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Early Olympics full of kids' stuff

If you've been swimming, you probably tried it at least once: Dive into the water and see how far you can get without taking a stroke. If you coasted past 62 feet, you could have earned a gold medal at the 1904 Olympics.

The tug-of-war you played with friends at school? That could have been worth a podium spot at six Games. A gym class favorite like the rope climb and a game that looked like hopscotch – the standing hop, step, jump – also were once medal events.

Long before the corporate sponsorships and billion-dollar television deals, the Olympic Games were more like games kids might play in the backyard. Some of the events may seem a bit strange – club swinging, anyone? – but there was certainly a fun factor to the early days of the Olympics.

“It's was a different thing, kind of catch as catch can, particularly the very early days before it got formalized,” said David Wallechinsky, vice president of the International Society of Olympic Historians. “Eventually, as it got bigger, they had to take it a lot more serious.”

The first few modern Olympics, which started in Athens in 1896, were loosely organized. There were no national teams – athletes could just sign up, pay an entry fee and compete – and the host countries were allowed to pick what events would be held.

The 1906 Athens Summer Olympics featured dueling pistols. Despite the Wild West connotations, the participants didn't actually shoot each other; they fired at mannequins dressed in frock coats with bull's-eyes on their chests.

For authentic blood and guts, you'd have to go back to the 1900 Paris Games and live pigeon shooting. Nearly 300 birds were killed in the release-and-shoot competition, leaving a mess of feathers and blood after an event that clearly wouldn't fly today.

The swimming obstacle race in 1900 was another unusual one, with swimmers climbing up and down a pole, then over and under boats in the Seine River. Surely, some kid at the local swimming pool made that one up.

“It was probably tremendously entertaining,” says Olympic historian John Lucas. “It was sort of like an X sport for the amusement of the mob.”

Of course, peculiar events weren't limited to the early days.

For the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Olympic organizers introduced solo synchronized swimming. The idea was for the swimmer to synchronize with the music, but viewers couldn't get past the whole lack of a partner thing, and the sport was dropped after the Barcelona Games in 1992.

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