Today, the conventions of the Olympics are pretty thoroughly plotted out. Each host city adds its own local flavor, of course, but it does so within the scope of the overarching rules and bylaws laid out in the Olympic Charter. For the most part, the audience knows what to expect from one games to the next. Whether it's the giddy fanfare that surrounds the Opening Ceremonies, the stirring performance of the winners' national anthems, the glistening tears so common during the medal ceremonies, or the kaleidoscope of Olympic sports themselves giving the world's best of the best their chance to shine.
Occasionally, you might see a new sport added or an old one dropped (the 1998 introduction of those rowdy snowboarders comes to mind). But, by this point in Olympic history, it's rare to see an array of new events get tried out in a single games. But during the somewhat haphazard 1900 Olympic Games, that's just what happened. The games, which took place in France and accompanied the World's Fair, bore little resemblance to the Olympics of today. In fact, some of the sports (many of them unofficial) that debuted there weren't ever attempted as Olympic sports again -- because, boy, were they bizarre. Poodle grooming and van driving were in the mix. We're not joking.
Ready to hear more about strange Olympic sports?
Remember being in the schoolyard, viciously yanking a rope with no regard to blisters, all in order to ensure your opposing classmates ate dirt? Good times. But now imagine grown men doing it. Scary stuff. Starting at the 1900 Summer Games, however, tug-of-war was a minor yet hotly contested Olympic event.
Teams were sometimes composed of people from different nations and the rules were somewhat haphazard. During the 1900 games, competitors from Sweden and Denmark teamed up in an attempt to squash the French, and the Scandinavians were successful. The fate of the American team in the event's debut is even more bizarre: Some sources say they never competed, while others say they were disqualified.
Tug-of-war actually did better than some of the other sports on our list. Teams were tugging their hearts out until the 1920 Olympics. After that, the sport was discontinued.
Hot Air Ballooning
Considered to have been a demonstration sport -- a sporting event held during the Olympics, but not technically considered an official sport of the games -- hot air ballooning enthusiasts saw their hopes of becoming official rise and fall all during the 1900 Olympic Games. All in all, 61 men and 3 women competed in ballooning, which consisted of 18 events. Judges marked contestants on various points, like distance, duration and elevation.
Hot air ballooning hasn't been the only odd aerial sport of note at the games. Kite flying debuted in 1900, while canon shooting and pigeon shooting were given a shot in the same year. Spectators would have done well to seek cover when these guys got going.
On a related note, the chaotic 1900 games garnered two world records of its own. A grand total of 58,731 athletes participated in 34 overall sport categories -- both the highest ever recorded [source: Encyclopedia of the Modern Olympic Movement]. The Paris Games were also epic in length, stretching from May 14 to Oct. 28. Of course, all that time left extra room for more bizarre events ...
Firefighting and Lifesaving
Although neither was ever added officially to the list of Olympic sports, that doesn't mean practitioners have no place at the games. For example, Australian surf lifesavers -- who patrol Australia's extensive beaches as their day job -- have a long history of making strong showings in several associated aquatic sports, including swimming, water polo, kayaking and rowing. They even excel in some track and field events, too.
The firefighting demo events are less well documented, but one must assume some Parisian buildings (hopefully ones constructed for this purpose) were sacrificed in a blaze to see which teams could extinguish them first. In 1900, Portugal took the volunteer division win; a team from Kansas City secured the professional division win.
Hold the gasps -- this is not currently officially or unofficially an Olympic event, nor has it ever been in the past. But that doesn't mean people aren't vying for it to become one. Have you ever been in a strip club? If not, believe this: Women who can rock the poles are often quite athletic.
And with that in mind, many are petitioning the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make pole dancing an official Olympic sport. There are already various national and international organizations holding competitions -- such as the U.S. Pole Dance Championships and the International Pole Dancing Fitness Championships. Pole dancing competitors hail from all over the world, from Japan and Hong Kong all the way to Britain and Finland. The thought process of supporters goes like this: Under a name like "pole fitness" such acrobatics will become just another exhibition of athletic agility. Swirling and maneuvering around a pole will emerge from dive bars and find Olympic glory. More power to them!
Solo Synchronized Swimming
From 1984 to 1992, there was an official Olympic sport known as solo synchronized swimming. It earns its place on this list perhaps for the name alone. Most any sort of swimming can be considered a respectable sport, but it takes real moxie to call an event that involves just one person "synchronized." (Though solo boosters say the swimmer was synchronized with the music. Likely story.)
Performing complicated acrobatic swimming routines is pretty impressive stuff, and perhaps it can be considered an aquatic ballet. All in all, though, the whole premise was a bit strange. No huge surprise it ended up crossed off the list.
If the previous entries have left you longing for bizarre times past (or future, if pole dancing is thrown in the mix), fear not: The modern Olympic Games still feature plenty of strange sports. First up: skeleton. Granted, many of the ice track sports seem a little bizarre and more than a little dangerous. But there is something uniquely perilous-seeming about the sport known as skeleton. (Even the name makes it sound ominous. Luge, by comparison, sounds like it could double as a warm tasty beverage.)
In a skeleton competition, you hurtle yourself down a track of ice, with all the super awesome physics at work that you see in bobsledding, only instead of being seated comfortably in an upright and secure position, you shoot down this chilly vortex of fear face-first.
Face-first. So anything bad that is likely to happen, in all probability, is going to scramble your brains before it even gets to work on other important body parts. If training and competing in this sport on a regular basis isn't bizarre, we're not sure what is.
Cross-country skiing is a strength and endurance test. Downhill skiing is a speed and swiveling test. Ski jumping is straight-up craziness test. And Olympic athletes have been participating in this particular brand of nuttiness since 1924.
Ski jumping involves shooting yourself down a steep incline on two little sticks (some call them skis; we're not convinced this is an accurate description given the circumstances), then launching yourself into the air to see how far you can travel. And that tends to be a long, long way. For spectators, it's like seeing Superman in action, but without any of the superhuman powers. If hanging in an abyss high above snow-packed ground sounds pleasant, well, this might just be the sport for you. Don't even get us started on ski aerials.
As far as bizarre sports go, curling, in all its slippery, broom-wielding glory, leaves us especially captivated. And it's not just the fascinating activities and conversations among teammates that keep us glued to the TV screen, it's also the bewilderment: Who on Earth conceived of this sport in the first place?
Four-member teams take turns sliding large granite stones down icy runways towards the big bull's-eyes at the far end. But those stones don't make the journey alone. No, they're accompanied by team members wielding brooms which when vigorously swept, can partially melt the ice, reducing friction and helping with course correction and speed regulation.
One of the most unique aspects of curling is that it seems to be one of the few Olympic sports that takes place in painstakingly slow motion. With so many other competitions focused on heart-bursting speed, it's nice to see one focused on careful craft. However strange that craft is.
The biathlon is a perfect example of strange Olympic juxtapositions. Like cross-country skiing? Sure, it's a calm, rhythmic experience. How about shooting rifles at stuff? Oh yeah, it's an abrasive and jarring activity. But if you enjoy both of these dynamically opposite feelings, then you are an ideal candidate for (or spectator of) this sport, since it smashes the two together.
The biathlon -- a part of the games since 1960 -- involves bouts of zenlike cross country skiing punctuated by bursts of shooting the heck out of standing targets, only to be repeated until this weird event reaches its conclusion. At times, participants must shoot standing; at other points, they shoot from the prone position. Basically, this event turns survival skills into sport.
Up next, we take strange combos to a whole new level.
If the biathlon sounds bizarre, the modern pentathlon definitely takes it up a notch. These athletes must prove their mettle in not two, but five disparate skills. A summer sport, as opposed to the winter biathlon, men began competing in the pentathlon in 1912. Women were inducted in 2000.
This event's purported origin story involves a French cavalry officer who had to beat impossible odds to deliver a crucial message. Starting out on horseback, he also had to fence, run, swim and shoot to get the missive to its intended recipient.
Fast-forward to the present, and in a single day, a pentathlon athlete must first fence all other opponents, swim 200 meters, then ride an unfamiliar horse through a 12-jump course. Those who pass this rigorous test must proceed through a combined bout of running and shooting to get the gold. Then they get to take a nap, we assume, if they so desire.
The Olympic opening ceremony is an emotional and inspiring parade of athletes. Learn about the Olympic opening ceremonies at HowStuffWorks.
This is the first of several articles related to the Olympics that I have been tasked with writing over the course of the summer, and I couldn't be more thrilled about that. Since I was a kid, the only televised sporting events I've followed with a passion have been the World Cups and the Olympic Games. You can save your football, your golf, your motor sports, your tennis tourneys and all the rest. They're all well and good, I'm sure, but I'm just not interested.
That being said, the Olympics have hands-down stolen my heart. I'm captivated by the Opening Ceremonies, enthralled by the athletes tear-jerking bios (yes, the majority of them make me weepy-eyed), and engrossed by the multitude of competitions -- even the oddest of the odd. But prior to this, I was only familiar with the loopy ones known in the modern games. It was great researching prior and potential "sports" that have tried to make the roster. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it!
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- "Zip wire and hot air balloon for Olympic Torch Relay." BBC. Nov. 7, 2011. (May 4, 2012.) http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/15617230