Summer Olympics: All About Volleyball

All About Volleyball

Volleyball was my favorite sport in gym class. It’s the ultimate team sport. It punishes all selfish play, which was great in high school when you wanted nothing more than to bring the jock boys down to your size. At the Olympic level, this facet of the sport may have translated into an odd form of dominance. Of the 13 times volleyball has been in the Olympics, communist or former communist countries have won the gold six times in the men’s event and whopping nine times in the women’s event!

How Does Volleyball Work?

Volleyball is played by two teams of six players each. The teams line up in two rows of three on either side of an eight foot (seven feet, four inches for women) net. The ball, which is a little smaller and lighter than a soccer ball, must be kept in the air by hitting it with any part of the body — this is a little known aspect of volleyball’s rules, which is equally little used; the ball is pretty much only ever hit with the hands. Let the ball drop on your team’s side of the court and the opposition gets a point. Likewise, if the ball drops to the ground out of bounds and you were the last person to touch it, the opposition gets a point. Matches are played divided up into a maximum of five potential independent games called sets. The first team to win three sets wins the match. The first four sets are played to 25 points (must win by two) and the last one, if necessary, is played to only 15 points. This is interesting because it’s kind of the opposite of how other sports like tennis or ice hockey think about the end of games. If tennis has different rules for a final set, it’s to make it potentially longer, not shorter, and the same is true of overtime in hockey.

You might also wonder why one player is wearing a different color than everyone else on their team. Oddly, my post answering this question is the most consistently popular post on this entire site. The short answer is that this player is called the libero and they are a defensive specialist who is allowed to ignore most rotation and substitution rules but who cannot move close to the net to spike.

Why do People Like Watching Volleyball?

I wrote a whole post about why people like volleyball. If you’re interested enough to read this, I recommend you read that too. The quick summary is that volleyball has great vocabulary words, that it punishes selfishness, it scaled well with the player, it has a good mix of competitiveness and collaboration, and that at the Olympic level, it’s incredibly athletic.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Volleyball has a men’s and a women’s event.

How Dangerous is Volleyball?

For a sport where ball speeds can reach 80 miles an hour, volleyball is surprisingly safe. The ball is light enough not to break anything important, even at that speed.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Volleyball?

The major difference is in the height of the net. Men play with a net that is eight inches taller than the net played on by women. As with several other events, we can decide to be annoyed about this or not. It depends on if you think differences in average height by gender should be honored with rule adjustments.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Volleyball is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about volleyball on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Wrestling

All About Wrestling

Two people face each other, searching for weaknesses. They are naked and covered with oil. They are wrestlers. That image is at the heart of the Ancient Olympics for many people, and for those people, wrestling must be at the spiritual center of the modern Olympics too.

How Does Wrestling Work?

There are two types of wrestling at the Olympics: freestyle and Greco-Roman. Let’s start with the similarities. Both are contested on the same surface — a flat cushioned mat with concentric circles drawn on it. The action is supposed to take place in the biggest of the circles, the central one. The smaller ring around that is called the “passivity area” and wrestlers may be penalized for spending too much time there. Outside of that ring is an area of mat which is beyond the wrestling area. A wrestler can score points by forcing their opponent into that out-of-bounds area. Both disciplines match one wrestler against another in a maximum of three two-minute rounds. Each round is scored independently — in other words, winning the first round 7-2 is the same as winning it 1-0 — and the first wrestler to win two rounds is victorious in the match. Both disciplines are organized by weight class so that wrestlers are close to even in size and strength. In both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, points can be scored in a number of ways. The most well known way is by forcing your opponent to the mat and controlling them with at least three “points” (points are knees, arms, or head) touching the ground. One can also force an opponent to touch out of bounds, as we mentioned before. There are a couple of other, lesser known ways of scoring points. One is a reversal — where a wrestler who is in danger of being thrown turns the tables on his or her opponent and controls them. Another is called exposure which refers to the daring feat of placing your back near or on the mat and daring your opponent to pin you. The major difference between freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling is how a wrestler can attack her or his opponent. Nothing below the waist is allowed in Greco-Roman wrestling whereas in freestyle wrestling throws and trips as well as mat-based manipulation that originates below the waist are common.

Why do People Like Watching Wrestling?

So, once you take out the nudity and oil of the original wrestling, what is left? Well, you’ve still got impressive determination, strength, and suddenness. Wrestling has a great combination of suspense and surprise — one dual spectrum on which to think about sports. Suspense is present during the majority of the match when the two wrestlers are circling each other, searching for an opening. Surprise comes when someone sees an opening and tries to exploit it. Olympic wrestlers can move faster than the eye can follow!

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are 18 Olympic gold medals up for grabs in wrestling events. 12 of them are for freestyle wrestling and six in Greco-Roman. Within each discipline and gender, competition is divided into weight classes.

How Dangerous is Wrestling?

Wrestling is perilous. Although striking (kicking or punching) is against the rules, the speed with which wrestlers throw their hands toward each other, searching for hand-holds, is significant. Someone is going to get poked in the eye. In the process of throwing or getting thrown, arms and legs tend to bend in the wrong direction and shoulders and necks get jammed or hyperextended. Wrestlers’ ears are often subjected to wounds that compound into the growth of nasty looking scar tissue. On the other hand, there’s a relatively low risk of concussion or other brain injury compared to other fighting or martial art related sports. So, wrestlers have a good long term prognosis.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Wrestling?

The state of gender equality in this sport makes me angry. Men and women each have six weight class events in freestyle wrestling but only men are allowed to compete in the six Greco-Roman events. Why? What about not being allowed to grab at someone’s feet or legs suggests that this should be only a sport for men? The current state of wrestling is actually an improvement from four years ago when there were even fewer medals for women to win.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Wrestling is from Sunday, August 14 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about wrestling on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Rowing

All About Rowing

One of the complaints I often hear about some sports (basketball, I’m looking at you,) is that it’s not worth watching the first 3/4 of the game when the result is always decided in the last few minutes. Rowing may be the sport least vulnerable to that complaint of any in the Olympics. Part of what is beautiful about rowing is that there are so few variables: stroke cadence, stroke strength, and stroke skill. Beyond that, all there is is effort. And wow, is there ever effort!

How Does Rowing Work?

Olympic rowing races are all 2 kilometers (about 1.25 miles) long. Boats start from a stand-still and start moving at the sound of the horn. In some events, rowers may have an oar in either hand or just one that goes to one side of the boat or the other. Boats may have one, two, four, or eight rowers in them, and may have a coxswain (a tiny person who screams at the rest of the rowers) or not.

Why do People Like Watching Rowing?

There is something mesmeric about watching rowing. The synchronized movement of the oars is soothing to watch. This provides a nice counter-point to the extreme effort the athletes are putting in and, if you are lucky, the incredible suspense of a close race. In rowing, there are no tricks to pull out to make up a deficit at the end of a race. Leads build or evaporate slowly, helping to build enormous dramatic tension. Hitchcock would have loved rowing!

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are 14 rowing events in the 2016 Olympics. These can be divided in a number of ways. First, there is gender: women’s and men’s events. Second, there is the number of people in the boat: one (single), two (double), four (quadruple,) and eight. Last, there is the style of rowing: sculls (where rowers have two oars in their hands, one on either side of the boat) and sweeps (where each rower has one oar, either on the right or the left of the boat.) The word “sculls” is always in the sculling event names. If you don’t see “sculls” you know it’s a sweeps event. Lastly, there are two events with weight limits known as “lightweight” events.

How Dangerous is Rowing?

One can only imagine the chaos that could be created by a mass pile-up of full speed rowers colliding in the water. Luckily, that doesn’t really ever happen. Rowing machines in gyms are always a good bet for being pointed to if you’re rehabbing an injury because of their ability to provide a full body workout without strain on joints. Rowing injuries are not unheard of, but you don’t see them at this level in competitions.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Rowing?

Men get two extra events! Women are not allowed to take part in either of the four person events — the coxless four or the lightweight coxless four. Sophomorically ironic and legitimately upsetting! On the other hand 2016 sees an increase in equality of numbers. There will be fewer men’s entries invited overall, bringing their number closer to that of the women.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Rowing is from Saturday, August 6 to Saturday, August 13.

Read more about rowing on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Shooting

All About Shooting

I have to admit that shooting stuff doesn’t seem to me like the epitome of athleticism but shooting has been a part of all but two instances of the modern Olympics. In 1900 live pigeons were used as targets but since then they have been replaced by inanimate ones. While shooting may not require a ton of raw power, it is charming to see people with normal bodies win Olympic medals.

How Does Shooting Work?

There are a wide variety of shooting competitions at the Olympics. One can split them up along several different dimensions. There is the weapon used: rifle, air rifle, pistol, air pistol, and shotgun. For the rifle and pistol competitions (air and not) most of the events use targets that look a little like the ones you’d see in an archery competition. The targets have concentric rings. A strike in the center is worth ten points, one in the next biggest ring is worth nine, and so on. In a couple of pistol events, the concentric ring system is replaced by a binary one — you either hit it or you don’t. In the shotgun events, shooters aim at moving clay targets filled with some kind of colored powder to help spectators and judges know when contact has been made. The position of shooters varies as well. Rifle and pistol shooters may be standing, kneeling, or lying on the ground or some combination of the two. Shotgun shooters may start with their shotguns at their hips or already up at their shoulders. The distance, and in the case of the shotgun events, the velocity of the targets also varies. The shotgun events, by the nature of their moving and eventually falling targets, and one of the pistol events which is called a rapid fire event, have limits on how much time a competitor must take before shooting the targets.

Why do People Like Watching Shooting?

Like archery, there is joy to be found in watching people whose ability to stay calm and force their bodies to make insanely precise movements with no shaking under the most intense pressure of their athletic lives. In previous Olympics, that may have been the primary source of enjoyment since the cumulative scoring of shooting events made close finishes rather rare. That won’t be the case in these Olympics because changes have been made to wipe out the scores before the final rounds.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Hopefully, given the description in the how does shooting work section, this listing of events will more or less make sense. There are three rifle events: 50 meter rifle prone, 50 meter rifle three positions (prone, kneeling, and standing), and 10 meter air rifle. There are four pistol events: 50 meter pistol, 25 meter pistol, 35 meter rapid fire pistol, and 10 meter air pistol. There are three shotgun events: trap, double trap, and skeet. The differences between trap and skeet are way too confusing to be worth going in to. Basically, they are rival versions of the same general idea — hit the flying clay discs.

How Dangerous is Shooting?

You can bet this event was dangerous for pigeons in 1900!! Nowadays, I simply can’t imagine anyone injuring themselves. Guns are certainly dangerous, but not in such a tightly controlled environment filled with world experts.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Shooting?

Gender equality in shooting is confusingly poor. I can’t think of a sport which should be more equal in terms of gender and yet, the organization of shooting is completely unbalanced. Of the 15 gold medals up for grabs, women are only eligible for six of them. Moreover, the events they are excluded from show a distinct lack of respect. Women have a trap event but not a double trap. They are allowed to compete in the 25 meter rifle but not the 50 meter or the 25 meter rapid fire events. This is especially absurd given the historical success of women in shooting. Before these events were split, they were open to everyone. During that time women won gold medals twice. Showing what seems to be an intentional discrimination, women were banned from competing in skeet shooting in 1996 after a woman had won the open event in 1992. It wasn’t until 2000 that a women’s event was introduced. Bah humbug!


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Shooting is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 14.

Read more about shooting on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Soccer

All About Soccer

Soccer is the world’s most popular sport. The Olympics are one of the world’s most popular sporting events. So why is that soccer at the Olympics isn’t a bigger deal? It’s because soccer’s World Cup run by soccer’s own corrupt international organization, has established itself as THE biggest and best soccer tournament in the world. The Olympics are resigned to being the world’s second (or perhaps third or fourth) most important soccer tournament. Still, Olympic soccer has its own charm.

How Does Soccer Work?

At its heart, soccer is a very simple sport. Eleven players on a team try to kick a ball into the opposing team’s goal. The ball is round, nearly everything else is rectangular. The field is a big rectangle, about 120 yards long and 80 yards wide. It’s broken up into two rectangular halves. Around the goal are two more concentric rectangles. The little one is mostly meaningless, but the larger one, called the 18 yard box, defines the area in which one player, called the goalie or goaltender, can use their hands. Otherwise, all players must only touch the ball with their feet, head, or other non-arm body parts. Players are not allowed to trip each other or collide in an aggressive manner. The most impactful other rule is the offside rule. Although this rule is quite easy to understand, it is responsible for three quarters of all world conflicts. Games are 90 minutes long with thirty minutes of extra time if an elimination game is tied. If no team has scored more goals than the other after that, a shootout will decide the winner. One of the things that makes soccer so tough on its players is that substitutions are limited to three per game. Most of the people who start a soccer game have to finish it — often running more than six miles a game.

If you want to learn more about soccer, sign up for our Soccer 101 course. Or read any of our many other articles about soccer!

Why do People Like Watching Soccer?

There are as many reasons why people like watching soccer as there are people who watch soccer. And that’s a lot of reasons! More than other sports, soccer is closely tied to national identity and the relationship moves in both directions. Teams are shaped by their country and countries by their teams. The Italians play defensively, the Dutch beautifully, the Japanese with precision. Because soccer is low scoring, it creates enormous feelings that build up inside its fans and then explode when something — a goal, a missed call from a ref, an amazing save — happens. Soccer also has a good balance between individuality and team play. Single brilliant players can do a lot in soccer, and they are wonderful to follow, but they can’t win a game on their own.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

The Olympics have a men’s soccer event and a women’s one.

How Dangerous is Soccer?

Soccer players get a lot of grief for being wimps who fall to the ground at the least provocation. While this is somewhat true (mostly on the men’s side but creeping into the women’s game as well) it draws attention away from what is actually a quite physical sport that demands toughness from its players. I already mentioned that most players have to play the full 90 minutes or more of a soccer game. During that time, there are aerial collisions, sliding tackles, and clipped ankles galore. The next time a soccer player has his or her head stapled shut on the sideline so they can get back into the play, try telling me that soccer players are wimps.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Soccer?

“Soccer is in a strange state when it comes to gender equality. The game is identical as played by men or women. No rule differences, no uniform differences. On the other hand, there’s infinitely more money involved in the men’s game. This leads to and stems from different levels of investment by country’s into their men’s and women’s teams. This is particularly strange in this country where the men’s team is mediocre and the women’s team is the reigning world champion and three time Olympic gold medal winner.

In the Olympics, there’s another strange gender wrinkle. The men’s Olympic soccer event has a soft age restriction. Men’s teams may only have three players older than 23. This makes the men’s event a distinctly second rate event. For women, who have no age restriction, the Olympics is the second biggest tournament in the world.”


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Soccer is from Wednesday, August 3 to Saturday, August 20.

Read more about soccer on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline

Rhythmic Gymnastics and Trampoline are two distant branches on the family tree of gymnastics. One emphasizes beauty, the other bounciness!

All About Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline

Rhythmic Gymnastics and Trampoline are two often forgotten outgrowths of Olympic Gymnastics. If the story of regular (officially called Artistic Gymnastics) is one of an increasingly athletic arms race, Rhythmic Gymnastics is what would have happened to the sport if it had gone in the other direction. It rewards grace and beauty over strength and forceful athleticism. Trampoline goes in the other direction. It starts with the question, “what if we gave gymnasts a virtually infinite ability to jump” and goes from there.

How Does Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline Work?

Rhythmic Gymnastics, like Artistic Gymnastics, has a number of apparatuses: hoops, ribbon, ball, and clubs. Each of these is a prop that can be used by rhythmic gymnasts in 75 or 90 second floor routines. Each apparatus has its own skills and each emphasizes a particular element of the gymnast’s movement. Rhythmic gymnasts are scored by two panels of judges, one assessing at the difficulty of the routine and one looking at how well executed each movement in the routine is. In Trampoline Gymnastics, gymnasts do routines that are limited to no more than ten jumps on a giant trampoline. Judges score the routines like Rhythmic Gymnastics, on difficulty and execution, but with an additional element of hang time. Trampoline competitors are rewarded for total time spent in the air, which can exceed 18 seconds!

Why do People Like Watching Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline?

Rhythmic gymnastics has a lot to recommend it to television viewers. These athletes use their bodies and their apparatuses together to create beautiful patterns. They’re also amazing athletes in their own right. You can easily get distracted by the flowing ribbon, but if you keep your eye on the gymnast, you’ll see strength and flexibility being tested to its full extent — every bit as much as in other events. Watching trampoline is like watching diving but without all that boring setup between dives. Imagine ten consecutive dives with all of their tucks, rolls, swivels, and summersaults!

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Rhythmic Gymnastics has a team and an individual event. Trampoline has men’s and women’s events.

How Dangerous is Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline?

Safe. Trampolines are notoriously dangerous when used by laypeople, usually children or teenagers. At the Olympic level, they’re much safer than that. There aren’t any faulty springs and the trampoliners are not going to go flying into the shrubs. Rhythmic gymnastics is also very safe. Not that I’d try to do any of those moves, but still.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline?

Trampoline is perfectly balanced and Rhythmic Gymnastics is perfectly unbalanced — only women compete in Rhythmic Gymnastics.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Rhythmic Gymnastics & Trampoline is from Friday, August 12 to Sunday, August 21.

Read more about these events on the official Rio Olympics site for Trampoline and Rhythmic Gymnastics.

Summer Olympics: All About Swimming

All About Swimming

Every four years, the world focuses its attention on the Summer Olympics and is momentarily fascinated by people swimming. These simple races, with even the fastest Olympians traveling slower than the average person walks, are the site of some incredibly feats of sudden strength, sustained endurance, and hair-splittingly close margins of victory.

How Does Swimming Work?

One of the features of swimming from a viewer’s perspective is how simple it is to understand. A bunch of people start in one place, swim back and forth in a pool (or in one case, the open and questionably safe water off Copacabana beach,) and whoever completes the required distance first, wins. That simplicity belies an enormous amount of detail that goes into these races. Many of them require different ways of swimming, called strokes. The four main strokes are front-crawl, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Breaststroke is the most familiar of the strokes. In it, swimmers stay on their front, push their hands together out in front of them, and then divide them, and push back to their hips before bringing them forward together again. Legs kick in a frog-like manner. In front crawl swimmers are also front down in the water, but the arms move separately in long windmill like motions all the way forward, almost parallel to the body, back downward to the hips and then forward again. While one arm is moving to the hip, the other swivels forward. Meanwhile, the feet are kicking like crazy in a flutter-like motion. Front-crawl is the fastest of the strokes. Backstroke is basically front crawl but done flipped over, with the swimmer on her or his back. The last stroke, butterfly, is what happens if you try to do front-crawl with both arms moving together instead of alternating. If you’ve ever tried this, you probably know that this movement naturally propels the swimmer down into the water. Butterfly swimmers compensate for this by bucking their entire bodies up in the water at each stroke. It is exhausting and slow, which makes Olympic butterfly incredibly impressive. One fun fact about Olympic swimming that pertains to strokes is that there are no front crawl races. The times when you see swimmers doing that stroke are when there are freestyle races that allow any stroke. Since front crawl is the fastest, everyone always chooses to do that, but a swimmer could theoretically do a different stroke.

The races are mostly individual ones organized into preliminary heats that qualify swimmers for a single finals race. Most of these races involve one stroke but a couple require swimmers to do all four strokes consecutively. These are called medleys. Some races are team races called relays. During a relay, one swimmer races until they’ve swum a particular distance (1/4 of the entire distance of the race, because there are four team members) and, once they touch the wall, the next swimmer on the team dives in. The team that finishes first wins.

Why do People Like Watching Swimming?

Even describing how swimming works, it feels a little silly to remember how much fun it is to watch. It doesn’t seem like something one would be happy spending hours watching, but it is. Why? I think a big part of it is the joy one gets from watching almost perfectly efficient bodies in motion. When you or I swim, we probably thrash around a little in the water on our way from point A to point B. Not so for Olympic swimmers. Any motion that doesn’t propel them forward is a wasted motion and is carefully removed from their stroke during hours of practice. What’s left is a smooth, beautiful stroke. Even swimmer’s bodies at this level seem to have been chosen for efficiency in the water. Another thing I love is that for some reason, swimming under water is faster than any stroke done at the surface. Swimmers in any stroke are allowed to swim under water only at particular times — when they first dive into the pool and when they turn at the wall of the pool. So, they all try to stay under for as long as they possibly can. Some swimmers can just do this longer than others; maintaining lung capacity and control even when exerting themselves massively. A swimmer with great control in this way can make time up against an otherwise faster swimmer at every turn. It makes races less predictable and more exciting.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

“There are a lot of swimming events in the Summer Olympics. A plethora. There are individual events at different distances in breast stroke, back stroke, butterfly, and freestyle, which we now know means that everyone chooses to do front crawl in. There are freestyle relay events for men and women at 100 meters (there and back once) each for a total of 400 meters, and 200 meters each (800 total). There is also a 100 meter medley relay in which each of the four team members swims 100 meters using one of the four strokes. There are also 200 meter and 400 meter individual medleys.

Lastly, and I forgot to mention this in any earlier swimming sections, there is a swimming marathon event. It’s not 26.2 miles, but swimming 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) is roughly an equivalent feat. This race is held in open water, which makes it even more difficult. Open water swimmers have to deal with currents, waves, and assorted competitors’ elbows, knees, and feet coming at them.”

How Dangerous is Swimming?

Thankfully, none of the swimmers at the Olympics will have just had lunch, so it’s not that dangerous. Ha. Jokes aside, swimming is not a dangerous sport. In fact, because the water allows for movement with less resistance, swimming is often something doctors or physical therapists prescribe for rehabilitating injuries. Now, I’m pretty sure they don’t want you out there going for it like Katie Ledecky, but the principle still holds.

The only swimmers to worry about at the Olympics are the marathon open water swimmers. This is particularly true in 2016 because the water they will be swimming in is rumored to be full of gross and toxic sludge. Eeek.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Swimming?

Almost perfect. There are 34 events, 17 for women, 17 for men. 16 of those events have a women’s version and a men’s version that are identical. The one exception is the longest distance freestyle event. For some reason, even though women swim the 10 kilometer marathon event in open water, the powers that be in swimming have decided that women should have an 800 meter freestyle event while the men should have a 1,500 meter one. I don’t get it, and I feel sure this will change in some future Olympics. Once it does, swimming will be a perfectly balanced Olympic sport.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Swimming is from Saturday, August 6 to Tuesday, August 16.

Read more about swimming on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Gymnastics

All About Gymnastics

Gymnastics is the Summer Olympic games’ answer to the Winter Olympics’ obsession with figure skating. It’s a popular event that launches (mostly) young women into national stardom through a mixture of athleticism, artistry, and shiny costumes. Even more than with figure skating though, there’s a depth to Gymnastics beyond the gold and glitter.

How Does Gymnastics Work?

Gymnastics demands that its practitioners demonstrate a high level of artistry while doing insanely difficult physical feats. All of gymnastic is scored by a panel of nine judges who watch everything and basically decide who made the hardest thing look easiest. Gymnastics is a prop-based medium. There are eight different apparatuses on which gymnasts perform. The floor is the most minimalist of the apparatuses. It’s a 12 meter square mat that gymnasts perform 70 or 90 second tumbling routines on. In the vault, gymnasts sprint down a narrow mat before launching themselves into the air to bounce off of a solid chest-high structure, spin, twist, and tumble in the air, and then land on their feet. The pommel horse is a similar structure to the vault with the addition of two raised handles. Instead of leaping off of it, gymnasts hop on top of it and do a routine of tricks, all while touching the pommel horse only with their hands. The rings are like an inverted version of the pommel horse, except there are only two handles — no horse at all — and they are suspended from the ceiling by cords whose strength is tested by the gymnasts as they do tricks on them. In this discipline, watch for moves that pause — any pause requires immense strength from a gymnast in mid-air. The balance beam is a four-inch wide elevated strip upon which gymnasts do wildly difficult tricks. Imagine the fearlessness (and practice!) one needs to flip backwards and plan to land on something only four inches wide. The remaining four apparatuses are all variatons of thin, rounded bars. There is a single bar, two parallel bars, and two bars of different heights called uneven bars. On all of these, gymnasts plan routines that have them speeding up as they rotate a bar, only to release the bar, tumble through the air, and catch a bar again before hitting the ground. It’s pretty wild!

Why do People Like Watching Gymnastics?

NBC, the channel that’s televised the Olympics in the United States for as long as I can remember, has made an art out of its gymnastics coverage. Each gymnast seems to have an equally compelling personal back story. You get to know them and then, of course, you want them to succeed in their routines and events. This is kind of the pattern for all Olympic coverage, but it’s most obvious with the glittery gymnastics events, especially the women’s events. There’s nothing wrong with watching gymnastics this way, but if you want to concentrate on the more purely athletic aspects of the sport, there’s a lot there as well. Gymnasts pack an enormous amount of strength into bodies sculpted for elegance and flexibility. Gymnastics events are won by fractions of an inch. An inch over or under rotated during a tumble lead to a wobble on a landing and a deduction of points by a judge. An inch miss on the balance beam or one of the bar apparatuses can be equally disastrous. Plus, there is so much variety in gymnastics, it never gets boring.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Gymnastics has individual events for each apparatus as well as combined individual events and team events. In a combined individual event, gymnasts perform in a number of apparatuses and have their scores on each one combined. In a team event, teams of gymnasts perform on a series of apparatuses and have all of their scores tallied.

How Dangerous is Gymnastics?

Every Olympic junkie remembers Kerry Strug finishing her routine on an injured ankle to win an Olympic gold for her and her teammates. That is an exception, but it’s one that proves the rule. Don’t be fooled by how beautifully gymnasts complete their routines most of the time. What they are doing is amazingly precise and the consequences for any error can be big. Gymnastics is dangerous!

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Gymnastics?

Gymnastics is a confusing sport when it comes to gender equality. Men perform on more and different apparatuses than women. Men do the Vault, Floor, Pommel Horse, Rings, and Parallel Bars, while women do the Vault, Floor, Uneven Bars, and Balance Beam. You can argue that the women’s apparatuses are better, but they’re still different and fewer than the men’s. They also emphasize raw strength less than the men’s apparatuses. On the other hand, the women are much bigger stars than the men, although there’s a vague prurience in the coverage of women gymnasts that takes away from any honest celebration of this fact. Gymnastics is a messy world gender-wise.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Gymnastics is from Wednesday, August 3 to Wednesday, August 17.

Read more about gymnastics on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Rugby Sevens

All About Rugby Sevens

Traditional rugby is an awesome game. If you’ve never watched it, you should. With fifteen players on each side, it has tactical complexity that outpaces most other team sports. At times, the players form into clusters that move together and look like nothing more than independent alien life forms. The problem with rugby as an Olympic sport, however, is that it is thoroughly dominated by a small group of countries — mostly the UK, its former colonies, and France. Their dominance is so severe that it would be hard for many other countries to field competitive teams. Rugby Sevens is a scaled down version of the sport that is arguably more exciting and inarguably more accessible around the world. This is the first Olympics that Rugby Sevens will be an event in.

How Does Rugby Sevens Work?

Rugby is a territorial game, like American football, where teams try to move down the field, and eventually end up in their opponent’s end zone with possession of the ball. It is a rough and tumble sport. Tackling is allowed, but players are not allowed to tackle above the shoulders or hit their opponents without wrapping them up with their arms. That’s one big difference between rugby sevens and American football. Another one is that players are only allowed to pass the ball backwards to a teammate — no forward passes allowed. Unlike American football, rugby sevens doesn’t stop between each play. There are brief pauses in the action when a player is tackled to the ground, but the play is only constrained by rules that come into effect at these moments, not completely stopped. One of the amazing aspects of this variant of rugby is that the organizers of the game reduced the players on each side from 15 to seven but did not reduce the size of the field at all! This gives players so much room to work with that spectacular offensive plays happen much more frequently. Games are short (two seven minute halves) and exciting. Teams can score by running into their opponent’s end of the field and placing the ball on the ground. This is called a “try” and is worth five points. After a try, the team that scored gets to attempt to kick the ball through the uprights for an additional two points. If a type wins a similar kick from a penalty or if it tries to drop kick the ball during active play, those kicks would be worth three points.

Why do People Like Watching Rugby Sevens?

Rugby sevens is a great spectator sport. It’s short, so it doesn’t require much of a time commitment. It’s close to non-stop action (half-times are only two minutes). The play is sudden and surprising and violent. The players are admirable for the mixture of respect and brutality with which they play the game.

Check out some highlights:

What are the different events?

Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy: Rugby Sevens has a men’s event and a women’s one.

How Dangerous is Rugby Sevens?

I don’t want to diminish the danger of rugby sevens. It’s one of the most violent Olympic sports and its athletes brave all sorts of injuries. From twisted knees and ankles to unintentional but common head wounds to broken ribs and fingers, rugby sevens players take and dole out a lot of damage. It takes a lot to get a rugby sevens player out of a game, but it does happen. On the other hand, for as violent a sport as rugby sevens is, the looming threat of brain injury that is so present in American Football and ice hockey is much less present here because of the tackling rules.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Rugby Sevens?

The gender equality of this newest sport to be added to the Olympics is near perfect. The game does not differ between its men’s and women’s events and the uniforms actually tend to be much tighter on the men’s side than the women’s. 12 teams will compete for women and the same number for men.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Rugby Sevens is from Saturday, August 6 to Thursday, August 11.

Read more about rugby sevens on the official Rio Olympics site.

Summer Olympics: All About Beach Volleyball

All About Beach Volleyball

I don’t know about you, but when I think of summer, I think of sun, water, and sand. While lots of Summer Olympic events take place in water or in the sun, only one that I can think of directly involves sand: beach volleyball.

How Does Beach Volleyball Work?

A beach volleyball court is 16 by 8 meters (about 53 by 26 feet) divided into two equal halves and divided by a net strung seven and a half or eight feet above the ground. Beach volleyball is always played in teams of two. Beach volleyball players pair up, if not for life, at least for the duration of an Olympics, and usually much longer. Communication is key, because the two players have a lot of space to cover and movement in the sand is slower and harder than on grass or wood. Even more important than the verbal communication that goes on between players during the game is the unspoken knowledge of each other that grows over years in a pair. You may also notice players communicating before points with hand signs, usually held right behind their butts so that the other team can’t see what is going on.

Beach volleyball matches consist of up to three sets, of which the first team to win two wins the match. The first two sets are played to 21 points, the third, if necessary, to 15. Games must be won by two points, so if the teams are very close, you may see scores higher than 21. Points can be scored on any rally, not only on a team’s serve like they used to be. A point is scored by forcing the ball to hit the sand in the opponent’s half of the court or by allowing the ball to hit the sand outside of the court if an opponent was the last player to touch the ball.

Why do People Like Watching Beach Volleyball?

Remember I mentioned that players hold their fingers behind their butts to communicate with each other before points? Well, television producers are overjoyed to use this as an excuse to have their cameras linger on beach volleyball olympic butts. Sex appeal is not the only draw to the sport though — far from it. As anyone who has ever tried to run or jump in sand knows, it takes a gargantuan amount of power and stamina to do it effectively and for any extended period. Beach volleyball is certainly a strength and an endurance sport but it also has a lot of technique and tactics. I also think that two person teams are one of the most fun events to watch. As a spectator, you can develop a fandom for a pair that doesn’t verge on creepy the way that rooting for individuals sometimes feels, but is more intimate that rooting for a team of 12 or 20.

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

There are two medal events in the Olympics for beach volleyball – a men’s event and a women’s.

How Dangerous is Beach Volleyball?

One of the joys of playing beach volleyball, even at a very very low level, is that when you dive for a ball, you land on soft sand, not a scrapey wood floor. Beach volleyball is a very safe sport to play. You’ll rarely see a team have to withdraw because of injury, but you do often see players taping up their fingers, wrists, shoulders, or leg muscles, all of which take a beating from this sport.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Beach Volleyball?

So… here’s the thing. The sport itself is not so bad. There are two gold medals, one for women, one for men, each of which have an even number of teams and athletes competing for it. The net is slightly lower for women than for men, but I’m not horribly opposed to this type of difference that recognizes the difference between the average height of men and women. No, the bigger problem in beach volleyball, which makes this a bad sport in terms of gender equality, is the uniforms! Men wear reasonably baggy shorts and loose tank top shirts. Women wear skimpy two piece swim suits. I don’t think either uniform is better or worse for playing beach volleyball, so why have a difference at all? I’d vote for putting both genders in tight swim suits, but I’d also accept putting both in looser athletic wear.


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Beach Volleyball is from Saturday, August 6 to Thursday, August 18.

Read more about beach volleyball on the official Rio Olympics site.