Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The joys of obscure Olympic sports

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
August 1, 2012 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Judo -- there's something you don't see on your TV every day. Gevrise Emane of France vs. Da-Woon Joung of South Korea .
Judo -- there's something you don't see on your TV every day. Gevrise Emane of France vs. Da-Woon Joung of South Korea .
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: Olympics compel us to watch sports we'd never follow
  • He says the rules and even language of sports such as judo aren't familiar to many in U.S.
  • At St. Louis games in 1904, tug of war was an entry -- at least the rules were plain, he says
  • Downey: I've attended 11 Olympics and still don't know what modern pentathlon is

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

(CNN) -- The best/worst (take your pick) part of any Olympic Games is the way millions of us end up watching a sport that millions of us wouldn't be caught dead watching under any normal circumstances. I love this stuff. Why, just a little while ago, I found myself reading a story that began: "Slovenia judoka Urska Zolnir won gold in women's 63 kilogram over China's Xu Lili."

I thought to myself, "hmmm .... I don't know what a judoka is, I don't know what a kilogram is, and, come to think of it, I can't even tell you where Slovenia is."

And then I think: "Wait a minute. Didn't you GO to Olympic women's judo once?" Yes, indeed I did. Barcelona, 1992.

I was there when Yael Arad, 25, a 136-pound (not sure how many kilograms that is) aspiring dietitian from Tel Aviv took second place to become the first Israeli athlete (man or woman) to win a medal (gold, silver or bronze) in an Olympic competition (summer or winter). Israel and judo, who knew? They go together like the United States and rugby, like Iraq and ice hockey.

I wrote about judo that day, even though I don't know judo from jiu-jitsu from karate from taekwondo. I only know that you sign up your grandson for lessons, and he goes to a class at a mall.

The women in Barcelona came out in what looked like white bathrobes. I saw one's belt come loose. Was that a point for her opponent? I saw one go down. "That's an ippon,'' I was told by the guy next to me.

I saw a point go on the scoreboard under the word "koka." It was my first time seeing an ippon go up on a koka. I was enjoying my first judo. I wasn't yet ready for the National Judo League to put Monday Night Judo on TV, but I was having a good time.

Palestinian athlete heads to London
South Korea's archery ambitions
U.S. seeks first badminton Olympic medal
The dos and dont's of Games branding

The women grunted and groaned on the mat and appeared to be having a really bad-ass game of Twister. It got pretty physical out there. Not quite Batman vs. Bane, but definitely tough stuff.

I got a kick out of watching them fight. I looked up that day's judo results later on a computer and found the following: 19 ippons, 13 waza-aris, 22 yukos, 35 kokas, 13 shidos, three chuis, two keikokus and no hansoku-makes.

Don't you hate it when you watch judo all day without seeing a single hansoku-make?

Sports of all sorts, that's the Olympics in a nutshell. I think they've had every kind of sport so far -- SO FAR -- except bungee jumping, elephant hunting and "Celebrity Apprentice."

The 1896 Athens Games began with King George I of Greece declaring them open. He did not jump out of a helicopter first with James Bond. He did not need to listen to the "Chariots of Fire" theme. He did not sit at home watching Bob Costas on TV, although Zeus knows that he probably did know a whole lot of guys named Costas.

Swimming was part of those 1896 Games. I doubt if any Speedo suits were involved. Do you know where the 1896 swim events were held? In the bay. I ain't kidding. They swam in the Bay of Zea, not in some cool pool. I bet the bronze medalist would be really angry if he lost a few seconds on the clock while attempting to swim for his life from a shark.

The 1900 Paris Games included cricket and croquet. It also had golf, which is being brought back for 2016. I am extremely excited about this, because whenever I think of an Olympic athlete, I think of a lean, hard, buff, rock-abbed, Adonis-like individual like Phil Mickelson.

Paris also had a sport called Basque Pelota. I personally love pelota, but not that Basque kind. In the first place, I believe it uses a designated hitter. In the second place, Basque Pelota is notorious for its MVPs being on steroids. I am glad Basque Pelota is gone now. Otherwise, NBC would probably ask Savannah Guthrie to get out there and try to play it.

The 1904 St. Louis Games had sports I could comprehend. Like tug of war, for one. Nobody needs to explain tug of war to me. One team tugs. The other team tugs. Whichever team tugs harder wins. I do not know if the losing team fell face first into Missouri mud, but I'd like to think so. (By the way, although Boston and New York usually get most of the publicity, St. Louis fans are considered by many to be the greatest tug-of-war fans in the world.)

Those 1904 Olympics also had a sport called roque, which is a form of croquet. It hasn't returned since, so maybe there was a scandal. Maybe the winner got caught corking his mallet. I wish croquet would make a comeback in the Olympics, particularly so the top croquet stars could end up with at least 500,000 followers on Twitter. I can see Canada becoming very good at this. The croquet fights alone would go over big in Toronto.

Nowadays, we have things such as archery, badminton, beach volleyball, canoe slalom, equestrian, handball, modern pentathlon and water polo that you don't usually see on TV. I mean, let's face it, there aren't a lot of archery highlights shown at 11 o'clock. Not a lot of "Top 10 Shuttlecock Shots of the Day." Not much canoe coverage for all you whitewater fantasy-league geeks.

I have been to 11 Olympics in person, yet I still have no clue what modern pentathlon is, or if there was ever old-fashioned pentathlon. The only archery I have witnessed between 2008 and 2012 was in "The Hunger Games." I am one of those old dudes who can't take synchronized swimming (or diving) seriously because all I can see is Harry Shearer doing it with Martin Short.

I just watched equestrian events on TV. I pull for the horses. I want a horse to get up on a pedestal and get a gold medal. I think the horse does the hard part and deserves the perks. I see some poor gelding about to leap over an obstacle, and I bet he's thinking to himself: "I could jump even higher if I could get this fool off my back."

Greco-Roman wrestling is another sport you can go four years without watching once on TV. I know there are networks that could use a hit, so they really should consider Greco-Roman wrestling with masks and costumes and 250-pound men jumping off the top rope.

It is so cool seeing some of these obscure Olympic sports come back to life.

I believe the popularity of some of these sports could rise dramatically if shown more frequently on TV. Bikini beach volleyball should be shown 23 hours a day. If I worked for NBC, for example, I would be absolutely begging the International Olympic Committee to give serious consideration to bikini judo.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT