Analysis: rope climbing, underwater swimming, painting and sculpture are also sports which have disappeared from the Olympic Games over the years

The Olympic Games is the largest sporting celebration for many reasons. It's because of the number of athletes present, the number of people from different nations gathered together in the same place at the same time and especially the vast number of sports on the schedule. But since the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, many sports have disappeared completely from the schedule. What sports are no longer played at Olympic level - and why?

The International Olympic Committee makes decisions about which sports are included in the Olympic Games and which are omitted. The postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics had 339 events scheduled in 33 different sports for both men and women.

However, this has not always been the case, as women were subject to restrictions ever since they made their Olympic debut in 1900. Women were initially restricted to compete in the tennis and golf competitions and, over the course of the next century, they gained access to more Olympic sports. It was not until the 2012 Games in London, with the introduction of women's boxing, that women could compete in all the sports on the schedule. This proved to be a welcome addition for Ireland’s Olympic endeavors, as Katie Taylor picked up a gold medal at the inaugural women’s boxing event. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Darren Frehill recalls Katie Taylor's gold medal at the Olympic Games in 2012

In the early years of the Olympic Games, rope climbing featured as part of the gymnastics program. Competitors would start from a seated position before attempting to climb the 25ft vertical rope. The event disappeared from the Games in 1932 and nowadays only features when people are competing for the title of Ireland's Fittest Family.

Basque Pelota is perhaps one of the most obscure of lost Olympics sports, as the only time is was part of the Olympics was in 1900 in Paris. This ancient game from Spain can be played with a hand, racket or a basket on the wrist and the ball is smashed against a wall. Only two teams competed, so only one match was ever played. Spain won, making them the first and last Olympic champions of the sport.

From British Pathé, a 1933 introduction to Basque Pelota

Inspired by the GAA World Games, in which various clubs across the world gathered to play during a week-long tournament, GAA president Liam O’Neill said in 2014 that there were plans to seek official Olympic status for our national games However, Gaelic football and hurling made a brief appearance in the 1904 Olympics in an unofficial capacity when Fenians FC from Chicago beat host team St Louis by ten goals to nil. 

Baseball was added as an official Olympic sport in 1992, with its sister sport softball joining in four years later for the Games in Atlanta. In 2012, however, both were dropped from the Olympic ticket, the first time in 69 years that a sport itself had been removed from the Olympic program since polo was pushed out in 1936.

Professional baseball players had been allowed to compete in the Olympics, but often refused to compete due to an overlap with the Major League Baseball season. The IOC cited the League’s unwillingness to alter its season as a significant factor for dropping both sports. However, the snub was short lived and both baseball and softball were due to return to Olympic sport status for the 2020 Tokyo Games. 

From Facts, Irish dudes watch baseball for the first time

In Ancient Greece, art and sport were seen as perfect partners and this ideal was adopted for the modern Olympic Games. In 1912, architecture, sculpture, painting, literature and music competitions were part of the Olympic Games. Ireland’s first Olympic medals were secured at the 1924 Paris Games for painting and literature: Jack Butler Yeats won silver for his painting The Liffey Swim and Oliver St John Gogarty won bronze in literature for his Ode to the Tailteann Games. Ireland returned to the medal podium in art contests at the 1948 London Games when Letitia Hamilton took bronze in painting for her Meath Hunt Point-to-Point Races oil painting.

This would be Ireland’s last Olympic medal in such events as the arts and culture categories were discontinued in 1948. These competitions were replaced with cultural programmes which were completely separate from the sports competitions. Artists, designers, architects, choreographers and musicians now play an active part in the success of the Games in the construction of stadiums and other competition venues, the design of logos and mascots and the all-important spectacles of the opening and closing ceremonies.

From the Olympic Channel, some of the forgotten events from past Olympics

With all of these additions and exclusions in mind, what are the criteria for the addition of a sport to the prestigious Games? Firstly, sporting events are added, discontinued and sometimes reintroduced at Olympic level on the basis of their international popularity. Underwater swimming was scrapped from the Olympic schedule due to a lack of public appeal. Held in the River Seine during the 1900 Games in Paris, 14 swimmers from four nations took part. Competitors were awarded two points for each metre swum underwater and one point for each second that they stayed under water. 

For a sport to contested at Olympic level, it has to be governed by an international federation recognised by the International Olympic Committee. Sadly, this rules out bubble soccer, samba hurling and bog snorkeling becoming Olympic sports for the foreseeable.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ