The Olympic Games have a reputation of representing the purest, highest repository of human athletic ability. Yet amid the pomp, there always seem to be a handful of events derided as “not Olympic”—whether it’s an obscure hybrid like ski cross; rhythmic gymnastics, in which swirling a ribbon is a key skill; or dressage, in which horses dance to pop songs. Recently, Harry Potter fans have been lobbying to have quidditch added to the Games; so far they’ve had no luck.
But when it comes to un-Olympicness, none of those can hold a candle to plunging, a medal sport from a century ago in which the competitors leapt into the water and did not move. Far from being a pure expression of athleticism, our great-grandparents’ Olympics were replete with novelty sports in what could be a carnival-like atmosphere. (The low point may have come in St. Louis in 1904, when organizers hauled out members of “primitive” tribes on display at the World’s Fair to compete in “Olympic” events like mud-fighting.) Prize money was commonplace, and some Olympians didn’t realize they were competing in anything other than a casual local event.
A look back suggests that what we consider to be athletic, or even respectable, has evolved significantly over the last century. But the early Games could also be charmingly imaginative. Is it too late to suggest bringing back the swimming obstacle course in London this summer?
Live pigeon shooting
In the 8th century BC, the Greeks used pigeons to carry messages about the results of Olympic games out to distant city-states. But by the time of the second modern Olympics in 1900 in Paris, pigeons had a very different role to play in the Games. The first and last live pigeon-shooting event ended with the slaughter of about 300 birds, and a horrifying tableau of blood, carcasses, and feathers. Humane societies were aghast, and no Olympic sport since then has involved killing animals. Olympians nowadays aim for less gruesomely explosive clay pigeons.
Equestrian long jump
Only military officers could enter early Olympic equestrian competitions, which included both long jump and high jump in 1900.
The Games’ only equestrian long jump competition was won by a Belgian rider named Constant van Langhendonck with an approximately 20-foot jump—several feet less than the top result in human long jump at the same Games.
Swimming obstacle course
In another strange event from the 1900 Paris Games, swimmers raced through a 200-meter obstacle course installed in the muddy urban River Seine. Swimmers had to complete three tasks to win the prize: climb a pole that poked above the river’s surface, clamber over some boats, and finally swim under a second row of boats against the river’s current. Instead of a gold medal, the fastest aquatic scrambler, an Australian named Frederick Lane, received a 50-pound bronze horse.
Plunge for distance
Competitors in the then-popular pastime would dive into the water, then glide forward underwater as far as possible without moving their limbs. Conventional wisdom had it that weight was the only key to success. As one 1922 guidebook put it, “Nine of every ten successful plungers are mere mountains of fat who fall in the water more or less successfully and depend upon inertia to get their points for them.” An American won the top prize in the only Olympics to include the plunge, the 1904 Games in St. Louis. But at the time, the reigning world champion was an Englishman described as “fat all over, which literally hangs in some parts. His breasts fall like a woman’s, but he has powerful shoulders and tremendous thighs.”
The motor-boat races in the 1908 London games were a disaster. Organizers planned races in three classes of boats, each race including five laps of an 8-mile course off the coast of Southampton, 75 miles from London. Spectators could barely see the race, but they didn’t miss much: Six of the nine planned competitions were canceled due to bad weather, and the average speed for the remaining races was just 20 miles per hour. The Olympics have not included a motorized sport since.
Tug-of-war had been part of the ancient Games and returned to the modern Olympiad between 1900 and 1920. The contest included teams of eight. A quarterfinal in the 1908 Games included a particularly juicy controversy between two teams: The Americans, and a British team of policemen from Liverpool. When the Americans decisively lost the first of three scheduled pulls, they refused to continue, protesting that the Liverpudlians’ heavy metal shoes gave them an unfair advantage. Judges disagreed, and the Americans quit on the spot. The Liverpool police lost in the final to another British team—this one representing the London police.
No, contestants didn’t walk 20 paces and then fire at each other, but they did take aim at a plaster dummy dressed in a frock coat, with the bulls-eye on the throat. A shot in the throat earned five points, with three points for hitting the head or groin, and two points for a knee. The International Olympic Committee recommended taking a shot of Benedictine liqueur before taking aim. (The event took place in this format only in the 1906 summer Games in Athens, now considered unofficial.)