Equestrian? Fencing? Why Do The Olympics Have Such Weird Sports?

Ah, the Olympics: those couple of weeks where for once, every four years, sports fans around the world are reminded that people still play obscure sports that don’t get much (or any) TV coverage any other time. It’s the only time when the average sports fan will actually watch people stab at each other with tiny swords, shoot arrows at small targets, and ride horses around an obstacle course.

So while the average sports fan spends her money on popular, televised sports like soccer or baseball, the Olympics continue to celebrate obscure, quaint, and all-but-forgotten sports like fencing, archery, and equestrian.

olympics obscure sports
Why? To answer that, you need to understand a bit about the ancient Greek Olympics and then the man who is credited with founding the modern Olympics.

The Ancient Greek Olympics

Other than taking place every four years and being vaguely connected to sports, the ancient Greek Olympics and the modern Olympics have little in common. For one thing, married women are not only allowed to attend, but they’re allowed to compete; they were forbidden from doing either in the ancient Olympics. For another thing, the modern Olympics lack a religious component: conspicuously absent from the Rio Olympics this year will be the ancient tradition of having virgins compete in a foot race in honor of the goddess Demeter.

Mostly, though, the sports in which the ancient athletes competed weren’t just sports in a pure sense: they were also useful skills on the battlefield. Chariot racing, running long distances, jumping over obstacles, hurling weapons (the ancient discus was a weapon) – all were skills needed not only by the athlete, but by the soldier as well.

Olympics obscure sports
By now you may be starting to see a connection between some modern Olympic sports such as rowing, archery, shooting (of guns), fencing, and even dressage (equestrian): those sports also derive from skills that were, or are, useful in war. But more on that a couple of paragraphs.

By around 400 CE, the ancient Olympics had run their course (see what I did there?), Christianity would take over, and the ancient competition would be relegated to history, at least for the next 1,500 years.

Enter Monsieur Pierre de Coubertin

Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (born 1863), was many things: educator, thinker, sportsman, and the founder of the modern Olympics. He was also a pompous aristocrat who had naught but disdain for the lower classes.

Olympics obscure sports
As an educator, Coubertin believed that physical education was a matter of utmost importance, believing that children brought up with a strong physical education would be better prepared to fight in wars. And remember, this is at a time when riding into battle on horseback and engaging in swordplay were still a part of life on the battlefield.

So when Coubertin worked toward bringing back the Olympics in a modern form (the first modern Olympics were held in 1886), the sports included at the time were not only the ancient track and field competitions that originated in Greece, but also “modern” (at the time) sports that were popular among the upper classes.

Coubertin’s heart may have been in the right place, but he failed in the execution. He idolized ancient Greece and believed that the ancient Olympics represented the best and noblest ideals of physical fitness, sportsmanship, and athletic competition as a means of bringing different nations together. His desire to bring back the ancient Olympics was motivated, at least in part, by the hopes that the competition would, at least in some way, help bring peace and understanding among the nations through sport. Clearly, that hasn’t worked out. He also believed – falsely – that ancient Greek athletes were amateurs, and that money polluted the purity of sport. He also may or may not have believed (depending on whom you ask) that professional athletes were members of the lower classes and had no place in the modern Olympics, which he insisted should be limited to amateurs.

OK, But Why Do Those Obscure Sports Still Continue?

Inertia, for one thing. People have been shooting arrows at targets for thousands of years, modern warfare be damned and will continue to do so competitively for the foreseeable future. Another reason is money: there’s a reason Nike is interested in sponsoring track and field athletes. Athletes wearing Nike shows make money for Nike, and if you think Nike is going to sit idly by while ancient track and field events are scrubbed from the modern Olympics, you’ve got another thing coming.

That’s not to say that Olympic sports don’t come and go. Athletic competitions, like any other hobby or profession, wax and wane in popularity (how many chandlers or tanners to you know?), and there have been some even weirder sports in the Olympics throughout the years. For example, there was a time, according to CNN, when Olympic shooters shot at live pigeons instead of artificial targets. Similarly, Coubertin, in his wildest dreams, couldn’t have envisioned surfing or beach volleyball some day being Olympic sports.

In other words, the day may yet come when archery, dressage, and similar obscure sports fall out of favor in the Olympics. But it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

A couple of weeks from now the dust will have settled in Rio and, for better or for worse, Americans will start looking toward postseason baseball and shoring up their fantasy football draft strategies. Meanwhile, thousands of Olympics hopefuls will go back to their training centers, honing their skills at obscure sports that the world will have once again forgotten about, until the 2020 Olympics come around again, this time in Tokyo.

[Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images]