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Novelty Acts

With women's boxing making its debut at the London 2012 Olympic Games, we take a look back at some events that didn't quite cut it (RIP, "swimming obstacle race")

Author JACK CAVANAUGH

ILLUSTRATION BY KEVIN WADA

IT WAS DEFINITELY NOT a made-for-TV event, and only partly because TV hadn’t been invented yet. Nor was it much of a spectator sport, because no one in attendance could really see anything. But the underwater swimming competition at the Paris 1900 Olympic Games happened nonetheless.

Of the 14 pioneering participants, the winner was a Frenchman who stayed under for 68.4 seconds while doing 60 meters of laps. The third-place finisher, a Dane, remained submerged for 30 seconds longer but covered less distance because he wound up swimming in circles. You could say the same for the event itself. It was never held again.

Underwater swimming is just one of the many, many new events that have appeared in the Olympic Games over the years, as the organizers work to keep things fresh and attract more fans. Not all are destined to fizzle. Women’s boxing—which makes its debut in London this summer—is growing in popularity, and even has a few marquee names (the daughters of Ali and Frazier are top-tier pro fighters).

But Olympic Games history is strewn with other events that didn’t make the cut. Some of the strangest of these appeared in the early years of the modern Olympic Games (which began in 1896), when host countries were allowed to include events popular within their own borders—and often only within their borders. This accounted for host countries Greece, France, the United States, Britain and Sweden copping most of the gold medals during the first five Olympic Games.

Take France, for instance. If you get a bit queasy at the thought of boxing, you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed live pigeon shooting, which was part of the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. Contestants fired live ammunition at pigeons that were released one at a time, like skeet; miss your first two shots, and you were out. The first-place finisher, Leon de Lunden of Belgium, never missed, downing 21 pigeons in a competition that reportedly horrified many spectators. (Fortunately, clay targets had replaced live ones by the 1908 Games.)

Quieter but more nonsensical was that year’s 200-meter swimming obstacle race, during which competitors swam for 25 meters, climbed up and over a pole, and clambered over and then swam under a row of boats before crossing the finish line in the heavily polluted Seine. “It was probably tremendously entertaining,” says Olympic Games historian John Lucas. “I imagine it was sort of like an extreme sport for the amusement of the mob.” Amusing or no, the event was never held again (which sets it apart from tug-of-war, which was included in the Olympic Games from 1900 until 1920).

“It was very much catch-as-catch-can in the early days,” notes David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians and author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics. “It wasn’t until the Olympics got bigger that they started to be taken more seriously.”

After World War I, the International Olympic Committee, presumably fed up with regional shenanigans, began to decide for itself what events would be held. Today, a sport has to be widely played or performed in at least 35 countries to merit inclusion.

Nevertheless, occasional controversies have flared up. Baseball and softball were both admitted in 1992—and eliminated following the 2008 Olympic Games. The IOC voted to oust baseball because the Summer Games were held during the pro season, meaning major-league players couldn’t compete. Softball got the ax because few countries could field teams, and those that did were dominated by the U.S. and Japanese squads.

When synchronized swimming debuted in 1984, some objected on the grounds that it was more performance than sport. Yet the event, which initially featured just individuals and pairs but grew to include eight-person teams, has endured due to widespread popularity. Similarly, curling shuffles on in the Winter Games, where it has been an official sport  since 1998, inspiring global fascination if not rabid fandom.

The next potential flash point? Golf, an Olympic event in 1900 and 1904, becomes a medal sport again in 2016. The argument against including it is the same as that against soccer and tennis: While the Olympic Games are effectively the world championship for events like track and field, sports like golf, tennis and soccer have their own definitive championships. As the late boxing writer and sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar once put it, “Tennis already has an Olympics; it’s called Wimbledon.” The same goes, critics argue, for the Masters and the World Cup.

Yet such commentary is moot. The Olympic Games, as we’ve seen, are irrevocably bullish on change. As for those critics of Olympic golf—well, they can at the very least take consolation in the fact that when the event debuts in 2016, it will involve hitting only figurative birdies.

JACK CAVANAUGH covered sports for the New York Times for almost 30 years. His latest book, Season of ’42, is about the first World War II baseball season, the war itself and life on the American home front.

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