The Olympics needs more playground sports

I have been watching the Olympics in Asia, as I mentioned last week, and I have discovered something that’s both extraordinary and disturbing. Which is that not every country determines what events to broadcast on the basis of Australia’s medal chances.

I know, right? You would have thought that in places like Hong Kong and Singapore, they’d be tuning in for every moment of Australian excellence, in the hope of learning a little something about sporting awesomeness. They might also have learned something about winning silver medals, a competition in which we’re currently gold-medal favourites. (Hint: it’s probably better if, when you mount that podium, your facial expression isn’t this one.)

It turns out that for some reason, Asian television networks also focus on events where their country might win a medal. Consequently, my Olympics has been a little different from what I would have seen back home – although they don’t have Eddie McGuire’s commentary, so there is some upside.

I’ve been watching a lot of badminton, volleyball and table tennis, which has brought a lot of fond memories flooding back. First, I remembered that these sports were part of the Olympics in the first place, something we tend to forget in Australia. And I’ve been reminiscing about how much fun they were to play back in high school. I loved badminton – whacking a shuttlecock and watching it float gently down across the net is endlessly satisfying, like tennis with the addition of hang time. And volleyball is great too, although it requires a little more skill than I have to consistently smack the ball back over the net instead of into it.

But my favourite Olympic sport to play is ping pong. My brother and I used to hold huge series at my grandparents’ house, and during uni I regularly skipped lectures to play long rallies in which my friends and I used to compete not to win the point, but to achieve a positively Gillardian volume of spin. It was far more satisfying than attending classes, and I’m not sure that it was any less rewarding in the long run.

The sports that we played as kids seem almost too much fun to be in the Olympics, really. And I suspect that by choosing to specialise in such enjoyable pursuits, Asia might be onto something. How great would it be if you could become an Olympian by playing table tennis for ten hours a day?

Now, it’s become clear that Australia needs to pick some new Olympic events, because our traditional sports are in crisis. Or at least, we have fallen below the ridiculous heights we achieved in 2000 and 2004 after pouring vast funding into sport for our own Games, and now think we deserve to maintain forever. But nevertheless, the Australian public has spoken, and our view is that there must be more gold.

Rather than competing in events like long-distance running that require genuine work, though, why don’t we come up with some new Olympic sports? And if we push for the games we played back in school to be added to the programme, we’re have the most precious thing you can have at any Games: an unfair advantage.

I’ve pulled together a few suggestions so we can start lobbying the IOC immediately. John Coates should feel free to start talking these new sports up when he’s calling everybody to apologise for his son.


Real handball

I’m sure that many people, like me, were surprised and delighted to see handball on the Olympic programme, and imagined it was the same as the magnificent game we used to play in school. But no – Olympic handball is like soccer, only you can throw the ball. Who wants to do that? Well, Europeans, apparently. What the Olympics need is Aussieplayground handball – it’s a sport anybody can play with only a worn-out tennis ball and a piece of chalk.

In the Olympics, there would be both singles and fours categories, of course. Of course, the competition would be professional-level. Which means no intoes or hoonying. And imagine if we had Hawkeye to end those perpetual arguments about whether the ball had its second bounce on your side of the line or your opponent’s.



This is what we used to play back before handball’s ascendency, throwing a tennis ball at a wall and then at one another. Brandings combines skill at throwing and catching with that little twist of violence which would make it an outstand television sport. I can just imagine the super slo-mo as the ball raises a bruise on somebody’s thigh.

Australia’s cricketers could form the nucleus of our Olympic brandings team – their ability to pull off spectacular one-handed slips catches and fire the ball at the stumps would make them fearsome brandings competitors. Ricky Ponting has the skills and the temper to be truly world-class – you can only imagine how much he would have liked to peg a ball at Steve Smith after that collision.



Wikipedia calls this ‘British bulldog’, which I remember it being called when I lived in England as a kid. Forget that – its name is bullrush, and that’s all there is to it. It would favour the sprinters already competing at the Olympics, obviously, and the chance to see Usain Bolt playing bullrush would pack the fans in.

In order to give Australians a chance of a gold medal, we would include not only the classic ‘tip’ version but also the ‘tackle’ variant that some of the rougher kids at my school insisted on playing. It’s one thing to simply tap somebody on the back, but the need to take them down at full speed would give rugby-playing nations a distinct advantage.


Jump Rope

There was a period in the mid-1980s when the government ran a big ‘Jump Rope For Heart’ programme and we all had to skip regularly. That was well and good, but I’m talking about the version girls commonly play where two people hold a long rope and a number of people jump in the middle, performing increasingly complex routines while they avoid the rope. Medals would be given in the single-rope and double Dutch categories. Judging by how things went at my primary school, the female athletes would display a great deal more skill than the men.


Marco Polo

A classic game we used to play at the homes of friends who were lucky enough to have a backyard pool, Marco Polo would be absolutely outstanding in an Olympic-size pool, and give the aquatic centre a reason to open its doors in the second week. Those swimmers like Denis Pankratov who swim long distances underwater are likely to be useful in Olympic Marco Polo, easily swimming right underneath the blindfolded person who was ‘in’.


Catch And Kiss

This was an extremely important game in late primary school as we began to experience those first stirrings of romantic interest in our classmates, and including it on the Olympic programme would give sport that reality TV element of frisson it needs to appeal to the modern television audience. Olympic catch and kiss would also create an event where men and women could compete together for medals – a welcome change to the usual gender divide in sport. Plus, given all the stories about condom consumption, you’d only be handing out medals for what’s already happening in the Village.


Now, I’m aware that these are all children’s games – but a schoolboy invented rugby, if you believe the legend of William Webb Ellis. And while some of these sports might feel a little silly, they’re no more ridiculous than handing out medals for beach volleyball and synchronised swimming.

Bring them on, I say. And I’ll be the first to cheer when Australia wins its first Marco Polo medal. At least it’d give our blokes some chance of winning gold in the pool.

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