At the turn of the century in 1900, the Olympics came to Paris, France, bringing with them the competitive spirit of multiple nations vying to show off their on-the-field skills to the ladies of rival countries. Looking to attract a younger, more diverse audience, in addition to familiar events such as tennis and swimming, organizers arranged to exhibit several sports unofficially. While records of these unofficial events are scarce, enough details exist (mainly on Wikipedia) to piece together these accounts of the rise and fall of several of these long-forgotten, offbeat Olympic sports.
Today, hot air balloons seem to be to be relegated to Thanksgiving parades and state fairs. But back in 1900, these miraculous floating contraptions are like flying race cars, blazing through the sky at speeds that were, if not mind-boggling, at least unprecedented and perhaps a bit impressive. And,as we all know, the best part of any mode of transportation is getting from point A to point B, preferably as quickly as possible.
Weather conditions had to be just right in order for the ballooning event to take place. Air currents needed to be optimal and cloud cover had to be minimal in order to avoid moderate-speed midair collisions. Location was also an issue, with preference given to open spaces as far away from the shooting and archery events as possible.
While balloon operators were undoubtably the rockstars of their time, once their vessels were off the ground, they were largely at the whim of air currents and gusts. The inherent lack of control might very well have been the root of this unofficial Olympic sport’s demise. Spectators quickly became bored when balloons drifted off course, and would inevitably hurry away to watch the next Tug of War match.
4. Kite Flying
The invention of kites is said to have transpired in China, almost 2,800 years ago, which made their inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 1900 Paris Olympics a no-brainer. People love kites—that’s precisely why they’ve stuck around as long as they have. There’s something inherently wondrous about guiding a stretched piece of fabric through the sky with the tug of a taut string.
In Paris, athletes attempted to fly their kites in the most stylish fashion, with an emphasis put on tricky maneuvers and the ability to avoid getting lines tangled with their competitors. After a particularly strong gust of wind blew the majority of the participating kites into a large tree, officials decided that the sport still had kinks that needed working out and removed it from the roster of unofficial Olympic events.
3. Fire Fighting
Sure, there are some dangerous sports in existence today, but there’s not a single modern Olympic sport based around the presence of fire, unless you count all those people who have to run that torch across the world. And I think we can all agree that seems pretty tame compared to tackling a blazing building.
Imagine, if you will, the way a fire fighting competition might have been conducted. Of course you’ve got your rudimentary tasks like unfolding hose, setting up ladders and making sure there’s a source of water nearby (luckily, fire hydrants were common place by 1900.) It’s when you get to the actual ‘quelling the flames’ part that things begin to get dicey. It’s unclear what sort of fires had to be subdued, but one would hope that fire-fighting athletes weren’t being put in *Backdraft*-esque situations.
It’s fairly clear why fire fighting didn’t survive beyond the exhibition stage— taking all the best fire fighters off the streets likely resulted in fiery infernos that might have been avoided had these brave men been at their posts. It behoves us to keep our fire fighting elite close to home, because without them, all those pyromanic teenagers would run rampant and we’d be settling our disputes in the Thunderdome.
2. Life Saving
In another attempt to appeal to audiences who wanted to see lives put on the line (there’s a reason gladiatorial games were once so popular) the Olympic committee instated life saving as an exhibition sport. Life guards, paramedics and practitioners of the then new-fangled CPR technique flocked to Paris to match wits with an international community of do-gooders.
Organizers gathered a group of volunteers, promising them a free boat ride with a wonderful view of the swimming competition and then promptly sank the vessel upon reaching the middle of a lake. The life saving competition began in earnest as teams raced to save the floundering victims. Judging was based not only on the speed with which lives were saved, but also the style and panache that accompanied these rescues.
Ironically, the large number of accidental deaths caused by the life saving competition made it unfeasible to continue in later years, thus signaling the end of the event’s Olympic exhibition status.
1. Pigeon Racing
Pigeon racers were athletes in the 1900s in much the same way professional videogamers are today—maybe even less so. The sport (if you can even call it that) revolved around releasing trained birds into the air, and then measuring the amount of time it took for the birds to return to a specified location. The individuals who raced the birds were referred to as “fanciers,” a hoity-toity term that denotes—among other things—an unnatural predilection for avian competition.
That the sport has almost died out is of no great surprise—it was likely on its way out in 1900. Like moat vaulting and speed scalping before it, pigeon racing was a past time that was far past its prime, a fact which likely played into the Olympic committee’s decision to remove the event from its unofficial roster. With their glory days behind them, pigeons took to city streets, begging for scraps from passersby and dreaming of the day that the wealthy become bored with their yachts and release them to the skies to compete for their pleasure once again.