Mystery medals: A look at 4 of the most obscure Summer Olympic sports

Photo of slalom
David Merrett/Creative Commons

With the addition of five new sports to the Tokyo Olympics — baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing — and an extra year since the last games to forget the other 28, it’s perfectly acceptable to need a refresher on some of the more niche events that will be taking place. Though perhaps not as obscure as early 1900s Olympic sports such as “Jeu de Paume” (a variation of racquetless lawn tennis) or “obstacle race for swimming” (which is exactly what it sounds like), being able to both recall and even somewhat describe the following sports in this year’s lineup is an Olympic feat itself.

4. Trampoline gymnastics

In addition to artistic gymnastics (which consists of floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and horizontal bar for men; and vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise for women) and the ribbon-twirling, hoop-jumping rhythmic gymnastics we may be more familiar with, a third category of Olympic gymnastics was added in 2000 that is equally entertaining: trampoline gymnastics. Originally used as a training tool for artistic gymnastics, diving and freestyle skiing, trampolines make for a rigorous sport in which athletes perform acrobatic movements such as somersaults and twists in midair while reaching heights of more than 25 feet. Points are awarded for execution, difficulty and flight time.

3. Canoeing/Kayaking

Not to be confused with rowing, in which athletes propel the boat in the direction opposite to the way they’re sitting, Olympic canoeing/kayaking consists of two different disciplines: sprint and slalom, during which players drive the boat in the direction in which they are sitting. Canoes and kayaks are not equals either, as the different styles of boats (canoes are wider, open the full length and use a single-bladed paddle) translate to the name designation of each event. For example, “C-2” is a canoe doubles event and “K-1” is a kayak singles event. The sprints are races on flatwater of 200, 500 or 1000 meters. The slalom takes place on a whitewater course of about 300 meters with upstream and downstream gates that athletes need to get through as quickly as possible.

2. Handball

Yes, your fifth-grade physical education teachers were actually training you to become Olympians. Although, maybe they need to turn it up a notch — Olympic handball has not featured a team from the United States since the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia, when Team USA “qualified” by default as the host country. Given how well Team USA fares in basketball, its handball absence is surprising given that the two are fairly similar. With the exception of handball’s seven players per side as opposed to five and a goal in place of a basket, both involve running, dribbling, jumping and passing on a court with the objective of getting the ball in the net.

1. Pentathlon

The modern pentathlon has been an Olympic tradition since 1912, and, as the name suggests, it consists of five (pent-) different sports contests (-athlon). Nowhere in the word “pentathlon,” however, is a Greek root indicating that the five said components are fencing, a 200-meter swim, show jumping and a final combined event of pistol shooting and a 3200-meter run. If you see the sport as an odd collection of tasks, I recommend you go back in time and have a word with Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern games and this modern pentathlon; he created the sport as a test for an ideal, well-rounded cavalry soldier.

Contact Allie Coyne at [email protected].c