Beginning around 776 BC, the original Olympic Games featured a single sprint race called the stadion. More events were added later: longer races; boxing; wrestling; the pancration (a form of mixed martial arts); pentathlon (javelin, discus, wrestling, long jump and stadion); horse and chariot racing; a race in armour and the apene, with chariots pulled by mules. The Athens Games of 1896, the first of the modern Olympic movement, featured 43 events from nine different sports. (Rowing was cancelled due to bad weather and yachting was called off because no boats turned up.) Most were what today might be called ‘traditional’ Olympic sports, although any Jack Tars hoping to compete in the 100-metre freestyle for sailors would have been disappointed. Entry was restricted to members of the Greek Navy.
The early 20th century Olympics saw an increase in the number of events. In Antwerp in 1920 there were over 150 events featuring more than 20 different sports. Some sports, like boxing and football, were there to stay. Others had already been and gone.
There was, and still is, some confusion about which were and which were not official Olympic sports but some of the events to have briefly graced the Olympic programme include rope climbing, long jump for horses, club swinging, standing triple jump and croquet. The five featured here are my personal favourites.
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Tug of war
Paris 1900 to Antwerp 1920
Britain are the reigning Olympic champions in Tug of War. The number of members in a team varied through the years but the objective remained the same – to pull opponents six feet or, failing that, to be ahead after five minutes. In Paris in 1900 the event was won by a combined Swedish-Danish team. The American team had been unable to take part because the event clashed with the hammer final in which three of its members were competing so the victorious Scandinavians later challenged them to a friendly ‘tug’. The event ended in farce when over-enthusiastic American supporters intervened to give their team a hand.
In 1908 Britain enjoyed a hat-trick, or more accurately Britain’s police did, as a team from the City of London Police defeated the Liverpool Police to win gold, with Metropolitan Police’s ‘K’ Division securing bronze. The American team had earlier pulled out of the competition after their protest against the heavy duty police boots the Liverpudlians were wearing was rejected. They were later challenged by the champions to a match in stockinged feet but failed to take up the offer. Four years later in Stockholm the British lost to Sweden when they were disqualified for persistently sitting down but they regained their title the last time the event was held, in Antwerp in 1920
Live pigeon shooting
Feathers literally flew when the 1900 Paris Games staged live pigeon shooting, the only Olympic event to have involved the deliberate killing of live animals. The unfortunate targets were released from traps in front of the participants who could carry on shooting until they missed two birds. Spectators were showered with blood and bits of bird as the competitors downed nearly 300 pigeons. Belgium’s Leon de Lunden won the competition with 21 kills, beating Frenchman Maurice Faure by a single shot.
The event was never repeated and it is perhaps not surprising that the International Olympic Committee denies that the sport was ever an official Olympic event. Another shooting event which modern audiences might also find slightly distasteful was duelling pistol shooting, staged during the Athens intermediate Games of 1906. At least the competitors fired not at each other but at mannequins dressed in frock coats with targets attached to their torsos.
England’s long-suffering supporters may find some comfort in the knowledge that Britain is Olympic cricket champion – and has been for 108 years. Cricket made its only Olympic appearance in Paris in 1900. Four teams entered the competition but when the Dutch and Belgians pulled out it was left to England and France to contest the final in a two-day, 12-a side match.
England, as the team was referred to, was not a nationally selected side but a touring outfit, the Devon and Somerset Wanderers. Even today the French seem bemused by our fascination with cricket and a contemporary report suggested that the French temperament was “too excitable to enjoy the game”. As a result the ‘French’ team chiefly consisted of Englishmen living in France. The game took place in the 20,000-capacity Vincennes Velodrome, although according to one account the crowd consisted of only a few gendarmes. The West Countrymen proved too strong for their opponents, winning by 158 runs after bowling France out for 26 in their second innings with Somerset bowler Montague Toller taking seven wickets for only nine runs. Presented with silver medals (golds were not awarded until 1904) and miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the English team returned home, unaware that they had even taken part in the Olympics.
Possibly the least spectator-friendly event ever to have been held in the Olympics, the underwater swimming competition took place over a 60-metre course in the River Seine with competitors awarded points for both distance swum and time spent underwater. Frenchman Charles de Vandeville won the event, covering the full 60 metres in 1 minute 8.4 seconds. Danish competitor Peter Lykkeberg remained underwater for an impressive minute and a half but as he swam less than half the course he had to content himself with third place.
Rather more entertaining for onlookers was the 200-metre swimming obstacle race with competitors having to climb a pole, scramble over a row of boats and then swim under a second row. The event was won by Australia’s Frederick Lane, just 45 minutes after he had triumphed in the conventional 200-metre race. Instead of a medal, Lane was awarded a bronze statue of a peasant girl and used it at home as a hatstand.
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In what has been the Olympics’ only motorised competition to date, boats attempted to complete a 40-mile, five-lap course around Southampton Water. Few spectators could see what was going on and high winds forced the cancellation of six of the planned nine races.
Home advantage and nautical heritage must have made Britain confident of success; even more so as all but one of the competing crews were British. In the under-60ft class only two boats competed, Quicksilver and Gyrinus. With the choppy waters threatening to capsize her, Quicksilver abandoned the race, leaving Gyrinus to limp over the line with crewmen frantically bailing out seawater. The following day Gyrinus made it a double when its opponent in the eight-metre class developed engine trouble and had to be towed away. A British treble was a real possibility but the open class saw the one non-British boat in the competition, France’s Camille, chug home alone after the Duke of Westminster’s boat, Wolseley-Siddeley, ran aground.
A colourful character, the 2nd Duke of Westminster combined four marriages, right-wing politics and an affair with Coco Chanel with his passion for motors. He commanded a squadron of armoured cars in Egypt during the First World War, and won the DSO after leading a cross-desert dash to rescue captured British sailors.
Julian Humphrys compiles our Milestones section. He writes on war and follows sport. Extra reading: A Historical Dictionary of the Modern Olympic Movement edited by J Findling and K Pelle (Greenwood Press, 1996); The Complete Book of the Olympics by D Wallechinsky and J Loucky (Aurum, 2008)
This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine