Racewalking? Badminton? The 6 oddest Olympic sports

Stephen Dunn / Getty Images

No, it's not a scene from "E.T.": It's actually the June 16 trials for Olympic BMX racing in Chula Vista, Calif. Connor Fields, in the lead, won the event to win the second spot on the 2012 US Olympic Team.

Every four years, well-known Olympic sports like track and field, gymnastics, and swimming get their day in the sun.

Then you scroll further down the list of events. Trampolining? Racewalking? Shooting? Those are in the Olympics?

While it’s not quite like the early days of the modern Olympics in the 1900s, when tug-of-war, rope climbing and live pigeon shooting could earn you a gold medal, there are still those sports that are way off the beaten path in the public’s eye. But to their practitioners, these offbeat events pack just as much thrill of victory and agony of defeat as swimming and gymnastics.

Take Kyle Bowen, a former national-level trampoline competitor, for example. “We’re trying to get the sport in the mainstream and have it be more in the consciousness of society that it is a sport that is cool,’’ Bowen told TODAY.com. “People are like, ‘You do trampolining? Like, you jump up and down like in the backyard?’’’

Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

Alexander Rusakov of Japan competes in the men's trampoline final during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

While canoeing may be the stuff of summer camp hijinks and racewalking might seem like a glorified version of your neighbor trundling down the sidewalk in her neon workout gear, trampolining might have one of the bigger uphill battles in the sporting consciousness: The event has to fight the general notion that the trampoline is a staple of backyard broken bones, the apparatus of “Jackass’’-style mayhem, and a onetime fixture of gym classes across the country, before lawyers and insurance companies got involved.

Even though the sport is genuinely exciting, involving competitors flying as high as 30 feet in the air while executing flips and somersaults in routines that are judged on aesthetics and execution, it still fights to escape the connotation of being the bastion of backyard mishaps and kids’ birthday parties. Still, since its introduction as an official Olympic sport in 2000, trampolining has seen some growth in certain parts of the country as training sites spring up.

Bowen owns Elite Trampoline Academy in suburban Red Bank, N.J., the training home for brothers Steven and Jeffrey Gluckstein, who are currently battling each other in the Olympic trials for the lone U.S. spot in the London Olympics. Trampolining is governed by USA Gymnastics, but has to fight for attention because female gymnasts in particular are often the national darlings of the Olympics to the public and media. 

“I'm anxious to see now with the (Gluckstein) boys and how much press we've gotten if that will start to change a little,’’ Bowen said.

But trampolining is hardly alone in the category of surprising or strange Olympic events fighting for attention. Here are six others to watch heading into London.

BMX racing
Having debuted in the 2008 Olympics, BMX has that cool factor that comes with any action sport that has risen to prominence in the last 15 years. With racers flying off jumps on a single-lap dirt track full of twists and turns, plus collisions, wipeouts and more, there is rarely a dull moment in a BMX race. (There is also something cool about being covered in dirt when you win a gold medal.)

Oleg Nikishin / Getty Images

One of the stranger sports to watch, racewalking features competitors with hips swiveling quickly and arms pumping while they avoid having both feet leave the ground at the same time, which is a violation of the sport’s rules. Judges keep a close eye on any racer who moves his or her legs, even for an instant, into any motion that could be construed as running. It can be incredibly intense for competitors, and has even suffered its share of tragedy: Olympic hopeful Albert Heppner committed suicide in 2004, two months after a tough loss in an Olympic qualifying event. 

Team pursuit cycling
Two teams of four riders (three for the women’s event) start on opposite sides of the track and attempt to either pass the other riders or record the fastest time over four kilometers for men, and three for women. Riders are usually only inches apart in a formation and can hit speeds of nearly 40 miles an hour, so any slight change in speed for one rider can mean a crash. It’s strangely hypnotic to watch. It also quietly is one of the hotter tickets in London, as organizers are fetching $530 for the best seats in the house; Great Britain’s men’s team are considered a serious threat to win the gold.   

Not surprisingly, this is a sport favored by military personnel, so if you support our troops, this is the event for you. It’s also the rare instance where an active-duty member of the military can be an Olympic champion. The disciplines vary by the type of gun used (rapid-fire pistol, air rifle, etc.), the distances to the targets, and the time allowed for shooting. There also can be some intrigue, as American Matt Emmons fired at the wrong target on his final shot in the 2004 Olympics in Greece, which cost him a gold medal in the 50-meter, three-position rifle event. 

Ramzi Haidar / AFP/Getty Images

Table tennis and badminton
Be honest: The thought of being able to rocket shots off the corner of your ping-pong table against unsuspecting guests has always been a secret dream. Or maybe drilling badminton shots during the family backyard party at that uncle you can’t stand is a quiet fantasy. Well, these men and women play at that level all the time. The extra fun of badminton is that it’s one of the few sports in the Olympics featuring mixed doubles, which was introduced in 1996 in Atlanta, so it’s a rare chance to see men and women competing on the same team.

Hammer throw
While most Olympic track and field events can be found at your average high school track meet, this is one that you don’t normally see. Competitors try to whip a metal ball attached to a wire and handle into the air as far as possible. In the 18th century, competitors in Scotland, Ireland and England would throw an actual sledgehammer. While the men’s event has been in the Olympics since 1900, the women’s hammer throw was not introduced until 2000. The sport has made recent news, because transgender competitor Keelin Godsey, who was born female but identifies as a male, is trying to make the U.S. women’s team. 

Related video:
Only one brother can make Olympic trampoline team
En garde! Matt and Al duel on the plaza
Natalie tries gymnastics at Olympic training center


Discuss this post

I've never heard it called race walking, but speed walking...it has been a part of the olympics forever! If you didn't know that, you shouldn't be writing about it.

  • 3 votes
Reply#1 - Wed Jun 27, 2012 5:33 PM EDT

Speed walking is very different from Racewalking where the leading leg must remain straight until it has passed under the vertical and one foot must remain in contact with the ground at all times as seen with the naked eye.

Olympic event since 1908.

    #1.1 - Wed Jul 4, 2012 12:42 AM EDT

    My brother being a 3 time Olympic RACEWALKER, I know it is called RACEWALKING!!!

    • 1 vote
    #1.2 - Mon Jul 30, 2012 2:07 PM EDT


      #1.3 - Mon Jul 30, 2012 2:13 PM EDT

      The Olympics have become an exhibition for strange and unusual activities. It's like going to the circus.

        Reply#2 - Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:09 PM EDT

        Badminton is fastest racket sport in the world, with million-dollar prize kitty tournaments, and easily amongst the top 5 participation sports in the world .. how is it odd to have it at the Olympic Games? Hmm perhaps you should start watching some competitive badminton first to avoid coming across as dense thanks!

          Reply#3 - Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:13 PM EDT

          Badminton is the fastest racket sport in the world, with million-dollar prize kitty tournaments, and it's easily amongst the top 5 participation sport in the world ... so what's so odd about having it in the Olympic Games? Hmm you should probably watch some competitive badminton action on badmintonworld.tv or badmintonlink.com first before writing to avoid sounding dense! Good luck!

            Reply#4 - Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:16 PM EDT

            I couldn't agree more about Badminton being one of the most legit sports in the world. High caliber badminton players have an amazing blend on strenght endurace, agility, and explosiveness. Watch competitive badmintona and see what your missing America!

              #4.1 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 12:18 PM EDT

              Triple Jump. Sailing (except Windsurfing). Dressage.... Weird.

              • 1 vote
              Reply#5 - Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:19 PM EDT

              Team Handball: very strange to americans, at least netball is not in the olympics.

              • 1 vote
              #5.1 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 1:15 PM EDT

              Trampolining is the dumbest sport ever in The Olympics. The worst sport, it was in only 1 Summer Olympics - Skeet Shooting live birds; PULL! Bird flies out, and BANG!, it's dead, depending on the accuracy. But, I had a book of every Olympic Games -1896-1996, and there were other strange things. Even tennis was on the list of defunct sports in the Olympics, now making a come back

              There was also 'tug-o'-war'. Really? That lasted maybe 4 Olympics than was killed off

              Speed-walking is a quite rediculous, also.

              • 1 vote
              Reply#6 - Wed Jun 27, 2012 6:39 PM EDT

              "Speed-walking is a quite rediculous, also." I think you mean "ridiculous"

              "is a quite ridiculous" what?

              Speed walking is not an Olympic event. Racewalking IS.

                #6.1 - Wed Jul 4, 2012 12:45 AM EDT

                Sport Shooting. Rapid-Fire Pistol. Event over in 45 seconds.

                It was the first medal given in the Modern Olympics and traditionally still is.

                Other than Equestrian, Sport Shooting is the most expensive Olympic event for the particiapant to train in. It is also one of the few events where the winners are older; typically late 20's thru early 40's.

                • 2 votes
                Reply#7 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 8:20 AM EDT

                Equestrian sports human athletes are also primarily in that age range and can be much older. One rider this year is 70 years old! And, yes, it's is an expensive sport, even at the lower levels. We make many sacrifices just to ride, let alone, compete. But, it's well worth it.

                  #7.1 - Tue Jul 10, 2012 4:11 PM EDT

                  All are great activities. What is the benefit of this article? Celebrate these events. Maybe even take the time to become familiar with them.

                    Reply#8 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 9:40 AM EDT

                    Transgender competitor Keelin Godsey, who was born female but identifies as a male, is trying to make the U.S. women’s [hammer] team.

                    Wait a tick! Doesn't this sound suspiciously like a have-it-both-ways, cake-and-eat-it-too, sort-of argument? Fail!

                    • 4 votes
                    Reply#9 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 10:32 AM EDT

                    Do you think they'll add a billiards, putt-putt golf, and John Madden NFL competition someday?

                      Reply#10 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 10:59 AM EDT

                      How is any form of actual racing considered odd? Trampoline? Sure, I find that odd. Of course, I find synchronized swimming, diving, and gymnastics odd. I'm sure there are more that I'm not thinking of off the top of my head - at least for The Summer Olympic Games. Anything that is subjectively judged, IMHO, should not be in the Olympics. But nearly all the games/sports listed in the article, are measured objectively. So I don't see a problem.

                      BTW - yes, Scuromondo. Yes, it does. Male, or female. Please pick one.

                        Reply#11 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 12:48 PM EDT

                        Beer pong should be an Olympic sport ahead of trampoline.

                          Reply#12 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 1:12 PM EDT

                          WOAH. Calm yourself there. Speed walking and Equestrian, yes. Trampoline is amazing. 5 bucks says you can't even do a single back flip on a trampoline.

                            #12.1 - Fri Jun 29, 2012 12:24 AM EDT

                            $1000 says you can't jump a horse over a 2' jump let alone anything close to 5'. And the subtle cues needed to keep a horse going through a canter pirouette? I doubt you've mastered muscle isolation. I'm sick of people thinking equestrian events are easy just because they went on a trail ride while on vacation.

                            • 3 votes
                            #12.2 - Sat Jun 30, 2012 9:16 PM EDT

                            I agree that Olympic-caliber badminton is some seriously competitive stuff and I find the trampolining oddly entertaining. My kid in the backyard sure couldn't jump as high as those guys do. But my vote for oddest Olympic sport? Synchronized anything. Nothing against the individual skill level involved; synchronized swimming and diving both just look silly. I'm waiting for synchronized gymnastics. I mean, why not? Same principle...

                              Reply#13 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 1:43 PM EDT

                              One odd sport that could attract a lot of followers if put in the Olympics is sepak takraw. Look up some videos of it on Youtube. That game takes some serious athletic skill to master.

                                Reply#14 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 1:45 PM EDT

                                no matter how odd.......if the USA dominates gold in an olympic event, it wont be long before the IOC will ban it.

                                REINSTATE WOMEN'S SOFTBALL NOW!

                                • 1 vote
                                Reply#15 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 3:20 PM EDT

                                There was talk of pole dancing in the olympics. Whatever happened to that?

                                  Reply#16 - Thu Jun 28, 2012 3:39 PM EDT

                                  Equestrian should be removed from the Olympics. It has no business next to real athletes. While we are at it kick out canoeing, sailing, and synchronized swimming. These "sports" are watering down what it means to have a Gold Medal.

                                  • 1 vote
                                  Reply#17 - Fri Jun 29, 2012 12:18 AM EDT

                                  Out of curiosity, have you ever ridden a horse outside of pony ride or a trail ride at a ranch? Take a look at this, and tell me if you think it doesn't require endurance, strength, and skill

                                  EDIT: Apparently I can't post a link to a YouTube video. Type in Kentucky Rolex 2012 to a YouTube search and you'll see why this belongs in the Olympics.

                                  • 1 vote
                                  #17.1 - Sat Jun 30, 2012 9:23 PM EDT

                                  So Joe, how many of these events do you excel in?

                                  • 1 vote
                                  #17.2 - Wed Jul 4, 2012 12:53 AM EDT

                                  Equestrian should be removed from the Olympics because there are no athletes in these events. It is an abomination that these people are in the Olympics. While we are kicking out events, remove canoeing, sailing, synchronized swimming, and speed walking. These "sports" are watering down what it means to have a Gold Medal.

                                    Reply#18 - Fri Jun 29, 2012 12:22 AM EDT


                                    Anyone who has ever ridden a horse, or even knows someone who has ridden to win a ribbon - ANY ribbon in a show - ANY show, knows that being an accomplished rider is ALL about being an athlete. simple using the leg muscles required to post (look it up, it's a riding term) would turn most couch potato's legs to rubber. The balance required to stay on a horse (never mind look good) while it's going over a fence of any height exceeds the muscle control and basic core strength of the average American, and the basic determination required to approach competence, much less world-class excellence, in Equestrian is incomprehensible to the average television sports viewer.

                                    I speak not as a rider myself, but as the husband of one who rode both English and Western, took lessons in dressage, and took ribbons starting with the first show she entered. I have a fairly good appreciation for the level of athleticism required - and attained - by dedicated horse riders, and for you to assert that there "are no athletes in these events" can only be attributed to a lack of first-hand or even second hand knowledge of the events.

                                    You may not enjoy watching the events, and one can have a civilized discussions as to whether or not the events belong in the Olympics - but to deride the participants as not being athletes is simply to ignore the facts.

                                    • 1 vote
                                    #18.1 - Mon Jul 9, 2012 9:08 AM EDT

                                    Thank you OldGaffer! Most people don't realize the strength, balance, and skill required.

                                      #18.2 - Tue Jul 10, 2012 4:14 PM EDT

                                      To the author; with a name like Stump I'd be careful what I called "strange"!

                                        Reply#19 - Wed Jul 4, 2012 12:56 AM EDT

                                        I agree totally with mi from Seattle: all are great activities. What is the benefit of this article? Celebrate these events. Maybe even take the time to become familiar with them.

                                        About equestrian: it is the ONLY event that is open for men & women and has only 6 disciplines. I give you the top 10 of "biggest" sports (in disciplines): Athletics: 47, Swimming: 34, Wrestling: 18, Gymnastics: 16, canoe/kayak: 16, shooting: 15, weightlifting: 15, judo, cycling and rowing: 14. In these sports it is easier to be an Olympic champion. For me canoe/kayak, weightlifting, wrestling and modern pentatlon should be evaluated for sure on the criteria of the IOC.

                                          Reply#20 - Wed Aug 8, 2012 1:17 PM EDT
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