Badminton! Dressage! Fencing! In Praise of Weird Olympic Sports

What's the best part of the Games? The obscure sports that get the spotlight only every four years.

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the London Games.


Hey, guys,

You can argue ad nauseum about what the best sporting event in the world is. The World Series, March Madness, the Super Bowl, the World Cup—they all have their arguments. For me, though, everything pales in comparison to the oldest, grandest spectacle in sports: the Summer Olympics.

The Games of the 30th Olympiad kick off today in London with what is certain to be a gaudy opening ceremony. Once the pageantry is out of the way, sporting events few think about outside of the Olympics become global storylines and we get flooded with a veritable orgy of sport. Like big-name headlines? There's Michael Phelps looking to pad his record of 14 gold medals, with Ryan Lochte poised to replace him as the Best Swimmer in the World Today. Usain Bolt and his gazelle-like stride are back too, with Bolt looking to defend his crown in the 100- and 200-meter dash (and maybe break a world record or two along the way).

The team sports are equally enticing, with the U.S. men's and women's hoops teams favored to repeat as gold medal winners. And who could forget tennis, which will be played on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon and feature Andy Murray trying to win gold for the host country.

Me, I like the sports and athletes that come upon us all at once every four years, produce a lifelong memory or two, and fade back into relative obscurity just as quickly. Take long-distance swimmer Alex Meyer, who will compete in the most grueling event you've never heard of, the 10K swim marathon. The American lost his friend and training partner, Fran Crippen, in 2010 when Crippen drowned near the end of an even more ridiculous 25K swim race. Meyer is a legitimate threat to medal in the 10K event and will be swimming for his fallen friend as well as himself. It's those stories—dozens of which emerge every Games—that make the Olympics a joy to behold.

What will you be watching for in London, Patrick?

–Jake

Jake,

It's easy to be cynical about the Olympics. The grandiose opening and closing ceremonies are always ridiculous. (I was there for the Salt Lake City Games; I saw KISS. I was there in Athens; I saw this. Trust me on the ridiculous part.) Despite the best efforts of diligent lab technicians and invasive urine collectors, doping remains as rampant as ever, the chemical cheaters forever two steps ahead of the drug testers. (Just ask Victor Conte, a man I've written about extensively). Oh, and the whole Olympic exercise perpetually reeks of financial corruption, political tone deafness, and Sports Welfare, the latter enriching already-wealthy interests while leaving the general public broke, exhausted and on the hook for a bunch of empty, decaying stadiums.

Of course, the Olympics have always been this way. And like you, Jake, I still I love the Summer Games.

The best thing about the Olympics is that they feature, well, the best. The speediest runners. The strongest weightlifters. The quickest, most powerful ping-pong—excuse me, table tennis—players on the planet. Back in Athens, I attempted to watch 14 different sports in a single day. In person. What struck me the most—beyond a deep and abiding sense of gratitude for the guy who invented the remote control—was realizing that I could go the rest of my life and never see as much excellence again. It's awe-inspiring to watch, say, a random water polo match and know the women in the pool are better at what they do than anybody you know has ever been at anything; it's jaw-dropping to watch Usain Bolt and understand that he's the single fastest human to ever grace the face of the Earth.

As such, I guess I'll be watching for everything. Like the ultra-fast, surprisingly-violent badminton matches that have as much in common with the familiar backyard version of the game as a slingshot does with a ballistic missile. Or the pole vault: Come for the perfectly-proportioned, statuesque physiques, stay for the occasionally spectacular wipeout! Or beach volleyball, always the Games' gold medalist in sheer venue fun. Or the five minutes in the main Olympic stadium before the men's 100 meter final, when the sprinters are stretching and strutting and preparing to uncoil, flashbulbs and cellphones lighting up the night—as far as I'm concerned, there's not a more exciting moment in sports.

Jake, the stories are great. I love stories. But when it comes to the Olympics, at least for me, the games are the thing.

Hampton, what are you looking forward to?

–Patrick

Everyone loves bashing the Olympics' quirkier events. Curling, in the Winter Games, is a punchline only slightly less shopworn than jokes about airline food. But I'm here to tell you, curling rocks. Unironcially.

Sadly the Summer Olympics don't have any events that use a broom, but there's still a host of lesser-known sports. That's what's most fun about the Games for me. If you want top-level tennis, after all, you can find it almost every week. If you want the NBA, there's a nine-month regular season and playoffs. Only once every four years do we get to see the world's best at, say, kayak.

Or dressage, which is fascinating. It is!

The equestrian events are getting lots of attention this year—a phrase one doesn't get to write very often—because Ann Romney has a horse competing. However, besides being a sport for rich people, Dressage is also hypnotically compelling—a sort of dance between horse and rider. Also, the point is to keep the horses healthy. So, unlike thoroughbred racing, the competitors very rarely die on track. Always a plus.

Patrick, you mentioned badminton and table-tennis. Both are a delight. With apologies for getting all Napoleon Dynamite on you, what's wrong with adding tetherball? No, I'm not kidding. Olympic tetherball would rule. Barring that, though, my favorite quirky Olympic sport is unquestionably fencing.

Lest we forget, despite a name that suggests stolen goods are involved, fencing is a form of dueling. We are talking about high-tech swordfighting, for goodness sake. You know who swordfights? Pirates. You know who else? Robin Hood, The Fonz, and—oh, yeah—the Jedi knights. Any sport that's good enough for the Jedi is good enough for me.

–Hampton

Presented by

Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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