The essential guide to understanding the Olympic sports

The Olympics, much like the World Cup, is an event so momentuous that it captures the attention of the whole world for a good 17 or so days, die-hard sports fanatics and casual viewers included.

If you belong to the latter group, this guide is for you.

Ever wondered why an athlete who performed a dive consisting of more twists than you could count was awarded with only an average score? Or why a fencing match was all but over in a mere 5 minutes? Watching the Olympics is akin to following a television series or soap drama — you need to know the context and back story in order not to lose the plot. In the case of sports, this means knowing the rules and history of the games. Unless you practice all the 26 Olympic sports yourself, the rules of some sports may be Greek to you.

The sports to be contested in the upcoming London Summer Olympic games are: acquatics (diving, swimming, synchronized swimming and water polo), canoeing and kayaking, cycling, gymnastics, volleyball, equestrianism, wrestling, archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, fencing, field hockey, football, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing, shooting, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, triathlon and weightlifting.

Since the rules of popular sports like athletics, badminton, football and basketball have more or less been made clear by years of school sports meets, ESPN and more recently, NBA’s Linsanity, this guide will focus on 5 sports which are not as popular in mainstream media.

1. Diving

Diving is one of the most graceful displays of athletic ability, with its many acrobatics. It requires daring, coordination, muscular control and precise timing. There are approximately 70 different dives listed for competition. Each dive is given a designated number and can be performed in one of four positions: the straight dive, the pike, the tuck or the free position (a combination of the previous three).

Diving positions

For Olympic games and world championships, at least seven judges make up a panel. Each judge rates every dive on the approach, takeoff, elevation, execution, and entry into the water. A score from zero to ten is given. The highest and lowest scores are cancelled and the remaining scores added and multiplied by the degree of difficulty to produce the final score. The difficulty ratings are from 1.0 for simple dives to 3.4 for very difficult. As such, Olympic calibre athletes tend to attempt dives of high difficulty, entering the water perpendicularly with as little splash as possible.

2. Boxing

Boxing has traditionally been a men-only sport. However, women will compete in this sport for the first time come the London Olympics 2012. Boxers compete in tournaments across 11 weight classes, engaging their opponents only with their fists.
Each round is supervised by a referee over a series of between one to three minute intervals. The result is decided when an opponent is deemed incapable to continue match by a referee or if an opponent is disqualified for breaking a rule, resigning by throwing in a towel, or by judges’ scorecards at the end of the bout. In Olympic bouts, a device is used to track how many punches is landed onto a boxer’s front or side. The boxer who throws more punches is scored higher. Other factors taken into consideration are aggression, control of the ring, control of the tempo of the fight and damage inflicted.
In the late 1980s, Mike Tyson was a force to be reckoned with in the boxing ring, terrorizing his opponents with swift, crushing blows. Cultural icon Muhammad Ali too made his name in the ring, winning a gold medal for USA in the Rome Summer Olympics 1960.

3. Fencing

Fencing has a long tradition dating from the renaissance period up till the early 20th century. It requires great balance and coordination, in addition to agility. After World War II, however, the need for this form of duelling declined sharply. What was once a sport for aristocrats is now only practiced in competitions.

Olympic fencing uses three weapons: the foil, épée and sabre. Fencing dates its roots back to 12th century Europe, hence its predominantly French terminology. The basic moves are the lunge (extending the leading foot quickly in order to attack), the parry (a defensive move, used to block your opponent’s blade) and the riposte (scoring a hit after you’ve successfully executed a parry). In competitions, an electronic scoring apparatus determines the validity of scoring touches and a set of rules called right of way or priority help to eliminate referee error and bias.

Weapons used in fencing

Individual fencing bouts last for three rounds of three minutes each, or until one fencer has scored 15 hits against their opponent. In the team events, teams of three fencers compete against their opponents over a series of nine bouts, with the aim of accumulating a maximum of 45 hits.

4. Modern pentathlon

The modern pentathlon event is the only event created specifically for the modern Olympic Games by its founder, Pierre de Coubertin. Based on the skills of a soldier in the ancient Olympic Games, this event was designed to test the mettle of athletes as if they were 19th century foot soldiers behind enemy lines. The five aspects to this sporting event are: épée fencing, pistol shooting, freestyle swimming, show jumping on horseback and cross country running. Athletes who participate in this event need to excel at all five sports, making this a famously arduous event to train for. Winning, however, would earn bragging rights as the “best all-round athlete in the world”.
The crux of the event is focused on shooting, which the athletes will have to execute during their cross country run. The first American competitor in the modern pentathlon, General George Smith Patton, Jr., came in tops in all events other than shooting, where he was placed 23rd. He obtained an overall fifth, losing out on what could have been the USA’s first gold medal in the modern pentathlon.

5. Judo

Judo was first included in the Summer Olympic Games at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, Japan and has persisted in the Olympic program ever since. Meaning “gentle way”, it focuses on the use of grappling maneuvers, joint locking and strangle chokes or holds to subdue one’s opponent. Strikes and thrusts by hands and feet, and weapons are not permitted in competitions. Like in boxing, judokas compete in weight classes.

In competitive judo, athletes win by throwing their opponents down. A throw that places the opponent on his back with impetus and control scores ippon, winning the contest. A lesser throw, where the opponent is thrown onto his back, but with insufficient force to merit an ippon, scores waza-ari. Obtaining two scores of waza-ari equal ippon. A throw that places the opponent onto his side scores yuko, but they are only considered in the event of an otherwise tied contest. Penalties are also given. In the case of a serious violation of rules or if four penalties are accumulated, a hansoku make may be awarded, disqualifying the judoka from the tournament.

As the countdown to the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games on 27 July 2012 begins, what sports are you looking forward to watching most? Tell us by taking this quick poll:


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