Golf, rugby and baseball jostle for places at the Olympic table
Saturday 30 November 2002
By this morning we will know if the International Olympic Committee's innately cautious rank and file has resisted calls to drop the first sport from the summer Games since polo galloped off into the sunset in 1936. Golf and rugby – let themselves be left out of the Olympics after 1904 and 1924 respectively – are the two mass participation events waiting impatiently for a recall. But first, someone has to make way, and baseball, softball and modern pentathlon were the three threatened activities pleading their case at this week's IOC session in Mexico.
The case against the latter three sports is based on their lack of global participation – although, on that basis, there should be a fervent lobby on angling's behalf. Haven't noticed it so far.
Since the modern Games began in 1896, 11 sports have disappeared from the Olympic schedule – apart from golf and rugby, they are croquet, cricket, Jeu de Paume (a form of real tennis), pelota, polo, rackets, tug-of-war, lacrosse and, following one tantalising outing at the 1908 Games in London, motor boating.
It was only natural that Britain, for whom Stephanie Cook and Kate Allenby won gold and bronze in the Sydney Games modern pentathlon, should feel aggrieved over the threat to an activity which also yielded British gold in the 1976 men's team event.
As Cook points out, the Olympics should be a sporting pinnacle, and while this is the case for her discipline, golf and rugby, for example, have more important events outside the Games. Then again, they do say that the baseball World Series is quite a big event.
It takes a lot for a sport to be jettisoned from De Coubertin's quadrennial bunfight. But speaking in Mexico this week, the IOC president Jacques Rogge maintained that whatever the result of the vote, the re-examination of the Olympic programme would have been worthwhile in that it had already encouraged sports to reconsider their formats. It is inevitable that some sports will be tinkered with to reduce the bulk of the Games, with badminton, rowing, canoeing, yachting and synchronised swimming being the most likely contenders for alteration.
If and when those changes come to pass, these sports will find themselves in colourful company, as David Wallechinsky's wondrous Complete Book of the Olympics makes clear. Come with me now as we survey Olympic rejects of times past...
Canoeing has already seen a number of its events discontinued, including, perhaps thankfully, the 10,000 metres race for the folding Kayak. Rowing has also lost competitions in several categories, including the 17-man Naval Rowing Boats, and the pair-oared shell will coxswain, the inaugural running of which at the Paris games of 1900 saw the Dutch winners enlist the help of a passing lad. Sadly, the temporary coxswain returned to the streets of Paris without leaving his name or age. Thus, the official result credits the gold medal jointly to François Antoine Brandt, Roelof Klein and "unknown French boy''.
It seems a pity, but the modern games no longer features the long jump for horses, last contested in 1900, when the winner managed a quarter of an inch over 20 feet. In the same year, another strangely willing equine competitor managed to clear six foot in the high jump – obviously, this was before the days of the Fosbury Flop.
Over the years, the Olympics have also lost the delights of rope climbing, which formed part of the first gymnastics programme in Athens 106 years ago, when the only ones to make it to the top were two Greeks (by 1932 they had shortened the rope from 45ft to 26ft, and lots of people could climb it. But it still wasn't gripping).
Home hopes were also to the fore in the swimming at the Athens Games, most notably in the 100 metres freestyle for sailors. "This rather specialised event,'' Wallechinsky notes, was limited to members of the Greek navy.
No suggestions of home bias muddied the waters in Paris four years later when the one and only Olympic 200 metres obstacle race – requiring competitors to climb over a pole, scramble across a row of boats and then swim under another row of boats – was won by an Australian. This event, you will recall, was revived some years later as part of It's A Knock Out.
Dullness may have caused the demise of the Plain High Diving competition – no twists or somersaults allowed – but we can only hope that it was not the ugly, rearing head of Olympic corruption which caused the Swedish System-Team to be dropped from the gymnastics programme after its second appearance in 1920. The event was won on both occasions by the team from Sweden.
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