Blades of glory: The sports with true Olympic spirit

Forget the 100m sprint – the essence of the modern Olympiad is found in the dozens of lesser-watched sports on the Beijing programme, each offering the viewer its own idiosyncratic pleasures. Here, Independent writers put the case for their favourite events
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Foil fencing by Susie Rushton

At the age of 29, I did something I never thought I'd do. I bought a sword – a sliver of flexible steel called a foil, 90cm long with a blob of black rubber on the tip. I'd been attending a fencing class for six months, and this was my financial commitment to a sport I'd begun on a whim.

To test how the foil felt, I dropped into an en guard stance, exactly as I'd been taught, in the middle of the store: right foot pointing forward, left at 90 degrees, knees bent, straight back, head erect, left arm raised as a counterbalance to the sword arm, which, foil in hand, now practised jabbing attacks. It was the most thrilling purchase I've ever made.

Why fencing? It wasn't anything to do with Madonna, Luke Skywalker or Errol Flynn, nor was it out of nostalgia for the age of duelling – although fencing undoubtedly suffers its share of pretentious idiots. And no, we never say "touché" when making a hit on target (which, by the way, is the torso area, excluding arms and neck).

There's no denying the loveliness of the outfit – high-waisted breeches, mask, that collarless jacket. But that's not the reason (I swear). I did hope fencing would make me more co-ordinated. Graceful, even. And it did, in small ways. But after the first months of gruelling training, that became irrelevant. The sport obsesses me for that particular feeling a fencer experiences when you're living on your wits and the accuracy of your foil. Combat, I suppose. "To face an adversary in armed combat," wrote the greatest fencer of all, Aldo Nadi, "is one of the most exciting experiences in life."

Foil fencing is one of the original sports of the modern Olympic Games. But it suffers one great disadvantage; it has almost no "watchability". Fencers of Olympic standard, loose-limbed but crouching low like stalking cats, will parry and attack at such speed that even the referee relies on an electronic scoreboard merely to keep track of who's winning.

They won't make the dramatic swashbuckling motions of the Three Musketeers. Such an easy-to-predict style of attack would be pointless. The fencer aims for tiny movements, subtlety and deception. "Feints" are fake attacks meant to provoke foolish counter-attack, and the top-class fencer uses endless tricks. Stratagems are planned four, five or six moves in advance. You could say that the real weapon isn't the foil but the ability to second-guess intentions while masking one's own. (Winston Churchill was the public schools champion fencer.)

So I don't think more people should watch fencing; I think more of us, especially children, should do fencing. Far from encouraging aggression, it teaches self-control. The instant a fencer loses his or her temper, the bout is lost. In this country, unlike Italy or Hungary, whose fencers dominate the Olympics, fencing is considered arcane and posh. Nine thousand adults pursue fencing as a hobby in the UK, but it is taught in only a handful of schools. Which makes me wonder: might not British youth benefit from a sport that channels the adrenalin rush of playing with knives into the most civilised event at the Olympics?

The Madison by Simon O'Hagan

If you're one of those people whose idea of cycling TV heaven is a lingering aerial shot of a sunlit Loire chateau, with the peloton fluttering across the rolling landscape like a brightly-coloured ribbon, then you're in for a shock when you sit down to watch the main cycling events at the Olympics. But stick with it. Track cycling can be just as compelling as the Tour de France.

I've never raced on the track myself. It's just too scary. A bike without brakes? No thanks. The nearest I've come are ceremonial laps of the historic Herne Hill velodrome in south London. The banking is very steep, and you wonder why you don't topple over.

It was at Herne Hill that Britain's No1 cycling Olympian Bradley Wiggins honed his skills. Bradley has ridden the Tour, and the Giro d'Italia, and at the Athens Olympics in 2004 he won gold, silver and bronze, the best tally by any Briton at a Games since Mary Rand in 1964.

Bradley means a lot to me – partly because his old London home is quite near where I live, and partly because my then 11-year-old daughter and I met him when we were on holiday in France and went to see a race. Bradley was not yet famous, and he chatted and gave us his autograph.

The event I'm really looking forward to seeing him in is called the Madison, in which he'll team up with Mark Cavendish, the brash young Manxman who with four stage wins was the sprint sensation of this year's Tour de France.

The Madison is a slightly bonkers event. It takes its name from Madison Square Garden in New York, where it originated in the late 19th century, and involves teams riding a 50km, 200-lap race in pairs. This is the crazy bit: at any given time, only one half of each pair is racing. The other is cruising round, waiting to take his turn. It's a form of relay.

The point at which the baton – figuratively speaking – changes hands is a mini-drama in itself. Let's say Cavendish is racing. He'll have bombed a few laps round the extreme inside edge of the track – the flat part – and when his turn is done, Wiggins will come swooping down the bank and ride up alongside him, presaging the moment that makes the Madison special.

To maintain maximum collective speed, Cavendish will then grab Wiggins's hand and sling him down the track – the so-called handsling. It's a highly skilful manoeuvre fraught with danger, and it brings a touch of the big top to the velodrome. The whole process is replicated throughout the field of 15 or so pairs, and the scenes appear chaotic. There are other complexities involving sprint competitions within the race, and at times it's quite hard to work out what's going on. But that's cycling.

Wiggins and Cavendish are the Madison world champions, and favourites for the Olympic title. Sling it to 'em, lads.

Women's gymnastics by Susannah Frankel

"The Games might officially hark back to the freedom-loving ideals of Ancient Greece, cradle of democracy," writes Mark Simpson in the current issue of Arena Homme+ magazine, "but it takes a good old-fashioned totalitarian state to show us what they really mean: ideology and iconography plus choreography." Such a mindset will be nowhere more evident than in the gymnastic events – and women's gymnastics in particular. These are beautiful children – the utopian future.

And they are superhuman creatures in their own right. Most of us can do a somersault. At a push, we might pull off a cartwheel. Such basic skills, though, do not an Olga Korbut make.

Boasting unparalleled grace and superlative strength, it was Korbut who made this the most popular of Olympic sports – her elfin form capable of brute force, her cheeky, childlike appearance going hand-in-hand with rigour and determination, proved irresistible. Guided by the great Soviet coaches who decreed that an aesthetically pleasing and characterful performance was as important as technical expertise, Korbut transformed the sport. Even she, though, could not achieve that rare thing, the perfect 10. The first of these was awarded to even tinier, and prettier, Nadia Comaneci of Romania.

In Beijing, their successors must shine brightly. Great bravery is required on the parallel bars, where every gravity-defying turn causes billions on sofas around the world to hold their breath and wince in anticipation.

Most of all, though, the floor routines are destined to win the hearts of the audience. With nothing but a tinny soundtrack, a leotard and their bodies to work with, these preternaturally perky girls with their gappy smiles, crooked fringes and girlish bunches tear about the arena like souped-up 12-year-olds.

As if human interest here wasn't enough, there is the competitive sub-plot. Just as Korbut and her generation played out the Cold War through sport, this time the battle is between three superpowers: Russia, the US and China. "Another Communist giant is hosting the Games, determined to exploit them for every scrap of propaganda," Simpson argues. And who could dream up more potent mascots?

Beach volleyball by Guy Adams

The year was 1986. I was eight years old, and my favourity hobby was re-enacting Top Gun. Like many who watched that film several times over, I developed a mild obsession with a scene that showcased an obscure sport called beach volleyball. Here was a game that had it all: sun, sea, sand and manly athleticism. In Hollywood soft focus, it looked like a leisure pursuit for clean-living action heroes, people who might high-five over a bottle of Bud before jumping on a motorcycle and riding off to save the world and get the girl. I was hooked.

Fast forward 20 years. I arrive in Santa Monica to become Los Angeles correspondent for this newspaper. A mile from my front door is one of the most famous beaches in the world – which is also home to the world's largest concentration of beach volleyball courts. Soon, I'm hooked again.

At its simplest level, beach volleyball is identical to the indoor version, but played on sand. The purpose is to knock the ball into your opponent's court, using arms or hands, without it being knocked back. In pro games, there are two players per side. The first to 21 points wins a set; best of three sets wins the match.

The game, introduced at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, is now one of the hottest Olympic tickets. You can put this box-office appeal down to two factors. First, sex. The men play in Bermuda shorts, women in bikinis. They all have deep golden tans. Brazil's players resemble pin-ups, and the US and South African teams are full of "hotties".

Second, it's a terrific sport, requiring a mixture of power, skill, occasional finesse and tactical awareness. And you need to be fast, strong and super-fit.

This year's men's tournament is wide open, but the women's event is likely be dominated by the American duo of Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor. If you do catch any of their games, try to ignore those bikinis and appreciate their exquisite athleticism. Because that's what beach volleyball is all about.

Synchronised swimming by Nicole Mowbray

Synchronised swimming is a combination of swimming, gymnastics and dance, done to music, in a pool. The music is even piped under the water.

My fascination with synchronised swimming began at an early age, when I was forced to go to swimming club. In a neighbouring pool were some far less red-faced girls in swimming caps flexing their legs out of the water, toes pointed to the sky. It looked like a doss compared with 50 lengths of crawl. And they looked so glamorous.

In professional tournaments, few synchronised swimmers wear caps, instead lubing their hair back into a bun with industrial strength gel. Synchronised swimming is allabout the aesthetic. Participants don't wear goggles because they don't look very nice. Can you imagine other Olympians doing without vital equipment because it looks a bit crap? How about cyclists ditching their helmets because it makes their barnet dodgy or hockey goalkeepers binning their padding because it makes them look a bit fat? Vanity is all part of the contest in synchro – even the nose-clips are skin-coloured. So important is the look that it actually contributes to the overall mark awarded: "artistic merit", as it's termed, gets 60 per cent of the marks. The remaining 40 per cent goes towards technical skill. Although it may look effortless, synchronised swimming is a very technical sport.

Trying to stay synchronised – not only with the other swimmers, but with the music – and crucially, never touching the floor, is an exercise in futility. And then you have to factor in the exceptional breath-control needed to stay underwater all that time.

Synchronised swimming first came into being in Canada, some time in the early 1900's. It was, and still is, a sport primarily practised by women, and became an Olympic sport in 1984, after the hosts, Los Angeles (come on people, who else?!) introduced it to the games. You can compete solo, in pairs and as a team – Olympic teams consist of nine people – and although the British haven't qualified (nothing to do with my poor teaching, I'm sure) be sure to catch the Russians or Canadians.

Taekwondo by Sophie Morris

I thought the Olympic Games were all sailing, stick-and-ball sports, and running and jumping – traditional and quite jolly pastimes, all of which I have participated in at some point (but none of which I would take time out from my Grey's Anatomy boxed sets to watch).

Why does everyone make such a hullabaloo about members of the royal family trotting a horse around an obstacle course, I wonder? How did substandard national football teams and fully-grown adults knocking a tiny ball around a table with a miniature bat become appointment viewing? But then I noticed taekwondo in the sporting schedule – exactly the Olympic pastime to indulge my new obsession with martial arts.

I practise Muay Thai boxing, a 3,000-year-old form of street-fighting undertaken in shiny silk shorts. It is also known as the Art of the Eight Limbs, because jabbing and kicking using the elbows and knees is a principal element. In fact, pretty much anything goes.

Taekwondo, a 20th-century Korean invention, is Muay Thai's respectable offspring. Its form is less open to interpretation and the rules stricter. It is a blend of martial arts and, as such, the flag bearer (alongside judo) for all of them at the games. With only terrestrial television in my living room, the opportunities to watch martial arts are limited to almost zero, so the chance to watch hours of taekwondo over the next month is not something I shall be passing up.

I am more than a little ashamed to come out in support of such a violent sport, but it is, of course, the mental agility which attracted me (you try working out whether to kick someone in the thigh, elbow him in the chest or send his head spinning backwards with a sharp uppercut, all while a gloved fist is heading straight for your nose), but I can't deny the feeling of those endorphins rushing around my body after a spot of kicking and punching.

At my first Muay Thai class the teacher told me to improve my kick by imagining I was kicking in a door, which wasn't something I had much experience in. Why were my wrists so weak, he asked, when they should be locked? Without strong wrists, you can't drive the power from your body down your arm and into your fists for that knockout punch. It was clear my teacher would have his work cut out.

The inventive theatricality of martial arts make much better watching than the plodding of Western boxing.

Martial arts heroes were – and still are in many countries – the footballers of their day, but they require much more than ball control. Do you recall ever seeing a footballer turn and bow at the opponent who he has just fouled?

If that hasn't persuaded you, think of the practicalities of taekwondo. Can you name any other sport you can do wearing your pyjamas?

The triathlon by Simon Usborne

On Sunday afternoon I will be standing at the edge of the Royal Victoria Dock, a murky expanse of cold water in the windswept east-London hinterland, wearing a tight wetsuit, an even tighter rubber cap and a pair of goggles. On any other day of the year I would look like a rare species of whale, or a gimp without his mask, but not this weekend, when I will be among 11,000 similarly dressed men and women taking part in the world's largest triathlon.

In less than two weeks, the world's top triathletes will be doing the same thing, at Beijing's Ming Tombs reservoir, for what will be only the sport's third Olympic outing. Triathlon could not be farther removed from the pure events on which the Games were founded – the kit list is almost as long as a javelin – and the races are unlikely to get much airtime, but the combination of swimming, cycling and running is surely one of the most compelling events in the schedule.

Triathlon is also one of the world's fastest-growing sports – an unparalleled test of endurance and all-round fitness that uses all the body's muscles. When a klaxon sounds at regular intervals over the weekend, my rivals and I will set off in groups and, resembling shoals of cannibalistic piranhas, swim to the far end of the dock and back. After 1,500 metres (60 lengths of your average local baths) we'll clamber onto the dockside to collect our bikes, peeling back our wetsuits like banana skins as we run.

For the bike leg, a 40km (25 mile), two-lap circuit to Tower Bridge and back, most of us will be wearing a garment called a trisuit: an all-in-one Lycra affair with a built-in quick-drying chamois at the crotch for a softer bike ride, it's only a slightly more modest version of Borat's "mankini" (a word of caution to fellow trisuit wearers: don't post pictures on Facebook – you will be ridiculed). But the indecent garb can stay on for the whole race, saving time at the two transitions. And we triathletes are prepared to look like gimps to save seconds.

The race ends with a punishing 10km (6.2 mile) run. By this time, the finishing line cannot come soon enough. I did my first triathlon at Windsor in June and felt like throwing up after I finished in two hours and 32 minutes (the guys in Beijing will break the tape at least 45 minutes quicker than that).

The murky waters, the unflattering gear and the urge to vomit – why would anyone want to do triathlon?

"It's worth it just for the incredible buzz that comes with really pushing yourself," Tim Don, the 2006 world champion and British Beijing hopeful, told me last year. And he's right – whether you're gunning for gold or just trying to get round without dying, the sense of achievement that comes with crossing the line makes this Olympic newcomer my favourite sport at the games. Just don't expect to see any pictures on Facebook this time round.

Sailing by Jonathan Brown

For the average landlubber, sailing remains a sport which can seem frustratingly hard to access. First you need a boat (not cheap), some specialist kit (also not cheap) and then somewhere to sail (often quite a long way away). Then there are the safety issues, transport issues and problems of tide and wind – too windy and you can't sail, not windy enough and you may as well not bother. Oh yes, and this can change at any moment while out sailing.

And then, of course, there is the baffling language. In sailing nothing has the right name. The front is the bow, the back is the stern. Left is port, right is starboard. Confused? You will be. Then there are the knots, the widgets and that spaghetti maze of coloured ropes and strings (none of which are called ropes and strings, naturally.) The final and to some, insurmountable barrier, is the presence of the yachtie, that upper-class Gore-Tex-clad, hale and hearty who – it is popularly believed – can be found braying loudly at every quayside bar.

So with all these issues to overcome, how can it be that sailing is so popular in Britain? It is estimated that there are some 500,000 boat-owners in the UK while a further 185,000 take a RYA training course each year. The answer is simple – no other sport is so challenging or, ultimately, so rewarding.

It may come as a surprise to sports fans fixated on the serial disappointments of track and field but Britannia really does rule the waves – we are the most successful Olympic sailing country of all time, topping the medal tables at both the recent Sydney and Athens games. As well as the superlative Ainslie, Team GB can expect another major haul in Beijing with Sarah Ayton's crew in the yngling class (see what I mean?) reigning supreme as current world champions as well as a slew of medal hopefuls competing in many of the other 11 types of boat.

Anyone who has taken to the water cannot but help to be impressed with the skills of these athletes. Sailing is at once a test of mental and physical prowess. For "improvers" like me it is a constant race between mind and body for which is going to collapse into a pile of jelly first. To be the best it is necessary to push the boat to the absolute maximum, sailing constantly on the point of disaster to squeeze the maximum speed out of the wind. Races are won and lost on the slightest of things – when to tack, altering a sail shape just a touch, keeping the boat that little bit flatter by hanging precariously from a trapeze over the water as it rushes beneath you (a killer on stomach and thigh muscles). When a boat is being sailed at maximum velocity in a stiff breeze, it begins to aquaplane, sending out an exhilarating ringing sound which excites and frightens in equal measures.

The best sailors, and Britain's clubs boast a huge number of top-class amateurs can read both wind and tide with a quite astonishing accuracy. They are also ruthlessly competitive. And, when it comes to the interaction of crew and helm there are some who enjoy an almost telepathic relationship, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it to winkle out the tiniest of advantages.

So, when the Olympic coverage switches to the site of boats speeding across the water at Qingdao over the next few weeks, remember that this is a sport that requires extraordinary expertise, determination and physical strength, and is unlike any other, perhaps, as athlete not only battles athlete, but the forces of nature.