Lost Sports of the Summer Olympics

Baseball, tug-of-war, and nine other team medal sports that were phased out of the Summer Games


As the nation turns its lonely eyes to the first baseball-free Summer Olympics in two decades, it's hard not to feel the cold ache of loss—suddenly there's a gaping, diamond-shaped hole in our hearts and our TV programming.

Misery does, however, love company, so here's an inventory of some beloved—and some less beloved—team sports that the Olympics abandoned along the way. Some were scratched from the program immediately after their inaugural inclusion (chalk it up to trial and error, or maybe trial and unpopularity); others hung around a while before eventually being discontinued by the IOC. But take heart, baseball fans: At least one made a comeback.


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Among the most missed Olympic sports of yesteryear is undoubtedly the tug-of-war event. Its final appearance in the Summer Olympiad was back in 1920 in Antwerp, when an eight-man British team mostly composed of London policemen brought home the gold.

Recent tug-of-war disasters worldwide (i.e., arms torn off in Taipei, nearly severed hands in Colorado, and four lost fingers in Minnesota) are pretty decent indicators of why it may have been retired, many a spectator still clamors for its return: "What would you rather see?" posited ESPN's Jim Caple, in 2009. "Retief Goosen waiting for absolute silence as he leans over his putter? Or eight of our country's finest going against the eight toughest dudes from Iran?"

Doubles events: Doubles croquet, doubles rackets, and tandem cycling

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It's been a mixed-bag kind of century for two-person teams in the Summer Olympics. For every tan, winsome beach volleyball duo, there's an equivalently sad-eyed pair of out-of-work tandem cyclists.

Doubles croquet was eliminated after a single appearance in 1900; the French gold medalists never actually competed, however, as they were the only competitors in their field. Doubles rackets, the two-person version of a centuries-old indoor European game widely considered an early predecessor of tennis, was a similar swing-and-a-miss eight years later: After Britain swept all three medals in the both the doubles and singles categories, the sport never returned to the Olympic games.

Tandem cycling, on the other hand, enjoyed a longer stay at the Summer Games, with a place on the program from 1906 to 1972. The sport, known for the phenomenal speeds each team of cyclists could generate together, disappeared from the Olympics after the Munich games; the International Olympic Committee, concerned with the "virtually unmanageable proportions" to which the Games had grown, met in Bulgaria in the autumn of 1973 with the intent of trimming down the Olympic program. In the end, the IOC voted to establish limits on the number of competitors in six sports, as well as to abolish tandem cycling from the roster along with nine other sporting events (among them a 50-kilometer walk, four slalom events in kayak racing and canoeing, and the 300-meter distance in rifle shooting). Tandem cycling maintained some momentum after its Olympic demise, but USA Cycling eliminated its tandem race last year.


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Baseball, last seen in the Olympics just four years ago in Beijing, is the latest casualty of an industry-wide battle between professional and national sporting associations. Because the Games take place during the American Major League Baseball season, professional baseball players don't enjoy the same automatic availability as their counterparts in the NBA and the NHL—the latter of which puts its season on hold during the Games (for now). Franchise teams have historically balked at the idea of lending out their top players for a two-week stretch in the middle of the season, and the resulting U.S. teams composed of "prospects and older fringe big leaguers" (as ESPN's Keith Law puts it) have failed to achieve any real dominance in their own national pastime—most notably in 2004, when a team of collegians fell short of even qualifying for the Athens games.

The league's tight grip on its players depleted the talent pool of other Olympic baseball teams throughout the world, too; thus, when each of the 28 existing sports was put to a secret vote by the IOC in 2005, baseball was one of two sports that failed to receive a majority. The other was softball.

Craig Reedie, a British IOC member, told NBC Sports he blamed the lack of major-league baseball players for the sport's exclusion from the 2012 Games. Similarly, Cuban Baseball Federation president Carlos Rodriguez said, "Those who bear most of the blame are the owners of the professional leagues who refuse to free up their ballplayers to compete."


AP Images

When baseball was booted from the Olympic program in 2005, it took its sister sport with it—a move that shocked even softball's elite.

The sport's surprising exclusion was chalked up to the increasing European influence within the IOC. Europeans reportedly held a near-majority within the Committee—a less-than-promising scenario for a game with larger followings in the Americas and Asia.

Dot Richardson, however, wondered if a force darker than apathy had been at work. "I've always seen in athletics an anti-American sentiment throughout the world—most of it is through jealousy or envy," the two-time gold medal-winning American infielder told NBC Sports after the announcement. Was it anti-American spite? Maybe. Team USA had, after all, nabbed gold medals at every Olympic Games since softball's first inclusion in 1996, and had outscored its opponents 51 to 1 in 2004. (The U.S. women remained undefeated at the Summer Olympics until the gold-medal match in 2008, where they fell 3-1 to Japan.)

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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