Mark Mason

Brush up your Olympics

Become an instant expert on the most arcane events

Brush up your Olympics
during the Women's Beach Volleyball on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Horse Guards Parade on August 1, 2012 in London, England.|during the Women's Beach Volleyball on Day 5 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Horse Guards Parade on August 1, 2
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Amazing how many cycling experts came out of the woodwork last week, wasn’t it? Normally most of us couldn’t tell one end of a bike from the other, but give us an Olympic road race six days after Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour de France and all of a sudden we’ve got pelotons coming out of our backsides. With a week of these Games still to go, there’ll be plenty more chances to play the instant aficionado, so here’s your crib sheet for all the events the whole country will be talking about. For five minutes.


Invented in India by the British Army, and brought back to Blighty in 1873 at a party given by the Duke of Beaufort at his country estate, hence the name. Forget your cheap plastic shuttlecocks — top players only use real ones, made from cork and goose feathers, and can propel them at over 200mph. The feathers are taken from the bird’s left wing (which for some reason gives a better flight) while the goose is still alive, causing incredible pain. Badminton is the pâté de foie gras of Olympic sports.

Beach volleyball

Invented in California by Paul Johnson (no, sadly, not that one). Waiting for players to turn up for a six-man-per-side game, he decided to try playing with only the two per side present, the number now used. Des Lynam famously quipped that ‘going down the pub is not yet an Olympic sport, but beach volleyball is’, yet the game’s serious standing is shown by the fact that early US sponsors included Winston cigarettes, Schlitz light beer and Jose Cuervo tequila. Shots include the ‘pokey’ (hitting the ball with the knuckles), otherwise known as the ‘camel toe’, while avoiding blocking your opponent on a particular side of the court is a ‘pull-off’. Beach volleyball has no sense of self-irony.


You’re marked out of three for take-off, three for flight and three for entry (which should be as vertical as possible), with an extra point at the judge’s discretion making ten in total. No points for the design of the Aquatics Centre, where a sloping roof means some spectators lose sight of divers at the top of their arc. Go more than two feet away from the board during your dive and you lose points; stay too close to it and you also lose points, as well (potentially) as consciousness. (American Greg Louganis suffered concussion after hitting his head on the board during the 1988 Games.) This year the number of judges in the synchronised diving has been increased to 11 (three watching each diver, five evaluating the synchronisation), a ratio of observers to participants inspired by the number of Health and Safety officers present during construction of the Olympic park.


The only combat sport with no weight classes, and one of only five sports to have featured in every modern Olympics (the others being athletics, swimming, gymnastics and cycling). The tip of the weapon is the second-fastest moving object in sport (after the bullet in shooting), and suits are white because before electric scoring systems were invented, touches were recorded by a piece of cotton at the end of the weapon dipped in ink. Ballet was invented in 15th-century Italy as a dance interpretation of fencing.

There are three categories of weapon: foil (light thrusty one), épée (heavy thrusty one — pronounced so the second syllable rhymes with ‘day’, not like one of those things Gordon Brown was famous for having) and sabre (light cutty-and-thrusty one). Valid target area for the foil is the torso (double touches not allowed), for the épée the entire body (double touches allowed), and for the sabre everything above the waist (double touches not allowed), making the sport’s rules similar to those of Spearmint Rhino.


‘Artistic gymnastics’ is vault, floor, rings, parallel bars and all that jazz. Also includes the pommel horse, the pommels being the handles. This was invented centuries ago as a device for helping soldiers practise mounting and dismounting a real horse. Alexander the Great reputedly had one. Best ever display was surely in 1904 at the St Louis Games, where American George Eyser won six medals in one day (three gold, two silver, one bronze), one of his golds being in the vault, which in those days didn’t allow the use of a springboard — all with a wooden leg.

‘Rhythmic gymnastics’ is the dancey one, with competitors using hoops, balls, clubs and ribbons. (Where’s the Strictly-style prime-time BBC1 reality show? We want Widdecombe.) It has its roots partly in a form of physical training for musicians and dancers invented in the 19th century in Switzerland, but which by the 1960s had spread to Scotland, where a young Annie Lennox encountered it. The discipline is called ‘eurhythmics’ — Lennox dropped the first ‘h’ and used it for her band’s name.


Traditionally the first medal awarded in any Olympic games (this year China’s Yi Siling won gold in the women’s 10 metre air rifle). Its inclusion in the timetable is probably due to the fact that the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, was a French pistol champion. In the Paris Games of 1900 the moving targets were live pigeons, while for several years the stationary ones were in the shape of humans or animals. Funnily enough they stick to multicoloured circles now.


Kicks with your back to the opponent score double, hence the manic spinning. ‘Tae’ is Korean for foot, ‘kwon’ for fist and ‘do’ for way, hence ‘the way of foot and fist’. Pity karate still isn’t allowed into the Olympics — then you could show off your knowledge that it’s Japanese for ‘empty hand’ (just as ‘karaoke’ means ‘empty orchestra’).

Water polo

Invented in 1877 by William Wilson of the Arlington Baths Club in Glasgow. Still known for the ‘vigorous’ nature of its play, at the Arlington it was particularly violent. You could hold opponents underwater to get the ball back, while the goalie stood on the side and jumped in on top of anyone trying to score. Had to be Glasgow, didn’t it?

Above all, remember — it’s not the taking part in the conversation that counts, it’s the winning.