August 7, 2008

The Alternative History Olympics

My favorite part of David Wallechinsky's quadrennially indispensable The Complete Book of the Olympics are the discontinued sports and events, such as Motor Boating (1908 London games), Tug of War (1900-1920), Croquet (1900 Paris) and Jeu de Paume (or real tennis, which was won in Paris in 1900 by robber barron Jay Gould's son Jay Jr.).

The 1900 Paris Olympics went on intermittently over a five month stretch during the World's Fair to such little local interest that some athletes didn't realize they were competing in the Olympics. An American socialite girl won the gold medal in Ladies' Golf in Paris in 1900, shooting 47 for nine holes, but died in 1955 before learning that the little tournament had been an Olympic event and she was an Olympic Gold Medal winner.

Cricket's entire Olympic history consists of a single match in Paris in 1900 between Great Britain and France (a team recruited from the British Embassy in Paris). A French magazine explained, "Cricket is ... a sport which appears monotonous and without color to the uninitiated." A British observer reported, "We found the French temperament is too excitable to enjoy the game and no Frenchman can be persuaded to play more than once."

Discontinued track and field events include the Stone Throw (1906 "intercalated" Athens games), Javelin (Both Hands) (1912 Stockholm -- I don't know if this means they summed up your best throws with both your left and right hands, or if you were supposed to heave it two handed ... or did they throw javelins with each hand simultaneously?), and Triathlon (1904 St. Louis -- a combination of track and field and gymnastics).

American Raymond Ewry is the Carl Lewis of the Alternative History Olympics, winning ten track and field gold medals from 1900 to 1908 (including two in the now-forgotten 1906 Athens Olympics) in no-longer-existent events: Standing High Jump, Standing Long Jump, and Standing Triple Jump.

Gymnastics once had Rope Climbing and Club Swinging, Shooting had Dueling Pistol and (by popular demand among commenters) Live Pigeon Shooting, and Swimming featured the 200 Meter Obstacle Race.

My favorite of all the NLE swimming events is the Plunge for Distance, won by William Dickey of the USA at the 1904 Olympics by diving in the pool and not taking a breath and not taking a stroke until he had glided 62.5 feet. I've always had a feeling that if this event were both still around through sheer bureaucratic inertia and yet still unpopular and not very competitive, that I could have won an Olympic Gold Medal in it. Granted, I've never actually measured how far I could plunge, but I've always had a knack for floating face down.

I've sometimes dreamed that I had won an Olympic Gold Medal at some point in the past. When challenged in my dream about this unlikely accomplishment, I've tried to parry, "Yes, it was once a part of my life, but I choose not to talk about it much these days." When grilled on exactly which event I could ever have won, I usually come up eventually with "Plunge for Distance at the 1984 LA Games -- you probably don't remember it because it wasn't on TV." My dream interlocutors go away, grumbling, but unable to prove me wrong.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Giftex Blog said...

Nice post. Btw did u know that the ancient Olympics captured the imaginations of the Greeks for more than a millennium until a Christianized Rome put a stop on the competitions in the fourth century AD. But the Olympic ideal did not die. Anyways which country do u think shall win the maximum gold medals?

John of London said...

When I was at an English grammar school in the 1950s the plunge was part of the swimming sports. We had no idea it had ever been an Olympic event . I assumed it was unique to that school, made up by the masters to give the less energetic boys saomething to do. I won actually (I think). There's athletic glory for you.

michael farris said...

Plunge for distance is pretty cool. I also have a fondness for Special Figures:

This (Japanese) site even gives diagrams of the figures skated in 1908.

halfbreed said...

What's always evoked a sense of wonder in me is the fact that while the modern Olympics have now spanned 112 years, the ancient Olympics of Greece spanned 1176 years. And while the modern Olympics have been cancelled for world wars and have also been boycotted for political reasons, the ancient Greeks actually brought a temporary halt to their wars in order to stage the Olympics.

rob said...

The first comment, 'giftex blog' looks like comment spam

malcolm said...

one sport that should come back: rugby - I used to argue that it was the only truly amateur sport left but that's no longer true...
Incidently it was played twice and America - yes USA - won twice...

another comment: I remember 1976 olympics: dwight stones told he oculd not wear his lucky sweatshirt because it had a mickey mouse symbol - which was a corporate identity logo - fast forward to 1996 atlana - a woman swimmer is threatened with LOSING her gold medal if she did NOT wear the Nike logo jersey at the awards, as stipulated in her contract.

We've come a long way, where we've arrived at, I just don't know.

Brian J. said...

Excellent post!!

neil craig said...

But no modern national leader ever won anything the way Nero did in the ancient Olympics.

I liked your listing of cancelled events. I think tug of war would make a pretty interesting event.

Lucius Vorenus said...

The world really did seem to be a more peaceful, gentle, better place, back in the days before August 1914.

The Olympic heroes were certainly larger than life.

Duke Kahanamoku won gold in 1912 & 1920, and then carried on a torrid love affair with the famous society girl, Doris Duke - she would build her Hawaiian mansion, Shangri La, in Waikiki. [And I suspect that Duke Kahanamoku might have "shared" Doris with his younger brother, Sam Kahanamoku, who himself won bronze in 1924.]

Jim Thorpe won gold in 1912, then went on to make the 1920's all-decade team in the NFL [playing until he was 40 years old, in 1928].

Grace Kelly's father, John Brendan "Jack" Kelly, won gold in 1920 & 1924.

Of course Johnny Weissmuller won gold in 1924 & 1928, and then went on to make a gazillion Tarzan movies, well into his 40's - many of them with Mia Farrow's mother, Maureen O'Sullivan.

BTW, some of those old Weissmuller/Sullivan Tarzan flicks have really gorgeous cinematography in them.

And speaking of gorgeous cinematography - Esther Williams won the AAU national championship in the 100m freestyle, in 1939, and might very well have medalled [or even won gold] in 1940, but, of course, the Olympics were cancelled that year.

Born Again Democrat said...

I say reinstitute the tug of war! How many on a side?

Ross said...

"Javelin (Both Hands)"

How would that work, would you hold the javelin with both hands then spin around like a discuss thrower?

My favourite discontinued event is the live pigeon shooting which was abandoned after a rather bloody Antwerp olympics.

Anonymous said...

Rugby also has an interesting Olympic history. Rugby was last played at the 1924 Olympic games. The US American team, composed of football players, beat the French team: 17 -3. What happened next? Wait for it...wait for it...the French rioted - beat up American spectators, maybe some of the players. Anyway, that was the end of Ruby as an Olympic sport.

Muswell Hillbilly said...


The Olympics for the Greeks were primarily religious festivals. It would be like us canceling Christmas or Easter.

Also, while the games went on with impressive regularity, there were times where certain cities boycotted or were banished.

Mitchell Young said...

Here's a really cool event from a really great website on 'alternative olympics'

John Carr said...

Didn't Paris 1900 have LIVE pigeon shooting?

Reg Cæsar said...

Isn't baseball now among the discontinued?

If so, blame Olympic baseball itself, for putting its worst foot forward.

At Barcelona, I made the wrong connection on suburban-bound trains not once, but twice, and got to the stadium 2 1/2 hours late, cursing myself for having missed the game.

Except I didn't. Not even half of it! The turtle-paced play in 96º heat lasted over four hours-- for seven innings! At least the spectators were in the shade, which wasn't true at the other baseball park they used.

Reg Cæsar said...

Anyways which country do u think shall win the maximum gold medals?

Shame on you, Giftex Blox. That sort of speculation is officially discouraged, and for good reason. No one "wins" the Olympics.

(Least of all the local taxpayer!)

Sideways said...

I liked your listing of cancelled events. I think tug of war would make a pretty interesting event.

I wonder what horrible injuries would happen if you had, say, 10 strongmen per side straining their muscles in a tug of war.

Danindc said...

The both-handed javelin was discontinued after ten spectators were killed by errant was a bloodbath.

Plunge for distance is now my second favorite sport after football...they need to bring it back

Yvan Ung said...

I dreamed that I won the gold in Beijing 2008's "Plunge for Distance" by default because even the Chinese team was disqualified because their competitors propelled themselves in water.

For the record, the two-handed throwing events were more like that they were allocated three throws with one hand and another three throws with the other hand and they summed the best throws of each hand.