11 Surprising Sports that Have Appeared in the Modern Olympic Games

The U.S. tug-of-war team at the 1908 London Olympics.
The U.S. tug-of-war team at the 1908 London Olympics. / Topical Press Agency/Stringer/Getty Images

In December 2020, the International Olympic Committee raised a few eyebrows when it announced that breakdancing would make its Olympic debut at Paris 2024. But it’s certainly not the first time an unexpected sport has appeared at the Olympic Games. Since the first modern Games in Athens in 1896, the Olympics have included everything from pistol dueling to croquet. If you think breakdancing is an odd choice, these 11 discontinued Olympic sports will put that into perspective.

1. Tug-of-War

Tug-of-war featured in the Olympics from 1900 to 1920. Countries could enter multiple “clubs” (teams), and could therefore win more than one medal in the same event. Both the United States and Britain did just that, winning gold, silver, and bronze in 1904 and 1908 respectively. It’s unlikely we’ll see tug-of-war return to the Olympics, unless the Tug of War International Federation manages to convince the Olympic Committee otherwise.

2. Club Swinging

Men's club swinging was a gymnastics event at the 1904 and 1932 Olympics. Competitors wielded an Indian club in each hand. They spun the clubs, which resembled long bowling pins, around their heads and bodies in a series of intricate movements. When the sport last appeared at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, there were only four participants.

3. Solo Synchronized Swimming

Synchronized swimming is usually thought of as a team sport, as the swimmers sync their movements not just with the music, but with each other. But solo synchronized swimming? That would seem a little contradictory. In this version of artistic swimming, solo swimmers just had to be in sync with their music. The event appeared at the 1984, 1988, and 1992 Games.

4. Rope Climbing

Rope climbing during the 1896 Olympics.
Rope climbing during the 1896 Olympics. / Bulgarian Archives State Agency, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Men's rope climbing was one of eight gymnastics events at the 1896 Olympics in Athens—modern history’s first international Olympic Games. The sport required some serious upper body strength: Competitors had to climb an unknotted, 46-foot-long (14 meters) rope with just their hands. Of the five competitors, just two reached the top. Rope climbing appeared four more times between 1904 and 1932, with the length of the rope ranging from around 26 feet (8 meters) to 33 feet (10 meters).

5. Pistol Dueling

Pistol dueling featured at the unofficial 1906 Intercalated Games held in Athens as a male-only event. The competitors shot at plaster dummies. Pistol dueling returned as a demonstration event at London’s 1908 Olympics, and this time the competitors actually fired at each other. No one died, though: The bullets were made of wax, and the dueling men wore protective coats and masks.

6. Obstacle Swimming

Frederick Lane took home the gold in this unusual Olympic event.
Frederick Lane took home the gold in this unusual Olympic event. / Le Sport universel illustré, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Obstacle swimming was another aquatic oddity featured in the 1900 Olympics in Paris. Swimmers had to navigate a 656-foot (200-meter) course in the Seine River. They first had to climb over a pole, then scramble over a row of boats, then swim beneath a different row of boats. The Australian swimmer Fred Lane won the event, beating the second-place swimmer by a mere two seconds.

7. Croquet

Croquet has appeared only once at the Olympics. As part of the 1900 Games, it was notable for featuring some of the first women to compete at the Olympics. The event, however, was a bit of a flop. All 10 competitors were French, and the sole spectator was an Englishman. Croquet never returned to the Olympics, but a variation on the game—called roque—featured in the 1904 Olympics in St Louis, Missouri.

8. Running Deer Shooting

Running deer shooting was in the Olympics from 1908 to 1924, and again in 1952 and 1956. Thankfully, it did not involve real deer. Instead, competitors shot at deer cutouts from a distance of around 330 feet (100 meters). The cutouts covered 246 feet (75 meters) in just four seconds. Each target moved in a concentric circle, with the one spinning around the smallest circle being worth the most points. The Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn, then 64 years old, won gold at the 1912 Games and became the oldest Olympic gold medalist of all time. He still holds the record today.

9. Plunge for Distance

The 1904 New York Athletic Club Olympic swim team, including the three plunging medalists.
The 1904 New York Athletic Club Olympic swim team, including the three plunging medalists. / New York Athletic Club, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The plunge for distance was a diving event at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. Competitors had to dive from a stationary position then glide underwater without making any additional movements for one minute. The person who traveled the farthest won. The event wasn’t too popular. One New York Times sports writer was particularly critical of the athleticism involved, describing it as “mere mountains of fat who fall in the water more or less successfully and depend upon inertia to get their points for them.”

10. Horse Long Jump

Just when you think the Paris Games of 1900 can’t get any stranger, along comes the horse long jump. Someone thought it would be a good idea to take the classic athletics event and do it on horseback, but it wasn’t a great success. A Belgian army officer named Constant van Langhendonck won the event with a jump of around 20 feet (6.10 meters). That same year, Alvin Kraenzlein won the regular men’s long jump with a jump of around 23.5 feet (7.18 meters)—more than a meter farther than the horse.

11. Live Pigeon Shooting

During the 1900 Games in Paris, more than 300 pigeons were shot and killed in the live pigeon shooting event. The pigeons were released from spring boxes stationed in the middle of a fenced ring. For someone to score a point, the bird they shot had to fall inside that ring. Competitors had to be a good shot: They were eliminated if they missed two birds in a row. It was a serious event, with a prize of 20,000 francs—about $120,000 in today’s money. It was the only time the event featured in the Olympics, and it’s safe to say it won’t be returning in the future.