The events that make up the modern Olympic Games are largely familiar to even the most casual of viewers. Every two years, sports fans all over the world suddenly become experts on the likes of dressage, synchronised swimming and skeleton. It’s the beauty of the Olympic Games – minority sports get their day in the spotlight, and the world pays attention. But the process required to settle on the current line-up of events was not straightforward. Back in the early days of the modern Olympics, experimentation was crucial to help identify the perfect combination of events. And experiment they did. It’s fair to say they weren’t all winners. In 1896, there was a 100m freestyle swimming event. Nothing strange about that. Except that it was only open to members of the Greek Navy. Only three competitors entered – all Greek, and all sailors, obviously. The winning time was nearly a minute slower than the winner of the 100m freestyle for non-Greek Sailors. Ioannis Malokis won it in the time of 2 minutes 20 seconds. That’s 28 seconds slower than Eric the Eel managed at the Sydney Games 104 years later, making him a prime candidate for the title of Slowest Olympic Champion Ever.
Still, a win’s a win, and his mum was very proud. But the 100m Greek Sailor’s Freestyle was just the beginning. In 1900, things got weird. Seriously weird. A selection of demonstration events were given the opportunity to make their case for inclusion in the Olympic Games proper. Some of the highlights included cannon shooting… ..and firefighting. The 1900 games also included Olympic Games staples high jump and long jump. For horses. The inaugural equine long jump champ was called Extra Dry. Its winning distance was 6.10m. That wouldn’t even be close to a medal at the Youth Olympic Games.
Must try harder. Cricket also made an appearance in 1900. Unsurprisingly, it was won by the British, who beat a French team largely made up of Englishmen who worked at the British Embassy in Paris. The event did not return. One event which did establish itself in the early years was tug-of-war. Between 1900 and 1920, it was a major attraction at the Olympic Games, drawing competitors from Belgium, South Africa, Denmark and Sweden, to name but a few.
It was dominated by the British trio of Frederick Humphreys, Edwin Mills and John James Shepherd, who each won two golds and a silver between 1908 and 1920. All three were City of London policemen, so it’s fair to say that Edwardian Britain wasn’t the best time to be a criminal. But alas, like so many of the weird and wonderful events of the early years, tug-of-war was discontinued. It’s easy to forget that the Olympic Games haven’t always been a fixture in the sporting calendar and it’s easy to laugh at some of the ludicrous events that were once a part of the Games, but we salute the brave trailblazers who were there from the very start. Without them, the Olympic Games would not be what we all know and love today..