Unusual Olympic Sports: Origins of Obstacle Swimming

The Latin motto of the Olympic Games, which Baron Pierre de Coubertin - known as the father of the Olympics - resurrected at Athens in 1896, is "citius, altius, fortius - communiter".


  • Wayne Peake

    Adjunct research fellow, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University

In English, this means "faster, higher, stronger - together".

The addition of "together" in 2021 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which oversees the games and decides who hosts them, is significant.

It demonstrates its more recent desire to be a progressive and inclusive organisation. In earlier years, many had accused it of being rigid, conservative, and Western oriented.

The original, shorter, motto summed up what the early modern summer games were about - identifying athletes who were self-evidently the best in their sports.

In 1896, except for gymnastics, disciplines requiring judges to award points to rank competitors were not included.

A brief history of Olympic sports

De Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games almost as an afterthought.

His first desire, inspired by a visit to Britain's Rugby school, was to encourage physical education in French schools.

It took seven years to organise the 1896 Games. Since then, the meeting, held every four years, has showcased the finest athletes in the world, competing in an ever-changing mix of competition.

The Olympic Games program consists of sports, disciplines, and events. For example, in 2000, Ian Thorpe won the 400 metres (the event) freestyle (the discipline) at the swimming competition (the sport).

These categories can be slightly tricky - while the decathlon is an event in the athletics program, the modern pentathlon is a sport.

The sports contested at those first modern Olympic Games - with the obvious exception of shooting - would have been familiar to the athletes who competed at the ancient Olympics, held at Olympia in Greece from 776 BCE until 393AD.

Notably absent at Olympia was swimming. Boxers wore not padded gloves, but leather straps studded with lead. Tough guys.

From the unusual to the bizarre

In the first decades of the modern games, organisers sometimes included events that were either weird variations of mainstream sports, or sports not often associated with Olympic competition.

At the 1900 Paris Olympics, Australian swimmer Fred Lane won a 200 metres obstacle event. Contestants scrambled over the first two obstacles (a pole and a row of boats) and swam under the third (another row of boats).

Cricket and croquet made one-off appearances at Paris 1900. A rugby union competition took place at the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Games.

Other discontinued sports include:

  • Jeu de paume, or real tennis (1908). The forerunner of modern tennis, jeu de paume players at first struck the ball with their hands, later a glove and finally a crude racquet. The enclosed court has a net but also sloping walls off which the ball may be bounced.

  • Lacrosse (1904, 1908). A ten-a-side team sport that resembles a combination of basketball, soccer and hockey. The racquet has a small net on one end, in which the ball is carried and hurled towards a goal.

  • Motor boating (1908). Contested at the 1908 London games in eight metres, under 60-foot and open class races, each over 40 nautical miles. Remarkably in each race there were two starters and only the winners reached the finish.

  • Pelota basque (1900). A team sport that resembles jeu de paume but the ball is caught in, and hurled from, a large, banana-shaped scoop. Pelota basque was also an exhibition sport in 1968 and 1992.

  • Polo (1900, 1908, 1920, 1924, 1936). Olympic polo competitions were held only in countries where the sport had an established following.

  • Rackets (1908). The forerunner of the sport of squash where all four walls are in play. Although often associated with England's public schools, the game originated in that nation's prisons.

  • Softball (1996 to 2008). Softball suffered the same fate as its big brother, baseball, though both made a possibly temporary return in 2021.

  • Tug-of-war (1900 to 1920). Teams contested tug-of-war competitions at each Games from 1900 until 1920. The objective was to pull the opposition more than six feet. If there was no decision within five minutes, the team which had made the most ground was the victor.

A gold medal for experimentation

The IOC is never shy in experimenting with its mix of sports and events.

Some popular sports made early Olympic debuts, were dropped, then revived decades later.

For example, golfers competed at the 1900 Paris and 1904 St Louis games but then remained in the clubhouse until Rio in 2016.

Winners at tennis jumped the nets in celebration from 1896 to 1924 then sat it out until 1988.

Baseball made six appearances as an exhibition sport before its inclusion for full medal competition at Barcelona 1992. It struck out after Beijing 2008.

And sometimes, big-time sports are discontinued because the best players had become pros or were prevented from competing by their ruling bodies.

In more modern times, the IOC continues to add new events.

The Tokyo games in 2020 showcased 33 sports - the most in Olympic history - including Olympic debuts for sports such as sport climbing, skateboarding, surfing and karate, and events like BMX freestyle and 3x3 basketball.

Next up, breaking - better known to most of us as breakdancing - makes its debut in Paris.

The Conversation

Wayne Peake does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).