Rio In Review: Race Walking And Other Olympic Sports You’ve Never Heard Of

A celebration of athletics, competition, camaraderie, and in more than a few instances, costumes, the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics Games have come and gone. In some ways they were like every other Olympics that came before, and in other ways not. Rio may come to be notoriously remembered for fielding a green pool, questionable facilities, a more questionable water supply, and the highly questionable thought process of Ryan Lochte.

If the Olympics should teach us anything, it’s that we should explore other cultures, and soon we will realize we’re not all that different. Just look at the opening ceremonies — every nation showcased giddy excitement, a desire to catalog the proceedings with their phones, and a love for outlandish and silly outfits. We’re all the same.

Yet, the Olympics can be an overwhelming spectacle, with some 300 events awarding medals, 200 countries involved, and unfortunately—especially if you’re watching in the United States on NBC—what you see can be heavily edited, pre-determined, and sometimes tape delayed. We’re not as exposed to the stranger events and stories as we should be. It’s hard to consume it all under the best circumstances, but like any art or culture festival, preparedness is the key. What follows are some of the weirder, stranger events that took place at Rio. And thus, with four years until Tokyo, here’s a look at some events to prime for ahead of the next games.

Dressage

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By now, we must all know just how easy it is to make fun of horse sports — in particular, dressage. So let’s do it! (Kidding.) Horse dancing, as it’s casually and maybe dismissively known as, is one of the more arcane Olympics sports to grasp (the 100m sprint and the 50m freestyle swim being the most simplistic; i.e. go from here to there as fast as you possibly can).

However, just because it’s complex and inaccessible (all you need is tens of thousands of dollars and a dream!) doesn’t mean it’s not a real sport involving real skill and a loose definition of athleticism — it just means that for a lot of people, it’s a little out of reach. And I’m sure the People Of The Horse are pretty relaxed (their outfits notwithstanding) about the questioning eye on their sport. It’s easy to see it as just a person in love with their pet.

I’m sure there are plenty of defenses for this event, and those that love it are well equipped to do so. That being said, in all seriousness, how do you have an event where some of the work is being done by a sentient being that has no idea he’s competing for a gold medal? The horse really has no idea he’s at the Olympics.

The Steeplechase

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This one is pretty cool, because first of all, if you’ve never heard of it before, you’d surely have no idea what it actually was. Unfortunately, there is no real chase, which really should be an Olympic event itself — I mean, the game of tag surely has some sporting potential.

Anyway, Steeplechase is an Irish sport that initially saw athletes race on horseback across obstacles, but soon the competitors did away with the horses because they wanted to slog through pits of water and jump hurdles on their own. So basically we have an obstacle course in the Olympics, and really, it’s not that far from an event on an episode of American Gladiators.

Canoe Slalom

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Inexplicably, this sport experienced a name change from ‘Whitewater Slalom’ to the less menacing ‘Canoe Slalom.’ The sport is more or less self-evident: like skiing down a mountain, competitors race down a river, hitting gates and navigating wild rapids.

Two things are weird about this event. Firstly, it’s not a sport that North American audiences get a chance to see a lot, which is strange because it sounds like tons of fun and pretty easy to digest. Secondly, it’s not a sport that is combined in any other event. How there is no a triathlon featuring this, rowing, and swimming is ridiculous. In fact, there needs to be some all-water combination of events where the winner is dubbed King of the Ocean. Fencing from a raft should also be included.

Race Walking

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There is absolutely no denying that this sport takes immense physical endurance, mental fortitude, and discipline. However, there is also no denying that it looks pretty ridiculous (which doesn’t necessarily make it unique when it comes to the Olympics). It’s just that race walking sounds like an oxymoron, and when you have the visuals to go with it, it’s almost like watching a bunch of kids moving to jump in a pool but knowing they’ll get in trouble if they run.

What’s more, there is something inherently strange about an Olympic competition in which you’re more or less exercising restraint. In race walking, athletes must have one foot on the ground at all times, which is the salient detail differentiating it from, you know, running. It’s just a form of movement that is antithetical to speed. I’m sure there are other examples, and yes, swimming has a whole bunch of different strokes, some faster than others, but race walking can’t help but seem like a sport unfulfilled. And if we grant that participating in the sport looks a little odd, then one French athlete added insult to injury when he couldn’t quite control his bodily functions. (Take my advice: don’t look it up.)

Modern Pentathlon

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Here we have what is clearly an event that was created and added to the roster of competitions by choosing, at random, from sports that already exist. Throw all the events in a hat, mix them around, and pull out fencing, show jumping, swimming, running, and shooting a pistol. I suppose the ‘modern’ part of the title refers to it being completely inane, because the only modern person who would actually use all these skills across a few days is James Bond in A View to A Kill (sub out swimming for skiing, and it pretty much works). Obviously they all take various degrees of skill and athleticism, but what does it mean to win such a competition (besides calling yourself James Bond)?

There are two ways to fix this event. First, make it random, and at the start of the Olympics select the events that these people will be competing in, and you’d definitely be earning the title then. Or second, just make it a truly genuine modern pentathlon, with the following events: don’t get hit while riding a bike downtown in any major city, binge a season of House of Cards and then write a 5,000 word blog post, ghost someone you just started dating, race your inner tube down the lazy river, and walk 10k while texting. All hail the modern pentathlete!

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.