In 120 years, the modern Olympics has seen many sports come and go. Here are 8 discontinued Olympic sporting events.
1. JEAU DE PALM (aka: REAL TENNIS)
Jeau de Palm, the ‘Palm Game’, is a French sport that was one of the precursors to modern tennis. It features a net, with players on either side hitting a ball to and fro, originally they did this with their hands, which provided the name. Small racquets were introduced in the 16th century.
The sport was also known as ‘Tenez’, and was played indoors; players could hit the ball when it bounced off the walls.
Jeau de Palm was popular in England and France, and was a favourite pursuit of the upper classes; Henry VIII was an enthusiastic player. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, disgruntled members of the Estates General swore their famous ‘Tennis Court Oath’, committing them to constitutional change, on an indoor Jeau de Palm court, attached to the palace at Versailles.
When an outdoor version of the game evolved, in the 19th century, this was originally known as ‘Lawn Tennis’. Jeau de Palm was then re-named ‘Real Tennis’, to differentiate the two. Lawn Tennis would quickly usurp the older version of the game, as the more popular.
Jeau de Palm appeared at the Olympics only once, at London in 1908. The event was held at the Queen’s Club, where a famous precursor to Wimbledon is held each year. Jay Gould, of the United States, was the sports only gold medallist.
2. CROQUET and ROQUE
Croquet is a sport with a mysterious history. The first written references to it are found in England, in the 1850s, but sports historians think the game is much older and originated in France. However it crossed the channel, it caught on like wildfire; by the 1860s, only a decade later, it was one of the most popular past times in Great Britain.
English immigrants took the game to the United States in the 1880s, and a local variation then evolved. Played on a hard flat surface (rather than grass), the American version added some elements of billiards; players could more easily apply ‘spin’ to the ball, and bounce their shots off a featured boundary wall.
They called their spin off sport ‘Roque’, which is croquet without the ‘C’ and ‘t’.
Both sports only made one appearance at the games: Croquet at Paris in 1900, the Americans replaced this with Roque when they hosted for the first time, at St Louis in 1904.
As games go, it doesn’t get much simpler than the tug-of-war; two teams on opposite ends of a rope, trying to pull the other towards them.
The roots of this activity are very old; under a different name it was recorded in both ancient Greece and China. 2500 years ago, in the Tang dynasty, huge tug of war contests were staged as part of military training; ropes longer than 150 metres, with 500 warriors on each side. It was also included as an event in the original Olympics, held in ancient Greece.
In the modern era, tug-of-war was included in five Olympics, from 1900 to 1920. Teams of 8 competed, the winner being the first to drag their opponents six feet. Many of the teams entered had members derived from the same local club; tug-of-war associations were popular at the beginning of the 20th century.
There was controversy in the event at the 1908 games. One of the British teams, taken from the City of London Police club, were accused of wearing oversize, weighted shoes, to make them harder to pull forwards. The protest was eventually dismissed, and they won the gold medal.
‘Popinjay’ is an archery event with its roots in Medieval Europe. Also known as ‘Pole Archery’, it involves competitors shooting bird shaped targets down from a tall, vertical pole. At one time, it was a popular part of fetes and local sporting carnivals.
In the modern era, its popularity has declined, although the tradition continues in some areas; Popinjay was particularly popular in Belgium, into the 20th century. It made two appearances at the Olympics, in 1900 and 1920. At the second of these, all of the entrants were Belgian, meaning they won all of the available medals.
A similar discontinued Olympic sport was the shooting event ‘Running Deer’, where competitors shot at deer shaped targets over a distance of 100 metres. This proved a little more enduring, featuring at the games between 1908 and 1948.
5. MOTOR BOATING
Motor boats were invented in the 1880s, as the internal combustion engine became smaller and more durable. The first known motor boat was built by Priestman Brothers, an engineering firm, in Hull, England, in 1888. They went on sale to the public in 1890, and were originally used to move freight along England’s network of canals.
As the boats became faster, they caught on as a leisure activity. The first motorboat race, the Harmsworth Cup, was held in Cork Harbour, Ireland in 1903. The subsequent popularity of the sport lead to them being added to the London Olympics, in 1908.
But this was not a successful addition.
Racing was held off the coast of Southampton, but was sufficiently far offshore that spectating was almost impossible. Not there was much to see: while motor boats had improved, their top speed was around 19 mph, making for a lacklustre spectacle. Bad weather also caused 6 of the 9 scheduled events to be cancelled; fittingly, England won gold in two of the three events that were held.
6. SWIMMING OBSTACLE RACE
For the 1900 Paris Olympics, the organisers came up with a novel event for the swimming program: an obstacle race.
Held in the Seine, the competitors not only had to cover 200 metres, but also deal with three obstacles: a submerged pole, and two rows of boats. The first set of boats had to be clambered over, and the second dived under.
The event was won by an Australian: Frederick Lane, a champion swimmer from Manly, who was the first Australian to compete in swimming events at the Olympics.
At a time when the Olympics were only for amateur athletes, and government support for sport was non-existent, Lane had made his own way to the games. Previously, he had been living in London, working as a legal clerk and swimming in amateur race meets.
As well as becoming the Olympics only Obstacle Race champion, Lane also won the 200 metres freestyle. Both events were held within 45 minutes of each other.
7. SOLO SYNCHRONISED SWIMMING
But it is not only the early Olympic Games that provide discontinued events. A more recent example also comes from the pool, in the shape of ‘Solo Synchronised Swimming’.
At first, the event name seems to be an oxy-moron; if it is a solo event, what is the athlete synchronising against? In the 80s and 90s, there were a lot of jokes. But similar to gymnastics, competitors in this event are being judged on their technical excellence, graded against a standardised set of moves and positions.
As a sport, solo synchronised swimming had to serve a long apprenticeship; it first appeared as a demonstration event at Helsinki in 1952, where Kay Curtis performed solo.
It did not become an official part of the program until 1984, and was part of the next three Olympics, before being discontinued in 1996.
The modern Olympics were the brainchild of Pierre de Coubertin, an aristocratic French academic with a passion for sport and history. De Coubertin was the founder of International Olympic Committee, organiser of the games, and the driving force behind their resumption, in 1896.
But de Coubertin envisaged something more than just a sporting event.
He saw the Olympics as an avenue for competition but also cultural exchange, promoting peace and cooperation between different nations. One of his passion projects, to further these goals, was an art competition.
Debuting at the games in Stockholm, in 1912, art at the Olympics included five events: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture. Medals were awarded in each category, the entries required to have a sports theme.
Among the winners at the first Olympic Art event: Pierre de Coubertin. Under the pseudonym Georges Hohrod and Martin Eschbach (he used two names), de Coubertin won a gold medal in literature for his poem, ‘Ode to Sport’.
‘O Sport, delight of the Gods, distillation of lift!
In the grey dingle of modern existence, restless with barren toil, you suddenly appeared like the shining messenger of vanished ages, those ages when humanity could smile.
And to the mountain tops came dawn’s first glimmer, and sunbeams dappled the forest’s gloomy floor.’
– Pierre de Coubertin, opening stanza of ‘Ode to Sport’
While there has been some debate as to whether the judges knew the entry was from de Coubertin, and so gamed the contest in his favour, it was publicly stated the win was legitimate, and de Coubertin was very proud of his medal.
The Olympic Arts event was held at each games until 1948, and several competitors were able to win both sporting and artistic medals. Germany was the most successful artistic nation, winning 7 gold medals, and 23 overall.
The event was replaced after that with a parallel cultural event, celebrating the art of the attending nations, held in conjunction with the games.
A full list of discontinued Olympic sports and events can be found here.