8 Things You Didn't Know Were Olympic Sports

by Morgan Brinlee

On the surface, the Summer Olympics can easily appear to be a bit of gymnastics interspersed between swimming heats and track and field events, but there's a whole lot more to the Games than you may have thought. While athletes like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt keep us watching some of the Games' most popular events, there are numerous other athletes who trained just as hard and just as long for a shot at gold in Olympic sports that remain almost totally unheard of. Understandably, some of the most obscure Olympic sports are also easily the weirdest.

While swimming, gymnastics, and track and field remain some of the most popular Olympic sports, spectators are familiar with events like diving, fencing, soccer, table tennis, synchronized swimming, and beach volleyball. Yet there remains a slew of Olympic sports almost too-weird-to-be-true just waiting for their own 15 minutes of fame. I won't get into the oddity that is team rhythmic gymnastics (basically an 11-year-old girls' dream sport) as it, like curling in the Winter Games, has found a growing fan base inexplicably drawn to its strange wonder.

Instead, here are nine things you may not have known were Olympic sports happening in Rio this month.



I'll admit, handball was a game I largely avoided playing in elementary school as there seemed to be a lot of rules, and running. Who knew the sport was so popular among adults? While we may only be learning about it now, handball has a surprisingly long history in the Olympics. It was first played (by men) at the Berlin Games in 1936 but then disappeared from the program until it was played as a demonstration sport at the 1952 Helsinki Games.

The team sport was officially added as an indoor sport to the Olympics beginning with the 1972 Munich Games, with women's handball introduced at the 1976 Montreal Games. The sport doesn't receive a lot of coverage in the United States, perhaps because the U.S. teams has never medaled in the event.

Field Hockey


Like handball, field hockey is another sport we've all probably heard of but likely failed to realize it was a part of Olympic competition. The United States has only a women's field hockey team in Rio this year.

This may be the year to watch U.S. field hockey. After failing to medal in the sport since 1984 (not too mention an incredibly disappointing performance in the London 2012 Games), the U.S. women's field hockey team appear to have bettered their game. They won the 2015 Pan-American Games and are now ranked 10th in the world.


Perhaps the best way to describe the steeplechase is as Olympic obstacle racing. The event's name actually comes from a distance horse race in which competitors (horse and human that is) jump over a series of fence and ditch obstacles. I have no idea whose idea it was to remove the horses from the race, leaving runners to sprint their way over barriers, hurdles, and, yes, even a water pit, but the event first appeared at the 1900 Summer Olympics. American Emma Coburn will race in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase final.

Modern Pentathlon

The ultimate hodgepodge of events, the modern pentathlon sees competitors take part in five separate events, all held on the same day. The first element of a modern pentathlon event is fencing, followed by swimming, a horse riding course, and a race that combines running and shooting. The sport is a mix of physical and mental tests reportedly designed to assess the skills and abilities required of a soldier, according to WIRED. It has been part of the Olympic Games since 1912.


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Olympic trampoline continues to be the one sport I just can't wrap my head around. This year Rio saw Belarus' Uladxislau Hancharou claim the country's first gold medal in men's individual trampoline in an upset over two heavily favored competitors from China. Participants perform a series of aerial acrobatics — think flips, somersaults, and twists — while bouncing up to 26 feet in the air.

I know what you're thinking and yes, our parents totally did squash our chance to be Olympic athletes when they told us not to jump too high on our backyard trampoline. The trampoline is one of the Games' blink-and-you-missed-it events, as competitors' routines last less than a minute. The sport is relatively new to the Olympics, appearing first at the 2000 Games in Sydney.


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A lot of people may tell you dressage doesn't belong in the Olympics because it's not a test of athletic endurance, but equestrian events are the Olympic sports you didn't know you needed to be watching, until now. Dressage (and the Olympics' other equestrian competitions) is the only event in Rio where men and women are not divided for competition.

Often referred to as "horse dancing," dressage involves both horse and rider working together to complete a routine comprised of elaborate and graceful steps, trots, and turns. It is both one of the oddest and mesmerizing sports you can watch at the Summer Games.

Canoe Slalom

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Although weird, canoe slalom is probably the one Olympic sport we'd all like to try our hand at. I mean what sounds more fun than navigating a river rapids course in a canoe? Unlike the canoe sprint (yes, that's also an Olympic sport) in which competitors race on a straight, flat course, the canoe slalom event involves river rapids and a series of marked gates in which competitors must navigate through without actually touching the gate (that's a penalty). The sport has reportedly been a thrilling part of the Games since 1972.

Race Walking

Undoubtedly one of the weirdest Olympic Sports, race walking is often overshadowed by his brother, running. It's hard to watch a race walking event and not be reminded of people who speedwalk around the mall in the name of exercise. It's reportedly been an Olympic sport all it's own since 1908 (it appeared at the Games in 1904 as part of the all-rounder) and includes a downright painful looking hip wiggle that allows racers to abide by the sport's biggest rule — keep one foot on the ground at all times.