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Racewalking? Badminton? The 6 oddest Olympic sports

Every four years, well-known Olympic sports like track and field, gymnastics, and swimming get their day in the sun.

Then you scroll further down the list of events. Trampolining? Racewalking? Shooting? Those are in the Olympics?

While it’s not quite like the early days of the modern Olympics in the 1900s, when tug-of-war, rope climbing and live pigeon shooting could earn you a gold medal, there are still those sports that are way off the beaten path in the public’s eye. But to their practitioners, these offbeat events pack just as much thrill of victory and agony of defeat as swimming and gymnastics.

Take Kyle Bowen, a former national-level trampoline competitor, for example. “We’re trying to get the sport in the mainstream and have it be more in the consciousness of society that it is a sport that is cool,’’ Bowen told “People are like, ‘You do trampolining? Like, you jump up and down like in the backyard?’’’

While canoeing may be the stuff of summer camp hijinks and racewalking might seem like a glorified version of your neighbor trundling down the sidewalk in her neon workout gear, trampolining might have one of the bigger uphill battles in the sporting consciousness: The event has to fight the general notion that the trampoline is a staple of backyard broken bones, the apparatus of “Jackass’’-style mayhem, and a onetime fixture of gym classes across the country, before lawyers and insurance companies got involved.

Even though the sport is genuinely exciting, involving competitors flying as high as 30 feet in the air while executing flips and somersaults in routines that are judged on aesthetics and execution, it still fights to escape the connotation of being the bastion of backyard mishaps and kids’ birthday parties. Still, since its introduction as an official Olympic sport in 2000, trampolining has seen some growth in certain parts of the country as training sites spring up.

Bowen owns Elite Trampoline Academy in suburban Red Bank, N.J., the training home for brothers Steven and Jeffrey Gluckstein, who are currently battling each other in the Olympic trials for the lone U.S. spot in the London Olympics. Trampolining is governed by USA Gymnastics, but has to fight for attention because female gymnasts in particular are often the national darlings of the Olympics to the public and media. 

“I'm anxious to see now with the (Gluckstein) boys and how much press we've gotten if that will start to change a little,’’ Bowen said.

But trampolining is hardly alone in the category of surprising or strange Olympic events fighting for attention. Here are six others to watch heading into London.

BMX racing
Having debuted in the 2008 Olympics, BMX has that cool factor that comes with any action sport that has risen to prominence in the last 15 years. With racers flying off jumps on a single-lap dirt track full of twists and turns, plus collisions, wipeouts and more, there is rarely a dull moment in a BMX race. (There is also something cool about being covered in dirt when you win a gold medal.)

One of the stranger sports to watch, racewalking features competitors with hips swiveling quickly and arms pumping while they avoid having both feet leave the ground at the same time, which is a violation of the sport’s rules. Judges keep a close eye on any racer who moves his or her legs, even for an instant, into any motion that could be construed as running. It can be incredibly intense for competitors, and has even suffered its share of tragedy: Olympic hopeful Albert Heppner committed suicide in 2004, two months after a tough loss in an Olympic qualifying event. 

Team pursuit cycling
Two teams of four riders (three for the women’s event) start on opposite sides of the track and attempt to either pass the other riders or record the fastest time over four kilometers for men, and three for women. Riders are usually only inches apart in a formation and can hit speeds of nearly 40 miles an hour, so any slight change in speed for one rider can mean a crash. It’s strangely hypnotic to watch. It also quietly is one of the hotter tickets in London, as organizers are fetching $530 for the best seats in the house; Great Britain’s men’s team are considered a serious threat to win the gold.   

Not surprisingly, this is a sport favored by military personnel, so if you support our troops, this is the event for you. It’s also the rare instance where an active-duty member of the military can be an Olympic champion. The disciplines vary by the type of gun used (rapid-fire pistol, air rifle, etc.), the distances to the targets, and the time allowed for shooting. There also can be some intrigue, as American Matt Emmons fired at the wrong target on his final shot in the 2004 Olympics in Greece, which cost him a gold medal in the 50-meter, three-position rifle event. 

Table tennis and badminton
Be honest: The thought of being able to rocket shots off the corner of your ping-pong table against unsuspecting guests has always been a secret dream. Or maybe drilling badminton shots during the family backyard party at that uncle you can’t stand is a quiet fantasy. Well, these men and women play at that level all the time. The extra fun of badminton is that it’s one of the few sports in the Olympics featuring mixed doubles, which was introduced in 1996 in Atlanta, so it’s a rare chance to see men and women competing on the same team.

Hammer throw
While most Olympic track and field events can be found at your average high school track meet, this is one that you don’t normally see. Competitors try to whip a metal ball attached to a wire and handle into the air as far as possible. In the 18th century, competitors in Scotland, Ireland and England would throw an actual sledgehammer. While the men’s event has been in the Olympics since 1900, the women’s hammer throw was not introduced until 2000. The sport has made recent news, because transgender competitor Keelin Godsey, who was born female but identifies as a male, is trying to make the U.S. women’s team. 

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