BY JOHN DOLAN
FOR a few minutes every four years, armchair sports enthusiasts suddenly become avid fans of a host of strange and unusual pastimes.
We grapple with the complexities of the scoring system for Greco-Roman wrestling.
We nod solemnly when a horse performs a Cristiano Ronaldo-style stepover in the dressage.
And we stare in wonder at the hand signals used by the female teams in the volleyball, which are handily situated next to the competitors’ pert backsides to avoid accusations of perviness from the missus.
Yes, the Olympics is about more than running and jumping. It’s about the archer from Afghanistan, the kayaker from Katmandu and the modern pentathlete from Mongolia.
There’s really no need for me to explain most of the 36 sports — athletics, football, golf, etc — but we all struggle to follow who’s who and what’s what when faced with minority pastimes in the hundreds of medal permutations — for instance, weightlifting has 15 different divisions, going from 48kg to 105kg-plus (the Yanks should be good at the latter).
So, ever eager to help fellow armchair sport fans, here is my Olympics for Dummies guide. With tongue ever so slightly in cheek, it’s my handy little explanation of some of the lesser- known sports on show in the next fortnight…
WATERSPORTS: The main sport in this section is, of course, swimming — for many, the highlight of Olympics viewing. There are breaststroke, butterfly and backstroke events — strangely, there are no specific events for the front crawl, which Olympic legend Johnny Weissmuller always seemed to excel at in the Tarzan movies. Nor is there a doggy paddle event, which would be fun to see. The crawl is covered in the freestyle section, while the relay events involve four swimmers and there’s a marathon swim over 10km — the sort of distance Steve Redmond would cover before breakfast. The Synchronized Swimming is always worth a peek. Did you know competitors are not allowed wear transparent cossies? And the water has to be a constant 26C. Cissies. There’s talk that China will sweep the board in the Diving, which is a great spectator sport. Alas, bombing doesn’t count in the scoring process. I admire the Water Polo competitors, but not half as much as I admire their poor horses… Although not classed as a water- sport per se, I will also slot the Canoe/Kayak Slalom and Canoe/Kayak Sprint into this section. One question I am constantly asked in the street, is what is the difference between a kayak and a canoe. The answer, of course, is I haven’t the foggiest, but Dr Google tells me canoes can carry more than two people, are easier to paddle, and are usually bigger. Kayaks originated from eskimos and canoes in North America.
CYCLING: Another once-every-four-years treat, the main cycling events are on track or on road. There is a new-fangled mountain bike section for people from Montenotte and a BMX section, presumably for kids under 12. Huh, next thing they’ll have a ’bike-and-crosser’ category, or a ‘bike-with-picnic-basket’ one.
HORSEY STUFF: We can only marvel at the intricate beauty of the Dressage, and the even more intricate scoring system. Please don’t show your ignorance and roar any Irish riders to “get a move on”. It’s not a race. At least the Eventing and Jumping are easier to follow. Gallop like crazy and don’t hit the bloody obstacles! Shame there are no on-course bookies in this section of the gee-gees though, they would surely add a frisson of excitement to the rather staid atmosphere.
GYMNASTICS: Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, Jane Fonda… we’ve all marvelled at the leotard-clad Olympic gymnasts stars down the years. The event is split into two parts, Artistic Gymnastics and Rhythmic Gymnastics. The first is all the familiar vein-popping stuff, like the horse, the bars and the vault. The second involves prancing around with balls, hoops, ropes and clubs… sounds like the equipment for a sex scene from Fifty Shades Of Grey, doesn’t it? The Trampoline also falls under this section, the sport where bouncebackability is essential.
WRESTLING: Like the weightlifting, Wrestling Freestyle is split into weight categories for men and women. As for the Greco-Roman Wrestling, you might think it was only introduced this year to enable Greece and Italy to win medals and cheer up their beleaguered, recession-hit peoples, but it’s actually one of the oldest Olympic sports.
SOFT PORN: It’s hard to place Beach volleyball into a particular sporting category, so the above should cover just about every angle…. a bit like the TV cameras, we hope. Apparently, there’s a men’s version in the Olympics too. You learn something new every day.
ARCHERY: Archery is not the greatest spectator sport, despite requiring remarkable finesse and a heart rate of one beat every few minutes. Imagine a golfer sinking a putt from 70 metres away. That’s the distance that an archer’s arrow covers to hit the bullseye, which is roughly the diameter of a golf hole. And the archers’ bow strings are tougher than steel… which makes you wonder why we all don’t actually use it instead of steel. Whatever, those archers have nerves of string.
BADMINTON: Did you know that the shuttlecock is made of goat skin and goose feathers? If it was made from a rooster’s feathers and the hide of male cattle, that would be a cock and bull story. Sorry.
FENCING: En garde! There are three varieties of sword used in this — the epee, the foil and the sabre. The first two are descended from the duelling sword, and the latter is a dashing cavalry-type one. Interesting fact: We get the word ‘foible’ from fencing — it’s the name for the weaker part of a sword blade, between the middle and the point.
HANDBALL: A team game of seven players each, who pass a ball around with the aim of throwing it into the opposition’s goal. Diego Maradona was a dab hand at it. Literally.
MODERN PENTATHLON: This involves five events: pistol shooting, fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3km cross-country run. Sounds like a scene from a Bond movie. It’s ‘modern’ to distinguish it from the ancient Greek version, which involved a foot race, wrestling, long jump, javelin and discus. It’s surely safe to drop the ‘modern’ wording, presumably all the ancient Olympians are long dead.
TAEKWONDO: A Korean martial art which is heavy on the kicking, this is surprisingly popular in Ireland. It sort of means ‘the way of the hand and the foot’ but with a bit of violence thrown in for good measure. It is quite a philosophical, meditative sport, with oaths along the lines of ‘I shall build a more peaceful world’. Presumably, with the unspoken rider ‘But if you try to stop me achieving it, I’ll kick you in the larynx’.