-room deal to snatch the 1904 games from Chicago — there wasn't much worldwide attention paid to the early games.

A wild finish in the marathon at the 1908 Games — Italy's Dorando Pietri was disqualified for being helped across the finish line by two officials — and the Nazi presence at the 1936 Berlin Games helped increase media interest, eventually turning the Olympics into the financial and political monster of on Tuesday.

Before all that happened, though, the Olympics were a simple affair. One was the duelling pistol at the 1896 Athens Olympics. The participants didn't actually shoot each other; they fired upon mannequins. For the authentic blood and guts, you'd have to go back to the 1900 Paris Games and live pigeon shooting. Nearly 300 birds were killed during the release-and-shoot competition.

Less violent and perhaps more fun were some of the swimming events. There was the diving plunge and an underwater race. The swimming obstacle race in 1900 was another unusual one, with swimmers climbing up and down a pole, then over and under boats in the Seine River. "It was probably tremendously entertaining," says Olympic historian John Lucas. "It was sort of like an X sport for the amusement of the mob."

Club swinging, held during the 1904 and 1932 Games, would certainly fall into that category. It featured competitors whirling clubs around their bodies in various patterns. Of course, peculiar events weren't limited to the early days. For the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Olympic organisers introduced solo-synchronised swimming. The idea was for the swimmer to synchronise with the music, but viewers couldn't get past the whole lack of a partner thing and the sport was dropped after the Barcelona Games in 1992.

"What can I say?" says Wallechinsky, author of The Complete Book of the Olympics series. "I asked them 'how can you synchronise one person?' Well, you're synchronised to the music. In rhythmic gymnastics there's music but you don't call it synchronised gymnastics."

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