Gallo looks back at obscure Olympic sports

Playbook has some ideas on how to bring tug-of-war back to the Olympics. Kurt Snibbe/ESPN.com

Everyone has a list of sports he or she thinks should be removed from the Olympics. Maybe it’s synchronized swimming or table tennis or trampoline because you don’t think those are "real" sports. Or maybe you believe tennis and soccer shouldn’t be a part of the Games because their premier events happen outside of the Olympics.

There is actually a long history of sports and activities being removed from the Summer Games, many of which are far more obscure than anything we have today. Take a look.


Tug-of-war was an event at the Olympics from 1900 through 1920. Teams had five minutes to pull their opponent six feet across the center line. If no team won after five minutes, the team that had pulled its opponent the farthest was declared the winner.

Why bring it back? Tug-of-war extends to ancient Greece and is still a fixture at summer camps. It has more history and relevance than many of the sports currently in the Games. Plus, the IOC seems to love to over-expand sports and give as many medals as possible -- see the 400 swimming events -- and tug-of-war could be contested individually, in pairs, in teams and on various surfaces.

Why not bring it back? Because it hurts the rope? I have no idea.

But would the United States be good at it? Great Britain dominated this event in the early 20th century, but surely the U.S. could cobble together a good team with some NFL players. A team featuring Vince Wilfork, Ndamukong Suh, Maurice Jones-Drew, James Harrison, Brian Urlacher, Jake Long, Joe Thomas and Ryan Kalil probably would have some success. It would be a tug-of-war Dream Team.

How could it be tweaked? Fill a pit between the teams with the most ferocious animal native to the host country. For example, at London 2012 that pit would be filled with … foxes? Hmm. That’s not too scary. Let’s go with British paparazzi instead.


At the urging of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, medals were awarded in art -- architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture -- from the 1912 Games through 1948. All pieces were required to focus on sports.

Why bring it back? It would do the world some good to celebrate intelligence and creativity instead of just sports. Also, nerds probably like winning things, too.

Why not bring it back? Art is subjective. Who is to say what’s good and what is not? At least that’s the case I made to my sixth-grade art teacher.

But would the United States be good at it? Probably not immediately. But if art became competitive, you can bet schools across the country would stop cutting their arts budgets. Next we’d have fantasy art leagues and soon every American would be wearing beret instead of just these people.

How could it be tweaked? Force the athletes to participate. If you think listening to Ryan Lochte recite poetry that he wrote wouldn’t be awesome, you know nothing about entertainment.


Hot air ballooning was a demonstration sport at the 1900 Games in Paris. Competitors had to pilot their balloons to designated targets and drop a weighted marker as close to the targets as possible.

Why bring it back? The Olympics currently include races on land and water -- bicycles, canoes, sailboats -- so why not have an air race, too? Also, the balloons’ torches could be lit with the Olympic flame for extra Olympic-ness.

Why not bring it back? It’s tough to make the argument that riding around in a hot air balloon is a sport. We also would risk having to hear "99 Luftballons" every Olympiad.

But would the United States be good at it? We would do our best. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the current quality of U.S. hot air ballooning is lacking.

How could it be tweaked? Put an Olympic archer in each balloon to attack the competition.


From 1896 to 1906, and then in 1924 and 1932, rope climbing was part of the Olympic gymnastics program. Competitors climbed a 25-foot rope using only their hands. The best time won.

Why bring it back? It seems as practical, if not more so, as most other gymnastics disciplines. If you need to climb up a cliff or a tree, are you going to use a rope or try to vault yourself up there?

Why not bring it back? No tug-of-war, no rope climbing. Today’s IOC has something against rope. Let’s not push this too much. Clearly there are some deep-seated issues. Maybe some IOC members once accepted a bribe, only to open the briefcase and discover it was full of rope.

But would the United States be good at it? Yes. The American hand is strong thanks to playing video games and holding heavy sandwiches.

How could it be tweaked? Combine it with the hot air balloon competition and require ballooners to climb into their balloons. Call it the Obscuresportslon.


Held at the 1912 Games, dueling competitors shot from between 20 and 30 meters. Thankfully, they shot at dummies and not each other.

Why bring it back? Can’t think of a good reason.

Why not bring it back? In the 1912 competition, the bull's-eye was the dummy’s neck. Really.

But would the United States be good at it? No. Dueling, thankfully, went out of style here in the 1800s.

How could it be tweaked? Not do it.


Olympians shot at pigeons at the 1900 Olympics in Paris. We can assume that the person who killed the most won. Hooray for death!

Why bring it back? Some people really don’t like pigeons.

Why not bring it back? According to sports historian Andrew Strunk: "The idea to use live birds for the pigeon shooting turned out to be a rather unpleasant choice. Maimed birds were writhing on the ground, blood and feathers were swirling in the air and women with parasols were weeping in the chairs set up nearby." Any other stupid questions?

But would the United States be good at it? It’s not happening. Let it go.

How could it be tweaked? Force the Olympians to shoot rubber bands. Also, give the pigeons lasers.


A part of the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Games, solo synchronized swimming required a single swimmer to dance around in the water to music.

Why bring it back? I don’t know. It would make regular synchronized swimming seem less sad by comparison, maybe?

Why not bring it back? Let’s not encourage these things.

But would the United States be good at it? I hope not.

How could it be tweaked? At the end of the competition, take all of those involved to counseling.


Basque pelota is a variation of jai alai that was an official Olympic sport in 1900 and has been a demonstration sport three times since, including at the 1992 Games.

Why bring it back? Basque pelota is popular in Spain, France and Latin America, and jai alai is played in parts of the United States.

Why not bring it back? It was part of the 1900 Games in Paris that also included pigeon shooting and hot air ballooning (see above), as well as the following demonstration sports: firefighting, cannon shooting and kite flying. The 1900 Paris Games were so weird, maybe it’s best we don’t associate with them in any way.

But would the United States be good at it? Probably not. This is another great reason not to have it as an Olympic sport.

How could it be tweaked? Give it a more accessible name. Handball probably wouldn’t be in the Olympics if it were called La Pelota De Mano.


This weird, niche sport uses a small ball with seams, wooden bats and leather gloves and has endless and illogical rules. It was played officially from 1992 to 2008, but as early as 1912 as a demonstration sport.

Why bring it back? Beats me.

Why not bring it back? See the next category.

But would the United States be good at it? No. An international tournament called the World Baseball Classic was contested in 2006 and 2009 and Japan won both times. The Japanese must have invented the sport or something.

How could it be tweaked? Play American football instead. The United States would do pretty well at that.