5 Olympic Sport Oddities

Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos, and László Cseh posing with their silver medals following the men's 100m butterfly final

Every Olympic sport is unique, with its own rules, divisions, and skills required to be successful.  However, as I watched the competitions taking place over the past two weeks and change, I couldn’t help but realize some interesting aspects of a few sports that I can’t really understand.  I’ve picked out five to discuss, and offer my opinions on changes I would make if I was the president of the IOC.

One of the stranger moments of the Olympics came during the finals of the men’s 100m butterfly, when Singapore’s Joseph Schooling took gold, denying Michael Phelps a perfect record in his final Olympics.  However, while Schooling’s performance was memorable, perhaps more so was the race for second place, ultimately culminating in a three-way tie between Phelps, South Africa’s Chad le Clos, and Hungary’s László Cseh.  That’s right, a three-way tie for second.  All three swimmers took home silver medals, and no bronze was awarded.  This happened because Phelps, le Clos, and Cseh all finished at the same time- at least to the hundredth of a second.  If that was standard procedure for the Olympics, there wouldn’t be anything strange about it.  However, in track and field events, a photo finish can be used to determine finishing positions.  While it may not be possible to accurately determine who finished first in swimming, I’d think it would be possible to record times more precisely.

While I’m on the subject of swimming, I also don’t understand why there is a men’s 1500m freestyle race but not a female equivalent.  Wouldn’t it just mean Katie Ledecky gets another gold medal?  Probably, but since there aren’t any physical reasons limiting competition to a particular gender, there really isn’t a good reason not to have the race, especially considering that the race is currently part of the World Championships.  And of course, the world record belongs to Ledecky.

Another sport which is run differently based on gender is soccer.  In the men’s tournament, each team consists of players age 23 and under (U23), with the modification that each team can include three players above the age limit.  However, on the women’s side, there are no age restrictions, allowing each country to field their best team.  On the surface, the men’s rule seems incredibly strange.  However, it was adopted for the 1992 Barcelona Games to protect the World Cup’s status as the premier soccer tournament in the world.  Knowing this, it does make sense to differentiate between the World Cup and Olympics.  However, what about the women’s tournament?  First played in the 1996 Athens Games, women’s soccer began after the men’s rule change and has always existed as a tournament open to all ages.  But doesn’t the Olympics take away from the Women’s World Cup?  My theory on this is that all female players are permitted to participate because they have fewer chances to play for their national teams than men.  For example, while the US Men’s National Team competes in tournaments such as the Gold Cup and Copa América, there aren’t female equivalents of these competitions.  Because of this, I understand the differences between the male and female World Cup tournaments.  However, I would like to see more international competition for women’s soccer in the future, so there can be a consistency between the Olympic tournaments.

My theory on this is that all female players are permitted to participate because they have fewer chances to play for their national teams than men.  For example, while the US Men’s National Team competes in tournaments such as the Gold Cup and Copa América, there aren’t female equivalents of these competitions.  Because of this, I understand the differences between the male and female World Cup tournaments.  However, I would like to see more international competition for women’s soccer in the future, so there can be a consistency between the Olympic tournaments.

The final two curious things I noticed both have to do with volleyball, and apply to both men’s and women’s indoor and beach volleyball.  First, in volleyball, the team that wins a point serves to begin the next point.  However, after watching several matches, it seemed to me like the team serving lost the point far more often than the reverse.  This is strange because serving is seen as a large advantage in tennis.  However, in volleyball, the team receiving the serve begins on offense and has the first opportunity to spike the ball.  Additionally, with rally scoring, if a team hits the net on their serve, a point is given to the opposing team, unlike tennis’ double fault rule.  After doing some research, I found that according to this FiveThirtyEight article, serving teams in volleyball win between 32 and 38 percent of the time, depending on gender and whether indoor or beach volleyball is being played.  Why, then, are teams penalized for winning points?  Some say the rule is to prevent blowouts, but in actuality, this rule just makes matches look deceptively close, as just a three or four point lead in a set can be extremely difficult to overcome.  I would at least allow the winning team to choose who serves, if not just have the losers of the previous point serve- the ball should already be on their side anyways.

Lastly, beach volleyball games are played best of three sets, while indoor games are best of five.  Sets are played to 25, with a team needing to win by two points to win the set.  However, if a beach game reaches a decisive third set, or if an indoor game goes the distance to the fifth set, the final set is only played to 15.  Why would this be?  Perhaps this final set is seen as the equivalent of overtime, which is a shorter period in games such as basketball.  However, when the game is played to a predetermined amount of sets, it makes no sense to me to make the most important set the shortest.

Those are five things I found odd about Olympic sports.  If you have any other additional things you found odd about the Olympics, or can help explain any reasons for what I thought was strange, comment below.

Thanks for reading,

Connor

Readers Comments (3)

  1. Great article, Connor. Some or your volleyball observations are why I found it difficult to follow the matches sometimes. I was intrigued at how they determined if a ball was “in” or “out” on some of the challenges. Apparently it’s not where the ball “hits” but where the area that the whole ball would cover. In other words if the ball actually touches the area outside the line but it’s shadow cast from above is on the line, it’s in.

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  2. Good article and interesting observarions that I had not observed.

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  3. You never cease to amaze me, Connor. This was interesting to read, and does point out some big inconsistencies. I think you’d make a great IOC President, by the way. Lastly, your paragraph that starts with my theory is a duplicate. Not sure how that happened, but should be deleted. Great article. I always learn something when I read your posts.

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