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July 24, 2012

When the Olympics included mud fighting and tug of war

Why do the Olympics have the events they have? Why don't they have swimming obstacle races, croquet, rugby or native mud fighting? The answer is that they once did.

Nowadays, the International Olympic Committee reviews the program for the games every four years and suggests only minor adjustments. And so we always have track-and-field athletics, swimming, gymnastics and a steady roll call of 26-28 other sports. Such was not always the case.

Until the mid-1920s, the events were chosen ad hoc by the local organizing committees. Since the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, only track-and-field athletics, cycling, fencing, gymnastics and swimming have been on the program every time. Even within those sports, the events have varied widely.

The Olympics of 1900 and 1904 share the honor of hosting the most unusual sports to have been included. The reason was that both games were held as sideshows to world's fairs — the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 — and therefore lasted several months.

In 1900, a series of obstacles were set up in the Seine River in Paris. Swimmers lined up for a 200-meter (656-feet) race in which they had to climb over a pole and a row of boats, then swim under another row of boats. That was the only time the 200-meter Obstacle Swim Race was contested at the Olympics.

Also in 1900, cricket was contested for the only time at the Olympics. The match was purportedly between French and British teams, but the French contingent was actually composed of British expatriates working in Paris at the time. Croquet also was played in Paris, then replaced in St. Louis in 1904 with a variant known as roque. Roque was named after croquet, by dropping the first and last letters, but played with smaller balls and much tighter wickets. Roque was hailed as the Game of the Century in 1904, but only four Americans competed and today it is essentially defunct.

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