Who has Olympic fever?! Rio 2016 has already been a controversial Olympic Games and it hasn’t even started yet. If you are getting into the Olympic spirit then you’ll enjoy reading this story about the history of the Olympics.

You won’t believe what used to be considered an Olympic sport. From solo synchronised swimming to rope climbing and even a swimming obstacle course. We take a look back at the most unusual sports in Olympic history here. 

The Ancient Games
The inspiration for the modern Olympic Games was the ancient Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC in honour of Zeus, king of the gods. It was held every four years on the plains of Olympia in Greece.

Ruins of an Olympic stadium in Epidaurus, Greece

Surprisingly, the ancient Olympic Games featured many sports that resemble ones we know today. There was running, swimming, javelin, discus, pentathlon and equestrian events. In fact, there were only a few events significantly different enough to be considered totally unique by today’s standards – two of these sports are the sports of pankration and chariot racing.

What is pankration?
This sport was a martial art that combined both punching and wrestling. Competitors would engage in savage one-on-one physical combat.

Unlike modern wrestling or boxing, belly kicks were allowed, but gouging an opponent’s eyes, nose or mouth was disallowed.

Obviously, this sport was not for the fainthearted. Perhaps modern day cage fighters would have been well prepared for this brutal and dangerous spectacle.

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Pankration is still practiced today in Ukraine (Image: SCHAMIN /

Chariot racing

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Chariots were commonly used for transport and in warfare in ancient Greece. Chariot events were first held in 680 BC.

The events consisted of 2 horse, 4 horse and 2 mule races. To win, a contestant had to complete 12 laps of the hippodrome track in first place, traversing sharp turns that would often result in dangerous collisions that could kill both the horses and the drivers.

Not surprisingly, this high impact sport was one of the most popular spectator events in the ancient games.

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Did you know? Chariot racing was a way for Greeks to demonstrate their prosperity at the games

The modern games
The first modern Olympics took place in Athens in 1896. Following this, the next couple of Olympic Games were rather non-events in the international sporting world. In fact, the Paris Olympics of 1900 and St Louis Olympics of 1904 were more sideshows to international conventions than main events. “Some athletes competed and didn’t even know they were competing in Olympic events,” says Olympic historian, Bruce Coe.

According to Coe, it wasn’t until the intercalated Olympics in Athens in 1906, that the Olympic Games began to build some international interest.

While most of the unusual early Olympic sports (as below) were discontinued in the 20th Century, they remain a fascinating and sometimes amusing part of a colourful Olympic Games history.

Tug of war
In tug of war competitions institutions such as the police force would often represent nations. And in the 1908 London Olympics this sparked some controversy when the American tug of war team made an official complaint about the bronze medal winning Great Britain team from the Liverpool Police Force. “The Americans believed the Liverpool police team had an unfair advantage because of their special footwear, and so there was a report and investigation after the games into how the American complaints were handled,” says Coe.

Not surprisingly, the British weren’t impressed. The Liverpool police team insisted that their competition shoes were “part of their regulation police footwear” and after the competition offered to tug against the Americans barefoot. But the American team rejected the challenge. Perhaps they weren’t so confident in their claims after all.

Rope climbing
In 1896 rope climbing was judged for the speed with which an athlete could reach the top of a 7-metre rope and for the style with which they could hold an L position on a rope. In later Olympics, this became a timed competition only, as competitors raced to touch a circular tambourine at the highest point of the rope.

The event was discontinued after the 1932 Olympics but enough interest in the sport has remained for world records to be set since then.

In 2010 Australian Marcus Bondi set a Guinness World Record on a 5-metre rope for the highest height climbed in 60 seconds using only his hands and from a seated position. His record is 27.8 metres or five and a half climbs up and down of the rope.

Marcus Bondi's recording-setting climb

Plunge for distance
This sport seems more at home at an Aussie backyard pool party than an Olympic Games.

Plunge for distance was a diving event at the 1904 St Louis Olympics. Competitors dropped into a pool from a standing position but without making any springing motion. The competitor that was carried the farthest in the water after 60 seconds or until their head broke the surface of the water, was declared the winner.

This event received lots of criticism in subsequent years with one commentator even claiming that it was without any athletic merit and that only fat competitors could achieve success since their weight would carry them further.

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Plunge for distance was criticised for not requiring athletic skill

Swimming obstacle course
There must have been a few sore heads at the 1900 Paris games where swimmers from five nations competed in a bizarre swimming event called the men’s 200 metre obstacle event. During the race swimmers had to climb over and under poles and rowboats. Frederick Lane from Australia placed first in the final with a time of 2:38.4 seconds.

Solo synchronised swimming
No one would doubt that the sport of synchronised swimming requires enormous athletic prowess as well as impeccable timing to stay in sync with the group, but this solo version of the sport sounds like a bit of an oxymoron.

The sport first appeared at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984 and last appeared in the 1992 Olympic Games. Its critics argued that staying in sync with oneself was a rather contradictory idea. It’s a good point and one that may have contributed to the sport’s demise. Despite this criticism, proponents argue competitors are actually staying in sync with the music.

Duelling pistols
It sounds potentially deadly for participants but thankfully, this fascinating sport that harks back to a bygone era of chivalry, wasn’t quite as dangerous as you would expect. Rather than taking aim at fellow duellers, competitors shot at dummies dressed in frock coats with bullseyes on their chests.

Live pigeon shooting
Australian Donald Mackintosh won the live pigeon shooting event at the 1900 Olympics – a sport that would be considered quite barbaric by today’s standards. Mackintosh shot 22 birds before he missed two and was struck out. For many years he was considered Australia’s first Olympic Gold medallist. It wasn’t until the 1980s that some historians finally acknowledged that although the event took place at the Olympics, it was not officially part of the Olympics program.

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Animal rights activists successfully campaigned to have live birds substituted for clay pigeons

So what happened to live pigeon shooting? Animal rights activists sparked a backlash that resulted in a ban in 1902 and the introduction of clay pigeon shooting from then on. 1900 would be the first and only time that live animals were purposely killed in an Olympic Games.

What’s new at Rio?
Australians have even more reason to watch the Olympics this year, with two hugely popular Aussie sports making a comeback to the Olympic program – golf and rugby.

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Australia's 2016 flagbearer Anna Meares (Image: Facebook/Australian Olympic Team)

Golf swings back into the Olympics
Rio won’t be the first time a golf club has been swung at the Olympics. In fact, golf was part of the Olympic program in the 1904 Summer Games, but was discontinued thereafter. But now the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has decided to reinstate the sport due to its increasing global popularity.

Competitors will compete in a 72-hole individual stroke play tournament and contest a three-hole playoff should there be a tie for the first three places.

Australia hopes to field some strong players, but there have been a few setbacks leading up to the team selection so far with number one in the world Jason Day and fellow top ranking Australians Adam Scott and Marc Leishman ruling themselves out of Olympic selection. Day was the last Aussie to withdraw citing fear of infection with the Zika virus.

In the men's competition hopes now rest with lesser-known golfers Scott Hend and Marcus Fraser who have secured their spots in the Rio team. In the women's competition, Minjee Lee and Su-Hyun Oh are Australia's medal hopefuls at Rio. 

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Su-Hyun Oh will hit the golf course for Australia at Rio (Image: Golf Australia)

Rugby’s exciting new Olympic appearance
Australia won the gold medal in rugby at the 1908 London Olympics beating the British team by 32 points to 2. Back then the game was played at a special stadium at White City that also had a swimming pool. Oddly enough the game was played alongside this pool.

“At one stage they had to have officials line the sides of the pool to fish the ball out of the water and back to the rugby field,” says Coe.

Rugby was discontinued after the 1924 Olympic Games, but makes a comeback as a faster paced seven player Rugby 7s competition in Rio. If they advance through to the playoff rounds the wallabies will likely face some strong opposition from 2015-16 World Rugby Sevens Champions, Fiji.

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Australian Rugby Sevens captain Ed Jenkins (Image: Rugby Australia)

But to advance in the competition, they will need to place first or second in Group B where they are up against South Africa, France and Spain. It’s shaping up to be a great contest with Australia well placed to win a medal.

The Rio Olympic Games begins Friday August 5 and ends Sunday August 21. The Paralympic Games will take place 7 September to 18 September 2016. More than 4,350 athletes from 160 nations are expected to participate in 22 sports, including the debut of Para-canoe and Para-triathlon.

The Rio 2016 Olympics starts streaming on Network 7 at 6am on Saturday 6th August. Rio is 13 hours behind Australian Eastern standard time. Their commentary team is headed by Bruce McAvaney and includes 15 Olympians including gold medallists Steve Hooker, Giaan Rooney, Scott McGrory, Rechelle Hawkes, Russell Mark, Debbie Watson, Drew Ginn and Todd Woodbridge. 

What are you most looking forward to watching at the Rio Olympics? Let us know in the comments section below.

(Feature image: testing /