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
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT