The Wackiest Olympic Sports

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The Olympic Games have long been a global celebration of sport and competition. It’s also one of the rare opportunities for athletes to showcase feats of skill, strength, endurance, speed, agility, and artistry to a worldwide audience with the spotlight shone on numerous sports and events that otherwise would have remained under the radar.

These events range from the obscure — handball, race walking, archery — to the humorous — tug-of-war, pigeon shooting, tandem bicycling — to the downright bizarre. Not surprisingly, many of these events involve animals.  

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Skijoring: Skiing With Animals

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The Nordic countries are known to take the sport of skiing quite seriously. As such, Norwegian and Swedish athletes have long been perennial contenders and champions in worldwide skiing competitions. This is despite a sparse population of a little over 15 million people. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the same region brought us skijoring, skiing competitions involving dogs. 

Dog skijoring is a competition in which a cross-country skier completes a trail with the help of one to three canines. Skiers are equipped with the usual skis and poles, along with a harness strapped to the body and attached to the leashes of a team of dogs. Equestrian skijoring follows the same idea, except the skier wears only a set of skis and hangs on to a rope as the horse and rider guides the competitor along the course, similar to waterskiing. In France, there have been rider-less competitions involving only the skier and horse.   

Motorized skijoring usually feature a snowmobile or other small motorized vehicle, such as a motorcycle. There have been instances where all-terrain vehicles, such as the Bandvagn 206, a military carrier, has been used to pull an entire team of skiers or soldiers. In this scenario, the skiers grab and position themselves along the rope to form a line.

Skijoring is derived from the Norwegian word skikjøring meaning ski driving. The use of assisted cross country skiing initially began as a method of transportation for military missions and grew in popularity over time. At the beginning of the 20th century, the sport was recognized and included the Nordic Games in 1901, 1905, and 1909.

In 1928, Skijoring debuted as a demonstration sport at the 1928 winter Olympic Games. The inaugural event took place in St. Moritz on a frozen lake and didn’t feature riders on the horses. There were also no jumps on the course. Ironically, the contest was dominated by the Swiss. It was the first and last time the sport was part of the Olympic games.

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Kabaddi: A Game of Tag, Rugby and Survivor

A Kabaddi match in the 2006 Asian Games. Doha 2006/Creative Commons

Derived from the Tamil word “kai-pidi,” which means “to hold hands,” Kabaddi originated in the ancient Tamil region of India and over time rose to popularity throughout South Asia. In 1938, it was introduced the Indian National Games at Calcutta and eventually spread to Japan. The Japanese would form a team to compete at the inaugural Asian Kabaddi Championship held in 1980.

Okay, now to the peculiar part. The contest is held between two opposing teams consisting of seven players on each side. The object of the game is for each player to turns to attack the opposing team's half of the court and tag out as many of their defenders as possible before retreating to their own half of the court.

The opposing team plays defense by trying to take out the “raider” by tackling him. Points are scored for each player tagged. The opposing team earns a point for stopping the raider. Players who are tagged or tackled are eliminated, but can be "revived" for each point scored by their team. And all this has to be done while the invading player chants "kabaddi" in one single breath.

Kabaddi was introduced to the internationally at 1936 summer Olympic games in Berlin, Germany.

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Pigeon Racing

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During World War I, armed forces in Europe enlisted and trained pigeons to carry out perilous missions such as navigating battlefields to deliver urgent messages. This was made possible years earlier by the sudden rise of pigeon racing.

Pigeons that are bred specifically to compete in races are called racing homers. The practice of breeding pigeons for speed, endurance and keen ability to find its way home after flying for hours on end started in Belgium in the mid 19th century. Over time, breeders in Western Europe and the United States would enter their birds in races as the sport grew in popularity. The sport even gained a brief moment of recognition when it was included in 1900 Summer Olympics as an unofficial event.

A pigeon race consists of releasing the participants to fly a predetermined distance before returning home. The fastest pigeon wins. One form of pigeon racing called one-loft racing mimics traditional races by having the birds take off from the same starting point and returning to the same site.

As in horseracing and dog racing, a large purse or wager is often put up as a prize for the winner’s owner. This led to some of the same issues that often plagued competitions of this sort. Impressive pigeons were often auctioned off for large sums of money. These pigeons are often used for breeding purposes, and there have been several instances in which birds were given performance-enhancing drugs.

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Dressage and Vault

Equestrian vault competition. Public Domain

Beyond horse racing, the wide range of equestrian categories have demonstrated that nearly all manner of horsing around can be turned into a sporting event. For example, there’s equestrian vaulting, best described as gymnastics on horseback where a gymnast or” vaulter” is given a score for executing a choreographed routine that includes various dismounts, handstands and aerial moves such as jumps, leaps and tumbling – all while atop a horse. Both individual and team vaulting competitions were part of the 1920 summer Olympics in Antwerp.

Quirkier still is the sport of dressage, which the International Equestrian Federation states is "the highest expression of horse training" where "horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements." But for all intents and purposes, let’s just call it what it is. It’s basically horse dancing. A staple of the summer Olympic games since 1912, dressage competitions judge each horse and rider on their ability to execute a series of moves set to music. Among the dance moves the horse is tested on are piaffe or trotting in place and Pirouette, a horse’s version of the well-known ballet move. 

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Hot Air Ballooning

Hot air balloon competition. Public Domain

Believe it or not, hot air ballooning was once an Olympic sport. It wasn’t a form of racing but rather a series of contests where participants tested on distance, duration, elevation and in one event had to fly their balloons as close as possible to a target on the ground and then tried to hit the target by dropping a weighted marker. The rider whose marker was closest to the target was declared the winner.  

The first and only Olympic contest took place at the 1900 summer games in Paris, France. Frenchmen dominated the field, with aeronautical pioneer Henry de La Vaulx setting world records for distance and duration.    

Balloons weren't the only flying objects at the 1900 Olympics. Kite flying also debuted as a demonstration sport. Memorable for the sheer number and wide range of competitions, the 1900 games set the record for total participants and categories with 58,731 athletes taking part in 34 overall sport categories. 

The Spirit of Competition

The Olympics are often criticized for packing a dizzying number of sporting events in a short period of a few weeks. But in keeping with the theme of allowing athletes all across the world to showcase their talent and skill in a broad range of categories, the premier spectacle of the sports world has shown us that what's considered sport has virtually no limits.