The Olympics have always been home to the most popular athletic events in the world, but there are usually a few head-scratchers too. Maybe you have no idea how a certain sport works, or maybe you can’t figure out why it’s in the Olympics in the first place. Whatever the case, here are some of the weirder events in the 2016 summer games, how they work and when to try and watch them.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Race walking is the world’s greatest race that doesn’t look like a race, but more like a group of people trying to beat each other to the bathroom. It’s been in the Olympics since 1904, starting out as a 800m walk that has since grown to be a 20km race for men and women, and a 50km race that’s only for men. The sport itself originated from pedestrianism, a British competitive walking sport that was popular in the mid to late 19th century.
So what makes it race walking and not just long distance running? Athletes must have one foot in contact with the ground at all times, and race judges watch competitors during the event to make sure nobody breaks into a full jog. You can watch the men’s 20km walk on Saturday, August 13, and see the the women’s 20km and men’s 50km on Friday, August 19 and Saturday, August 20.
Dressage is, in essence, horse dancing. But make no mistake, the event requires just as much training and athleticism as any other Olympic-level competition — both for the horse and the rider (those who say otherwise have probably never ridden a horse). In French, dressage literally means “training”, and that’s what’s truly being tested during the competition. As the International Federation of Equestrian Sports puts it, dressage is the “highest expression of horse training”.
During a dressage routine, judges watch how smoothly a horse is able to perform prescribed tests, or movements, and watch the rider to make sure they appear relaxed. Basically, the goal is to make it look like the horse is doing everything on its own because you trained it so well. Regardless of what the assigned moves are, competitors can earn a score from zero to 10 from each judge. Pro tip: Scoring all sixes is actually pretty good and competitors with those marks tend to move on to the next round. Scoring nines means the routine was exceptional.
If you want to see some finely dressed folks riding a dancing horse (you know you do), you can catch dressage on August 10, 11 and 12, then see the finals on Monday, August 15.
Modern pentathlon is the most bizarre and intense of all the Olympic events, and it’s been around since 1912. It consists of five different events that are already Olympic events on their own: Fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, a 3200m run and pistol shooting. This year, all of these events take place over three days, but they have had them all take place in one day in the past. According to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, the pentathlon is modelled after the skills a 19th-century cavalry soldier would need behind enemy lines.
Despite the fact that athletes are all competing at the same time, they don’t compete directly with each other in each event. Instead, each athlete earns points based on their performance in each event throughout the day and have them combined at the end to determine an overall winner. Fencing (épée, not foil or sabre) is the exception, of course, because you have to fence against somebody. And pistol shooting and the 3200m run have been a combined event a la the biathlon in the Winter Olympics since 2009.
It will take you several days to watch it all unfold, but you can see the glory of the modern pentathlon for yourself starting Thursday, August 18, through Sunday, August 21.
Why run around a boring ol’ track when you can add some crazy obstacles like fences and pools to the mix? Enter the steeplechase. It originated in Ireland as a horse race, where riders would go from one town’s steeple to the next jumping over streams and the stone walls that commonly separated estates at the time. Over the years, people got tired of letting horses have all the fun, so it became an athletic event that’s been in the Olympics since its modern conception in 1896.
The race is 3000m long, and has 28 barriers to jump over — seven of which are jumps into pools of knee-deep water. Competitors’ shoes get wet and slippery, people trip over barriers and it’s not uncommon to see someone faceplant into a pool of water. Knowing that makes watching the race a lot fun. This year it takes place on August 13, 15, 16 and 18.
Trampolining is part acrobatics and part, well, jumping on a trampoline. As an adult, watching trampolinists at the Olympics is like watching that older neighbour kid who had a trampoline do crazy flips. It’s awesome looking, and it makes you want to jump on a trampoline too. The sport was added to the Olympic gymnastics events in the 2000 games and has stuck around ever since.
In competition, trampolining routines are filled with twists, rotations, shapes (forms the body takes during hang time in the air) and landing positions. Competitors can land on their feet, seat, front or back during a routine, but a routine must always start and finish on the feet. Once a competitor presents themselves to the judges, they have 60 seconds to jump and gain some momentum before they must start their routines. At the end of their routine, they get one “out bounce” to regain control before they have to stick the landing, holding still until the trampoline bed stops moving and for at least three seconds.
Handball isn’t all that weird for most of the world, and it’s been in the Olympics since 1972, but its lack of popularity in Australia makes it a bit of an enigma for Australians. It’s a team sport where two teams of seven players pass a ball around with their hands and try to throw the ball in the other team’s goal. The simplest explanation is “soccer with your hands,” and it’s the closest you’ll get to Olympic Quidditch sans the brooms.
As explained by the International Handball Association, each team has a goalkeeper and six field players who play on a court that’s 40m x 20m. The goalkeeper resides in a zone near the goal where nobody else is allowed to enter. Unless, of course, a field player is willing to jump from outside that zone into the goal to score. Otherwise points are more often scored by passing the ball around and throwing the ball into the goal. Once a player receives the ball, they can either pass it to another teammate, take up to three steps to move, or dribble it like a basketball to move more. Matches have two periods of 30 minutes, and whoever scores the most goals wins. Best of all, body contact is allowed, so it’s a lot of fun to watch. Players can’t intentionally direct their contact at the opponent (like pushing, hitting, or tripping), but just about any contact going for the ball from the frontside of the opponent is allowed and it gets pretty messy.
If you want to watch the best sport you probably don’t know about, it’s going on almost every day at this year’s games. Both men and women’s handball have kicked off, but there are games on every day through the end of the Olympics on August 22.
Water polo is quite similar to handball, but it’s in the water and players get to wear cool hats. As in handball, two teams of seven — one goalkeeper and six field players — attempt to score points by throwing a ball (that floats) into their opponent’s goal. Games consist of four quarters and are played in pools that are 1.8m deep all the way across. While nobody can say for certain, the game is thought to have originated in Scotland around the late 19th century as a type of “water rugby”. Like handball, water polo is a contact sport, so things can get pretty physical. To get around, players have to swim and keep themselves afloat with eggbeater kicks, and players can only use a single hand to do all throwing and catching.
Water Polo is going on right now through August 21, and — also like handball — you can find a game on almost every day.
Formerly known as whitewater slalom, canoe/kayak slalom involves navigating a course of river rapids as fast as possible. Similar to the winter event ski slalom, competitors have to go through marked gates hanging from a wire strung across the river as they paddle along. The event has been part of the Olympics since 1992.
Each course has anywhere from 18 to 25 gates, and some of them have to be upstream gates, or gates that can only be passed through by navigating to an “eddy” where water is flat or slightly moving upstream. Green gates are downstream gates, and red are upstream. If the competitor’s boat, paddle or body touches a gate, they receive a time penalty of two seconds added to their run. If a competitor messes up really badly, like going through a gate backwards or missing one completely, they get a penalty of 50 seconds. Most runs last around two minutes, assuming there were no penalties, and each competitor gets two runs per heat to try and get the best time they can.
Canoe/kayak slalom is intense and a lot of fun to watch. These events have already started, but you can catch the rest of the canoe/kayak events through Thursday, August 12 and Friday, August 12.
You know what sounds fun? Grabbing something heavy and seeing who can throw it the farthest. The hammer throw is odd-looking, dangerous and super fun to watch. The sport originally dates back to the 15th century, has been absorbed into the super hardcore Scottish Highland games, and it’s one of the oldest official Olympic events in existence, debuting in 1900.
The hammers the athletes throw are actually hammer weights, with the men’s hammer coming in at 7kg and the women’s at 4kg. To throw the hammer, competitors swing the weight on a cord twice while stationary, then make four or five full-body rotations before releasing the weight into the air. Strength is essential for the hammer throw, but the speed an athlete can build up when spinning is just as important when it comes to gaining distance. Winning is plain and simple: Whoever throws it the farthest wins.
You can see the women’s hammer throw competition on Saturday, August 13, and Monday, August 15. You can watch the men’s competition on Wednesday, August 17, and Saturday, August 20.
You’ve heard of synchronised swimming before, either because of past Olympics or pop culture jokes, but there’s a good chance you don’t know how it works. To the untrained eye, synchronised swimming just looks like people twirling around in a pool. Dancing or “synchronising” a routine to music is certainly part of it — the sport was called “water ballet” originally — but it’s also a mix of complicated swimming and gymnastics manoeuvres that require the athletes to be in excellent shape and hold their breath underwater for long stretches of time. Most importantly, swimmers can never use the bottom of the pool for support, and have to use sculling motions and eggbeater kicks to stay afloat — even when lifting or tossing teammates out of the water.
According to Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), the event’s governing body, competitions consist of a technical routine and free routine, each lasting about two and a half to five minutes each. The technical routine contains predetermined elements that every team must perform in a specific order. The free routine is where teams get to choreograph their own moves and be more creative. Each routine is scored on a scale of 100, and judged on their technical skills, difficulty, patterns, artistic impression, execution and, of course, synchronisation.
Synchronised swimming can be done in teams or solo, but solo synchronised swimming was only an Olympic event from 1984 to 1992. This Olympics, you can catch the women’s duet competition August 15 through 17, and the women’s team competition August 19 and 20.