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The joys of obscure Olympic sports

By Mike Downey, Special to CNN
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Wed August 1, 2012
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.

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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.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

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