The 10 Strangest Events in Olympic Games History

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Games have just come to an end. And despite Great Britain only picking up two medals, it was a great opportunity to watch brilliant athletes do extraordinary things, and enjoy some of the fantastic and sometimes obscure sports rarely seen on TV. Like the biathlon, which requires an athlete to shoot a rifle—on skis!

Let’s face it, the Olympics is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet. From athletics to swimming, cycling to football, all the most popular sports are covered. And some more niche ones too. 

The International Olympic Committee raised a few eyebrows when skateboarding was added to the Tokyo Games. As well as when it introduced breakdancing as an additional sport for Paris 2024. But did you know poodle clipping was once an Olympic event? Yes that’s right – we were surprised too! But there are also plenty of other utterly weird and wonderful events that were once part of the Olympic Games. Let’s take a look at the 10 strangest events that have been part of the Olympics.

10. Swimming obstacle race

Maybe the oddest year for the Olympics was 1900 when the games were held in Paris. They coincided with Paris’ hosting of the World’s Fair and several weird and wonderful ‘trial events’ were included in the programme, including the 200m swimming obstacle race. Swimmers had to conquer three obstacles, including climbing up a pole, clambering over a row of boats and swimming under another row of boats. The bizarre event took place in the Seine, and was won by Australian Fred Lane.

9. Pistol duelling

Pistol duelling was a short-lived sport at the start of the 20th century, being featured in the 1906 Intercalated Games and 1908 Olympics. The men taking part had to fire at mannequins from 20m and 30m, dressed in frock coats with targets painted on their chests. They were protected by heavy clothing and a metal mask with goggles. Their pistols were modified with a hand-guard to protect their fingers and they fired wax bullets instead of lead. No gunpowder was used in the pistols in order to reduce the velocity of the ball of wax. Teams were sent by countries including France, the UK, and the USA, with the French team taking home the gold in the 20-metre event.  

8. Solo synchronised swimming

OK, so synchronised swimming is a bit of a strange sport anyway. But surely one of the key parts of the event is to have multiple participants performing in unison? So how did solo synchronised swimming ever become an Olympic sport? The event’s supporters claim that the synchronisation part was with the music and it made its initial splash at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It then reappeared in both the 1988 and 1992 games. And from there, the swim competition changed into a team sport – though men are still not allowed to compete in the event. 

7. Hot air ballooning

Multicoloured hot air balloons in a blue sky
Credit: Jesse Gardner

Technically a demonstration event and not an official sport, hot air ballooning was another obscure spectacle held at the 1900 Olympic Games in Paris. Competitors were judged and they earned points on distance, duration and elevation. The aeronautical pioneer Henry de La Vaulx set two world records for distance and duration piloting a balloon flight. 

6. Club swinging

This event appeared twice at the Olympic Games, in 1904 and 1932. Club swinging involved competitors standing with a bowling pin-like club in each hand, and whirling them around the body quickly in a variety of patterns. Judges awarded points based on the routine. And it can be seen as a precursor to the modern Olympic Rhythmic Gymnastics discipline, which joined the programme at the LA games in 1984. 

5. Tug-of-War

You may remember playing tug-of-war in the school playground? But this team sport was actually part of the Olympic events programme until 1920. This was another one that made its debut in Paris in 1900, and it was a popular event with eight-man teams pitted against each other. Often made up with competitors from different countries, teams had to pull their opponents six feet to win (or make the most progress within five minutes). The British team was made up of mostly police officers and was actually one of the strongest, winning two gold medals and one silver.

4. Firefighting

Another trial event at the 1900 Paris games, firefighting (unsurprisingly) didn’t make it to 1904. Not much is known about the event, but buildings in Paris were set on fire and medals were awarded to the firefighters who extinguished the flames and performed rescues the fastest. Competitions were held for both professional and volunteer firefighters. And Great Britain (Leyton) won a silver medal in the volunteer category. There were just two professional teams – Italy (Milan) and United States (Kansas City) – won by Kansas City of the USA and “its famous engine and hook and ladder company No.1”. France chose not to compete in the event. 

3. Live pigeon shooting

The 1900 games in Paris hosted possibly the most barbaric event in Olympic Games history. The object of the ‘sport’, as you may have guessed, was to kill as many pigeons as possible – with participants being eliminated if they missed two in a row. The official report of the Games described this sport as “très aristocratique” (very aristocratic). But fortunately this was the first and only time in Olympic history when animals were killed on purpose. Though the event is not listed in official IOC medal records. After the 1900 games, the pigeons were replaced with clay targets.

2. Poodle clipping

A white curly haired poodle
Credit: NordWood Themes

You guessed it, another Paris 1900 event! This was, admittedly, only a test event, so it didn’t have full Olympic status. And, shockingly, it didn’t make the cut. It involved 128 competitors performing in front of a crowd of 6,000 in the Bois De Boulogne park, where they had to clip the fur off as many poodles as they could in two hours. The gold medal was awarded to Avril Lafoule, with a total of 17 clipped poodles.

1. Town planning

The most obscure event on our list, believe it or not, has to be architecture. And specifically, town planning. Yes, this profession was once an Olympic sport. International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin, a historian with a love for ancient Greece, considered art an essential part of the competition. In 1912, he finally succeeded in his efforts to include art categories in the games. And surprisingly, this event featured at four games between 1928 and 1948. Architects would battle it out for a medal in the arts portion of the Olympics, showcasing their plans for buildings. In addition to architecture, Coubertin believed the Olympic Games should include gold, silver and bronze medals for literature, music, painting and sculpture.

So, there you have it! The 10 strangest events in Olympic Games history. If you could compete in an Olympic event, what would it be?

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