London 2012: 5 Under-the-Radar Events You Must Watch
One of the best things about the Summer Olympics is how they can serve as a great learning experience for even the most diehard of sports fans.
The Olympics are the sports world equivalent of a melting pot. They are a place where very popular and widely known sports, such as basketball, soccer, swimming and tennis, share space with lesser known sports and events.
This diversity is part of what makes the Olympics the spectacle that they are and why millions tune in every four years for a sports experience like no other.
The big sports will get all the attention at the 2012 Olympics, and they should. Speculation as to whether the 2012 US men's basketball team could beat the 1992 Dream Team (they couldn't, by the way) will persist.
But there are plenty of sports and events that few have probably even heard of, let alone really understand. Nevertheless, these events contain all the thrills and drama that sports fans crave.
Here, then, are five under-the-radar events that everyone should watch.
The Finals of the 2008 Olympics badminton championship match
Badminton is one of those sports that many people have heard of. Perhaps they even tried to give the sport a whirl at some time in their past, like at a family gathering. Maybe they tried to play badminton in high school or somewhere similar along the way.
But once you watch the game played on an elite level, such as at the Olympics, it is almost like watching a different sport entirely.
The biggest thing you might notice is the tremendous speed involved in a typical Olympic badminton match. "Blinding" does not really do justice to the speed involved here. When that birdie is in the air, and it is being hammered back and forth by players of phenomenal skill levels, it is very difficult to track that shuttlecock.
Once you witness this, you will likely stop complaining about how hard it is to track the puck during a hockey game.
What is also interesting, particularly during doubles or mixed doubles matches, is how the players are so good, so fast and have such tremendous reflexes that they make a 44-foot long court look half that size.
It is a game that requires precise placement of the shuttlecock, phenomenal reflexes and tremendous conditioning. Competitors need to have excellent knowledge of racquet skills and be able to deal with the somewhat erratic flight patterns of the shuttlecock, which can resemble a really nasty knuckle ball at times.
As far as Olympic competition is concerned, the sport has been dominated by China, having won almost twice as many medals as its closest competitor, South Korea (according to Wikipedia). There is a belief that gap might be narrowing—but like all sports, titles are not won on paper. Indeed, that is why they play the game.
Badminton is one of the most entertaining sports on tap at the Olympics. It might not get nearly the attention that tennis enjoys, but it is a sport you have to watch to fully appreciate just what an amazing amount of skill is involved.
Handball is a sport that many North American sports fans should enjoy
Handball is a somewhat obscure Olympic sport. But if you live in the USA or Canada and actually spend some time watching some games, you might ask yourself why the sport is not more widely known.
The way the teams set up along the perimeter resembles a basketball game.
The way teams move the ball around looks a lot like the way an NHL team would move the puck around on a power play, looking for that perfect moment to fire a shot on net.
The way the ball is fired towards the goal is like watching an NFL quarterback trying to thread the needle between two defenders.
Take all that, shake it up, add some lacrosse-like characteristics and out comes handball, one of the most entertaining sports in all the Olympics.
The comparison to basketball is actually very accurate. Players can dribble the ball and can take a maximum of three steps after dribbling. Players have all of three seconds once they receive the ball to pass, shoot or dribble the ball.
Unlike basketball, though, players can, and do, get very physical with the opponent in an attempt to disrupt shooting lanes or the ability to set up the desired play.
As might be expected, with rules such as this in play, combined with the phenomenal accuracy that the top handball players demonstrate, high-scoring matches are very normal and, in actuality, expected.
If you like lots of offense, handball is a sport you might not have heard of—but it is absolutely one you will enjoy.
The sport has been dominated by European and Russian teams since it was reinstated as an Olympic sport in 1972 (Wikipedia).
Whether that continues this year, combined with the fact that handball is just an almost guilt-inducing amount of fun to watch, makes this an under-the-radar sport you really have to watch.
3. Women's Boxing
Ireland's Katie Taylor is a favorite to win gold in the women's lightweight (60 kg) competition.
Boxing has been a staple of the Olympics since pretty much the beginning. Some of the all-time greats in boxing history, such as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, got their careers off and running by winning gold at the Olympics.
But up until 2012, Olympic boxing has been a male-dominated event. That changes in London when women's boxing gets added to the roster.
The women will compete for boxing gold and glory in three different weight classes: flyweight (112 lbs), lightweight (132 lbs) and middleweight (165 lbs).
While very few of the competitors will have names that anyone other than true fans of the sport will recognize, women's boxing at the 2012 Olympics will be a history-making event that could lead to bigger things for the sport.
Women's boxing was actually a demonstration even at the 1902 Olympics. But the sport was put on the shelf for many decades after that as stereotypes regarding men and women, and their respective roles in the sports world, dictated the status of women's boxing.
Obviously, things have changed, and women's boxing has surged in popularity in recent years.
Seeing women compete in an Olympic boxing ring is probably one of the most important things that has happened to women's boxing in a long time, perhaps ever.
It is something that will add instant credibility to the sport and will lead to a huge influx of new fans eager to learn more about the sport and the fighters themselves.
We are already seeing the impact of Olympic inclusion. As reported by the Associated Press via Washington Post, the amateur boxing president wants to see even more female boxers involved at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
While boxing is certainly not an under-the-radar Olympic sport, women's boxing is. That might be about to change.
With history about to be made, women's boxing is an event that any fan of the Olympics really needs to watch.
4. Track Cycling
Track cycling is one of the most exciting Olympic events you might not have heard of.
If the Tour De France style road cycling events are too long and drawn out for you, then I would strongly suggest watching track cycling.
To me, track cycling is the Summer Olympics' equivalent of short-track speed skating.
It is fast, exciting and potentially dangerous.
Five separate events make up the overall sport of Olympic track cycling, and each event has its own nuances that make the entire sport so compelling.
You have the Keirin event where a pace cyclist establishes the speed for the competitors, then gets out of the way with two laps to go creating a wild sprint to the finish.
Team sprint is particularly entertaining as it often resembles an elimination style of contest. Each team starts at opposite ends of the Velodrome, and the leader of each lap must exit, allowing the next teammate to compete.
When only one member from each team is left, they then go at each other over two to three extra laps, and the first team to cross the finish line wins.
Team pursuit is very similar. Each team starts at opposite ends and has four kilometers to try and catch the other team.
Then you have the Omnium, where men and women compete in six different events and the cyclist with the most overall points wins the event.
Track cycling produces some of the most exciting moments you will see in the Summer Olympics. The five different events all have many white-knuckle moments that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Everything road cycling is, track cycling is pretty much the opposite.
If you have not watched track cycling before, then I would urge you to check it out during the 2012 Olympics.
I think you will be quite pleased that you did.
Olympic fencing requires great amounts of skill and agility
Fencing is the modern-day equivalent of competitive sword fighting, but the good thing is that the loser lives to fence another day.
It is a very specialized sport that most fans of the Olympics have heard of, yet many have not taken the time to watch an event or try to understand the rules or strategy involved in competition.
Olympic fencing consists of three different types of weapons:
The foil, the lightest of weapons designed to target the torso.
The sabre, a somewhat heavier weapon designed to target the entire body above the waist.
And the epée, the heaviest weapon used to target the entire body.
Each discipline has its own rules. For instance, with foil and epee, a competitor can only score by using the tip of the weapon. With sabre, hits with the side of the blade also count.
Modern Olympic fencing removes a great deal of potential human error as advanced electronic scoring equipment registers hits.
Rules such as right of way/priority further reduce the possibility of referee error compromising the integrity of the competition.
Fencing is certainly a complex sport and may not appeal to the casual fan.
But for the Olympics fan looking for a deeper, and potentially more rewarding sports-watching experience, fencing is an event that must be watched.
After all, it has been in every Summer Olympics for a reason.