The Strangest Events in the History of the Olympic Games

The Olympic Games is arguably the planet's greatest sporting spectacle. Along with those lucky enough to attend in person, millions of people all over the world will be glued to their TVs for a month cheering on their nation’s athletes in some truly iconic events. Yet the events haven’t always been quite so iconic. In fact, over the years, some have been downright bizarre! Here are some of the strangest events in Olympics history.

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8 July 2024

As with the iconic Olympic Games of the past, Paris 2024 will again witness the world’s finest athletes battling for gold, whether sprinting down the track, powering through the water, or dominating the field. Who can forget Usain Bolt’s astonishing triple-double, or Michael Phelps’s 28 Olympic medals, including a phenomenal 23 golds. What about London 2012’s Super Saturday when the world watched Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all claim gold in an unforgettable 44 minutes at the London Stadium? There was Torvill and Dean’s magical Bolero in 1984, Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten in 1976, and Bob Beamon’s iconic long jump in 1968.

Outstanding athletes taking part in iconic events that live up to the Olympic ideal of citius, altius, fortius – faster, higher, stronger. But while the modern Games are known for these incredible events, the history of the Olympics is also peppered with some truly bizarre and unusual ‘sports’ that seem so out of place, it’s baffling how they made it into the Olympics at all.

Let’s take a deep dive (literally, in one case) back to the past when the Olympic Games, the ultimate exhibition of human endurance, skill, and the relentless pursuit of excellence, was tested to its very oddest limits!

Paris 2024

The Eiffel Tower in Paris (Credit: kiszon pascal via Getty Images)

Between July 26 and August 11 2024, the 33rd edition of the Olympic Games will take place in France. Centred in Paris, there are also venues dotted around the country, including basketball in Lille, football in Marseille, Lyon and Bordeaux, and, luckily for some athletes, surfing in the French territory of Tahiti in the South Pacific Ocean, 3,800 miles east of Australia.

Around 10,500 athletes will take part in 329 events covering 32 sports, including 48 athletics events, 35 in the swimming pool, 15 on the judo mat, 13 in the boxing ring, and two in the debut Olympic sport of breaking.

But while some of the events at this year’s Olympic Games may – to some – stretch the definition of the word ‘sport’ to its outer limits, they are nothing compared to some of the events that have taken place since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.

Paris 1900 | Tug of War

Tug of War (Credit: Roll6 via Getty Images)

Between 1900 and 1920, tug of war was an Olympic sport. It’s not instantly a strange event, given that to win, you need a combination of strength, agility, teamwork and strategy, but it was the way in which the event was won that was odd.

The Swedish and Danish squads teamed up to, in the words of one report, ‘squash the French’. This mixed Scandinavian team was a late entry to the competition, accepted by the organisers after the United States team had to withdraw due to a scheduling conflict. The rules in those days were more than a little haphazard and the Scandinavians were successful.

Paris 1900 | Poodle Clipping

Miniature poodles (Credit: dragon for real via Getty Images)

One of the most often repeated stories in articles about strange Olympic events is that in 1900, the event of poodle clipping took place.

The story goes that 128 competitors lined up in a race of quantity over quality. The winner wasn’t judged on style, rather they would be judged on the number of poodles clipped in two hours. The gold medallist was reported as 37-year-old Avril Lafoule, a farmer’s wife from the Auvergne region who clipped seventeen poodles. The story went on to say that Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee, opposed the event’s inclusion, but was outvoted by his IOC colleagues.

In fact, this event never took place. It was published in the Daily Telegraph in 2008 as an April Fool’s Day prank. Note the name of the gold medallist…

St Louis 1904 | Plunge for Distance

Swimmer diving underwater (Credit: Tara Moore via Getty Images)

Part of the first diving programme to appear at the Olympics, the rules of plunge for distance were deceptively simple. Competitors dove into the pool and drifted either for a maximum of 60 seconds, or until their head broke the surface of the water. The furthest ‘drifter’ won.

Only five competitors entered the competition – all American – and the winner was William Dickey with a distance of 19.05 metres. Not surprisingly, the event was dropped from future editions of the games.

Stockholm 1912 | Art

Statue of Baron Pierre de Coubertin in Atlanta, USA (Credit: Diane Macdonald via Getty Images)

Yes, you read that right. From 1912 to the Olympics in London in 1948, there were events for sculpture, literature, architecture, music and painting. It was the brainchild of de Coubertin who wanted to combine art with sport, so the works entered in these five disciplines had to take their inspiration from the world of sport.

The 1912 sculpture gold medallist was American Walter Winans, who also took silver in the running deer shooting event (using wooden deer). Bizarrely, de Coubertin won gold in the literature event after entering with a pseudonym, and Italians Riccardo Barthelmy and Giovanni Pellegrini won for music and painting respectively. Two Swiss architects won the architecture competition for the design of a modern new sports stadium. Sculpture went to Frenchman Georges Dubois.

In subsequent editions of the Olympics, these events became very popular – at the 1928 games in Amsterdam, over 1,100 works were submitted – but it turned out that lots of entries in the art competitions were from professionals in their respective fields, and indeed most pieces were sold straight after the exhibitions. Given the Olympics was only open to amateurs, the competitions were abolished after the 1948 games.

And Finally…

Marathon runners (Credit: Mitch Diamond via Getty Images)

Just before we go, here’s the incredibly heartwarming story of a Japanese runner who holds the record for the longest time to complete a marathon. The slowest competitors in the world’s most prestigious marathons, known as the Majors – London, Boston, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, and Chicago – will stumble over the line in seven or eight hours, but this guy took a little longer…

The Astonishing Story of Shizo Kanakuri

Modern day Stockholm (Credit: Murat Taner via Getty Images)

Born in a rural Japanese town in 1891, Shizo Kanakuri ran eight miles a day to and from school, and in the marathon trials for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics held in November 1911, he is said to have run a time of 2h 30m 33s, then believed to be a world record (although the course was 25 miles instead of the regulation 26.2 miles).

After training with Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, he was chosen as one of two Japanese athletes to compete in Stockholm and raised the 1,800 yen required to get from Japan to Sweden, no mean feat at the start of the twentieth century. It took him eighteen days including traversing almost the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest rail journey in the world.

When he got to Sweden, he struggled with sleep, couldn’t get used to the food, and his coach was bedridden with tuberculosis.

The race took place in the middle of a brutal heatwave, dozens of competitors dropped out and one, Portuguese Francisco Lazaro, died during the race. The 1908 Olympic marathon gold medallist called the event a ‘disgrace to civilisation.’

Kanakuri himself suffered from hyperthermia – overheating – and stopped after about sixteen miles. He found his way into a party in someone’s garden where it’s said he drank orange juice for an hour.

He was embarrassed by his perceived failure and went back to Japan.

It’s thought he told race officials he was leaving but the Swedes somehow recorded him as a missing person for over fifty years. But then something quite extraordinary happened.

In 1967, a Swedish television programme managed to track Kanakuri down working as a geography teacher, by this time he had got married, had six children and ten grandchildren. They invited him back to Stockholm to finish the race he started and he jumped at the chance.

On March 20, 1967, Shizo Kanakuri finished the marathon and his time was officially listed in the records of the Olympic Games as 54 years, 8 months 6 days 5 hours 32 minutes 20.3 seconds.

As well as finishing the race, he went back to the same house and drank orange juice with the son of the family who invited him in.

Kanakuri died in 1983 aged 92 and is today considered, and celebrated, as the father of marathon running in Japan.

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