Tug Of War And Other Forgotten Olympic Events Of Decades Past

Published June 12, 2017
Tug Of War 1912
Tug of War

For 20 years, from 1900 to 1920, tug of war wasn't just a kid's game — it was an Olympic sport.

Stockholm, Sweden. 1912.
Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Baloons
Hot Air Ballooning

One of the many unofficial events at the 1900 Olympics in Paris, hot air balloon racing, had several different events. Pilots competed for distance, elevation, and duration over 18 separate events.
Wikimedia Commons

Fire Fighting 1900 Olympics

During the 1900 Olympics in Paris, professional firefighters competed in tests of endurance. This was unofficial event and was rarely reported upon — except in the United States, the nation of the gold medal winners, where it was treated like a major event.

Anthropology Day Archer 1904
Anthropology Day Archery

The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis held "Anthropology Days," in which people from non-European cultures were dressed up in outsized versions of their traditional clothes and made to compete for the audience's amusement.
Wikimedia Commons

Duel 1908 Olympics

During the 1908 Olympics in London, competitors could duel with pistols loaded with wax bullets.
Wikimedia Commons

Dogsled Racing
Sled Dog Racing

During the 1932 Winter Olympics in New York, teams on sled dogs competed for the gold.
Wikimedia Commons

Four In Hand 1900
Mail Coach Racing

During the 1900 Olympics in Paris, horse racing wasn't just for jockeys — carriage riders could also race on mail coaches.

Korfball 1928

Korfball, a mixed-gender ball game that requires four men and four women on each team, has been in the Olympics twice: 1920 and 1928.

Amsterdam, Netherlands. 1928.
Wikimedia Commons

Basque Pelota 1900
Basque Pelota

Basque Pelota — a racket game related to tennis — might not be the most well-known sport, but it's been in four different Olympics.

Paris, France. 1900.
Wikimedia Commons

Skijoring 1963 Winter Olympics

During the 1928 Winter Olympics, one of the events was skijoring: skiing behind a riderless horse. Switzerland won every medal.

Skijoring, though, isn't limited to horses. Pictured are skijorers skiing behind a speeding motorcycle.

Germany. 1963.
Wikimedia Commons

Tandem Cycling
Tandem Cycling

Up until 1972, riding a bicycle made for two was an Olympic sport.

Munich, Germany. 1972.
AFP/Getty Images

Barrel Jumping 1904 Olympics
Barrel Jumping

Even jumping through barrels has been an Olympic sport.

St. Louis. 1904.
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Military Patrol 1928 Olympics
Military Patrol

During the 1924, 1928, 1936, and 1948 Olympics, soldiers competed in military patrols, sliding on skis and firing rifles at their targets.

Amsterdam, Netherlands. 1928.
Wikimedia Commons

Pierre De Coubertin Literature

From 1912 to 1932, the Olympics held literature competitions. The first was won by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee.
Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Statue W Winans

Believe it or not, sculpting was once an Olympic event.

This piece is by Walter W. Winans - one of only two people to medal in both Olympic arts and sports, winning the gold for shooting.
Wikimedia Commons

Rugby By Jean Jacoby

Artists could medal in painting, drawing, watercolors, engravings, and graphic works at various Olympics.

This drawing, "Rugby" by Jean Jacoby, won the gold medal at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928.
Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Rope Climb
Rope Climbing

For years, climbing up a rope as fast you could was an Olympic event. The most amazing win came in 1904, when George Eyser won gold with a wooden leg.

Amsterdam, Netherlands. 1928.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Olympic Standing Jump 1908
Standing High Jump

For those who thought running before jumping is for wimps, there was standing high jump — a sport that, even for the Olympics, just kind of seems like showing off.

London, England. 1908.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Daniels Olympic Swimmer 1904
Plunge For Distance

In 1904, Olympians competed in a plunge for distance: diving in the water and seeing how far they could float without actually swimming.

St. Louis. 1904.
International Olympic Committee

One Handed Weight Lift
One-Handed Weight Lift

During the early Olympics, weightlifting had a one-handed lift event — for those who could pump iron with one hand tied behind their backs.

St. Louis. 1904.
International Olympic Committee

Shooting 1900
Pigeon Shooting

In 1900, the Olympic Committee let loose a flock of pigeons and gave a gold medal to whoever could gun down the most birds. Animal rights advocates, as one might expect, were not thrilled.

Paris, France. 1900
International Olympic Committee

Equestrian High Jump 1900
Equestrian High Jump

In the 1900 Olympics, horses didn't just race, they competed in high jump and long jump, too.

Paris, France. 1900.
Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Motor Racing
Motor Racing

In 1900, they had racing events for every kind of car, with separate events for cars, trucks, taxis, and even fire trucks.

Paris, France. 1900.
YouTube/Mile High Card

The Olympics didn’t exactly get into the swing of things right away.

In the first few years, the International Olympic Committee still hadn’t settled on the major events that would define the games. They tried a lot of different things before they landed on the events we know today – and, in the meantime, there were a lot of incredibly weird Olympic sports.

Some of these were major events – like a tug of war. From 1900 to 1920, this was one of the main competitions at the Olympics, with grown men struggling to pull each other over a line in front of audiences of thousands.

At the 1900 games in Paris, athletes from around the world competed in weird Olympic sports including kite flying, firefighting, cannon shooting, and even pigeon racing.

Sometimes, the unofficial games took weird, vaguely racist turns – like in 1904, when the St. Louis Olympics held “Anthropology Days.” Non-Europeans would be dressed up in a costume version of their traditional clothes and made to perform in front of a gawking crowd, eager to see if they could compete with the white man.

Then there were the art competitions. From 1912 to 1948, the Olympics, trying to add a touch of culture to their festival of machoism, and gave out medals for the works of the creative mind. Instead of feats of strength, men would compete in feats of architecture, literature, music, and art.

Two men even managed to medal in both the arts and in sports. Walter W. Williams managed to take home the gold in both sculpting and shooting. Other wins, though, were a little more controversial – like the first gold medal for literature, which ended up in the hands of the founder of the International Olympic Committee.

Today, we’ve cut out some of the weird Olympic sports and narrowed things down to some more basic contests of athleticism. But, as the photos above reveal, there once was a time when the Olympics had a variety you wouldn’t believe.

For more strange, little-known sports, check out history's most obscure sports as well as the most extreme sports of all time.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.