Ranking the Top 10 Olympic Sports to Watch

Zac Wassink@https://twitter.com/ZacWassinkFeatured ColumnistAugust 11, 2016

Ranking the Top 10 Olympic Sports to Watch

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    Gymnastics remains one of the more popular sports.
    Gymnastics remains one of the more popular sports.Associated Press

    The best part about any Summer Olympics is that the events occur at the perfect time of the calendar year. 

    There are no meaningful football games on television. Major League Baseball pennant races have not yet heated up. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League remain on breaks. 

    The Summer Olympics, meanwhile, give us two weeks of sports we largely ignore other than for 17 days every four years. 

    Gymnastics and swimming dominate discussions and prime-time Olympic TV spots during the opening week of a Games. Track then swoops in to save the day right as gymnastics and swimming competitions fade off into the figurative sunset. Spotlights also shine on sports such as handball and water polo. 

    Americans disregard Olympic sports for 47 straight months at a time because of valid reasons. We support our established favorite teams. We dedicate so many hours and days to following certain competitions. Even in 2016, when it is easy to be cynical about many things, we still feel nationalistic pride when somebody wearing an American jersey or outfit wins a gold medal at an Olympics. 

    That is just one reason we tune in to watch the Olympics every four years, even for events that are tape-delayed. 

10. Handball

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    Olympic handball is fun to watch even if you don't know all of the rules.
    Olympic handball is fun to watch even if you don't know all of the rules.Ben Curtis/Associated Press

    Are you an American who enjoys rooting for the home team? Handball is not for you if that's the case. 

    As David Wharton of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, the United States has never medaled in this event. The U.S. didn't even qualify in handball for the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

    Don't pass on this sport only because of national pride. 

    First-time viewers will be confused watching handball. There's no way around that. Imagine indoor soccer and basketball produced a baby, and then the baby grew up and married an offspring of water polo and lacrosse. Those two lovebirds came together to give us handball. 

    Thankfully, NBCBayArea.com offers this helpful guide for the rules of Olympic handball. 

    Elite handball players contort their bodies, almost unnaturally, at times, in attempts to score goals. As Stephen Douglas of TheBigLead.com described following one match at the 2016 Games, one such player scored what could have been the goal of the tournament. That tally was disallowed, however, because he violated a rule. 

    That play nevertheless serves as an example of what you'll see in competitive handball. 

    A handball match is decided by the basic principle that the team that scores the most points before the clock runs out wins. Focus on that and on the exhilarating action you'll see during the Olympics. 

    Worry about learning every handball rule four years from now. 

9. Wrestling, Taekwondo and Judo

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    Combat sports such as judo belong in the Olympics.
    Combat sports such as judo belong in the Olympics.Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

    Combat sports evolved a great deal over the past 20 years. 

    The Ultimate Fighting Championship established itself as a legitimate sports organization. Fighters such as Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar and Conor McGregor became stars recognized outside of the world of mixed martial arts. We may one day even see MMA in the Olympics. 

    A future UFC star may be competing at the 2016 Summer Olympics. We just don't know it yet.

    Before the official start of the Olympics, Newsday offered a look at prior American Olympians who found success in the UFC. Rousey failed to win gold at the Olympics before becoming one of the top draws for the MMA promotion. The same goes for current UFC champion Daniel Cormier. Dan Henderson and Mark Coleman are two other stars who competed in Olympic competitions and also in the UFC. 

    Combat sports featured at an Olympics are similar to what you'll find at professional levels. Some of the matches are great. Some aren't. Rules are complicated for novices, but commentators should help new viewers understand all they are seeing during a match. 

    There is one other reason you should watch wrestling during the Olympics. It was only a few years ago when we nearly lost Olympic wrestling. Wrestling goes back to the ancient Olympics in Greece. An Olympics without wrestling is like baseball without "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." 

    Support wrestling, even if you only do so for two weeks out of every four years. 

8. Table Tennis

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    Do not confuse pingpong for table tennis.
    Do not confuse pingpong for table tennis.Associated Press

    Table tennis is the curling of the Summer Olympics. 

    You watch table tennis and think "I could do that." You probably even think you've played table tennis in the past. 

    As Rodger Sherman of SB Nation pointed out, you likely haven't: "We have all played table tennis, but really, most of us have actually played pingpong. What we do is not tennis on a table. It’s a fun little competitive thing to pass time. It’s not something we spend our waking hours practicing. It’s a game."

    Table tennis is an easy watch for multiple reasons. You don't need a refresher on the rules. There is no complicated system for determining who wins. A ball is hit back and forth until one player is unable to complete a return shot. The first person or team to accumulate a certain amount of points wins.


    Olympic table tennis is largely about speed. The ball travels a short distance in the blink of an eye. Points are often won in seconds. A grueling match may consume an hour of your time, but you probably won't see that entire match play out on TV due to commercials and because of how the sport is presented on TV. 

    Table tennis is also, per the Associated Press (via USA Today), a game of spin. The world's best players utilize a variety of spin, and they do so in a way viewers probably don't notice during a match. 

7. Team Volleyball

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    The United States and the Netherlands produced a classic volleyball match at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
    The United States and the Netherlands produced a classic volleyball match at the 2016 Summer Olympics.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    Team volleyball is the majority of the Olympics summarized in one sport.

    Tremendous athletes you don't know play a sport you usually don't watch. You get the hang of volleyball rules and regulations in time, however, and you find yourself actively rooting for your country during the competition. By the end, you maybe even search for upcoming volleyball matches on your TV schedule. 

    You then quickly forget about the sport after the Olympics. 

    Critics should watch a replay of the women's match involving the United States and the Netherlands from Aug. 8. The countries split the two opening sets. Holland won the third set after halting an impressive rally from the Americans. The United States fought back, however, winning the final two sets to rally from behind and notch an impressive victory. 

    That match had everything that makes team volleyball great. Both sides went on runs. Both flashed remarkable athleticism while making kills and digs and executing electric spikes of the ball. 

    If only every match of the tournament was so exciting. 

    Chris Chase of Fox Sports offered another reason for why he loves the team volleyball competitions: 

    Best of all, the games are up for grabs. There's no Dream Team beating up on poor Angola or a two-swimmer race that renders six lanes of the pool irrelevant. There are top teams, of course, but there's great parity. Six countries have won the last six men's gold medals. The women's side has seen three different winners in the last four cycles. 

6. Men's Basketball

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    Some of the best basketball players in the world still compete at the Olympics.
    Some of the best basketball players in the world still compete at the Olympics.Eric Gay/Associated Press

    The Olympic men's basketball tournament is similar to a pro wrestling story. 

    A top heel destroys underdogs. That heel sometimes gloats or shows off during matches. The heel eventually faces better and better competition leading up to one final showdown against a different underdog who may earn the upset and win the championship. 

    The heel in this scenario is the United States. 

    The early rounds of this competition are boring. That's is particularly true as it pertains to the United States. Not every game in the round-robin stage is a snooze-fest though. The contest involving Croatia and Spain on Aug. 7 came down to the final seconds. Brazil upset Spain in a nail-biter on Aug. 9. 

    The best part about the men's basketball tournament is that it features recognizable National Basketball Association stars. Australia, Croatia, Brazil, Argentina, Spain and France all have multiple NBA players on their rosters. The U.S. roster is made up entirely of NBA talent. 

    LeBron James, Stephen Curry and other noteworthy players elected to stay home this time around. Big deal. The Olympic men's basketball tournament will remain one of the most interesting events of the Games as long as NBA players are invited and participate. 

5. Water Polo

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    Water polo players can be downright mean during matches.
    Water polo players can be downright mean during matches.Eduardo Verdugo/Associated Press

    Water polo looks simple enough. Competitors swim around in a pool. They throw a ball to teammates and then attempt to place that ball into a goal, all while trying to evade opponents swimming after them. What could be so difficult about it? 

    Do it once, and you'll forevermore become exhausted merely by watching the best players in the world. It's as grueling a sport as you'll find at any Olympics. 

    Water polo is a quintessential Olympic sport. Approximately 99 percent of the people reading this sentence watch water polo only during an Olympics. Odds are you don't compete in a recreational water polo league. Many wouldn't know where to locate such a league. 

    You may be happy about that upon learning water polo players are mean. 

    Sean Deveney of Sporting News wrote about this during the early days of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Upon speaking with American Tony Azevedo, who is competing in his fifth Olympics, Deveney learned that armpit hair and also other body parts that should never be grabbed during a match are sometimes pulled during water polo contests. Players kick and even wrestle in the water. 

    Water polo is an odd combination of swimming, basketball, soccer, wrestling and Fight Club. How is this not our national sport in 2016? 

4. Women's Soccer

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    The United States women's national team is expected to win gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
    The United States women's national team is expected to win gold at the 2016 Summer Olympics.Eugenio Savio/Associated Press

    The Olympic men's soccer tournament is a letdown every four years. 

    Men's rosters are restricted to under-23 players, minus three slots available for overage players. Thus, many of the best footballers in the world don't compete. 

    That is again the case in 2016. Top-tier Barclays Premier League players are preparing for the upcoming season and are not in Rio. Lionel Messi isn't featuring for Argentina. The American men didn't even qualify, but that's a different topic for a different day.

    The women's soccer tournament has no such restrictions or concerns. That makes it vastly superior to the men's. 

    Americans enjoy watching the United States women's national team largely because it often wins. That needs to be said. We would likely have different emotions about the tournament if the American women failed to qualify as often as do the American men these days. 

    The women's tournament is awesome regardless of your rooting interests because it features many of the best players in the world. 

    Female footballers compete for clubs in leagues around the world. We don't follow those leagues as we do the Premier League, La Liga and other top-flight European men's competitions. Thus, the Olympics and FIFA Women's World Cup give us two opportunities to see the best female players in the world compete on massive stages. 

    One way the Olympic tournament is better than the World Cup is that the Olympic winner is determined in roughly two weeks. 

3. Swimming

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    Michael Phelps is a superstar in and out of the pool.
    Michael Phelps is a superstar in and out of the pool.Michael Sohn/Associated Press

    Would Americans love swimming so much if our country didn't win multiple medals at every Olympics? It's an interesting question to ask.

    Some of the most successful American Olympians in history are swimmers. Mark Spitz won nine Olympic gold medals. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history. Katie Ledecky and Lilly King made headlines with their winning swims early in the 2016 Summer Olympics. 

    Fans and viewers in their 20s and early 30s literally cannot remember a time when the Americans didn't dominate in the pool. 

    Some Olympic swimming events go longer than we'd like. It's one reason swimming falls just beneath track in this list. Somebody watching a relay who only cares about the result of the race could head to the bathroom, make a sandwich and still catch the final couple of laps. 

    Casual fans learned something new during the first few days of the 2016 Summer Olympics. There are mind games played in swimming. 

    King and Yulia Efimova of Russia wagged fingers in the pool, and King talked a bit of smack out of the water when mentioning Efimova served a suspension due to doping allegations. "Phelps Face" became an internet meme after Phelps stared down Chad le Clos before a 200-meter butterfly semifinal on Aug. 8.

    Feuds make sports better. We like seeing two fighters talk trash before getting inside of a ring or cage to settle the score. The hope moving forward is that every Olympics will feature additional swimming feuds. 

    That could propel swimming to the top of such lists in 2020. 

2. Track

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    Usain Bolt is one of the biggest Olympic superstars of the past decade.
    Usain Bolt is one of the biggest Olympic superstars of the past decade.Thomas Kienzle/Associated Press

    Track and field events at any Olympics are perfect in their simplicity. One man or woman runs faster than all opponents. Somebody throws an object further than his competitors. Sprint races are over in literally seconds. 

    What's not to love? 

    Chris Chase of Fox Sports provided another reason for why track events make for easy watches during Olympics: "But the races are fast, upsets are rare and if not for a full Olympic program that allows NBC to cut to and from different sports, the downtime in track would bore even the most jaded NFL fans who lament the touchdown-commercial-kickoff-commercial combinations."

    Viewers likely take this for granted. A track and field meet can be boring. Fans in attendance wait for different events to begin and end, and multiple qualifiers take place per sport. TV viewers luckily miss the worst parts of track. We go from race to race and from event to event, all while still seeing the joy in the eyes of a victor and the anguish on the face of the vanquished. 

    The men's 100-meter final is a highlight of any Olympics. No other race awards the winner with the label of "the fastest man on earth." Usain Bolt is a superstar around the world all because he covered 100 meters faster than anybody before him. 

    We also admittedly like Bolt's post-race celebrations. 

    Some Olympic sports confuse casual fans. In track events, though, there are clear winners and clear losers. That makes these sports easy to watch even if you don't know the names of the competitors. 

1. Gymnastics

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    Gymnastics often provide high drama during an Olympics.
    Gymnastics often provide high drama during an Olympics.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Sports fans sometimes believe they could legitimately compete. We play baseball and football in our backyards. We shoot hoops in our driveways. We dabble in Sunday soccer leagues. 

    Most of us cannot pretend we could be competitive gymnasts. 

    Olympic gymnasts are real-life superheroes. They fly through the air with the greatest of ease. They complete feats of strength beyond our capabilities. There is a balance and rhythm to every gymnastics competition. Fans sit and marvel while watching balance beam and pommel horse performances. Floor routines then bring in-arena customers to their feet in excitement and appreciation. 

    It also doesn't hurt that female American gymnasts are often the biggest stars of any Olympics.

    Mary Lou Retton became became America's sweetheart in the summer of 1984. The "Magnificent Seven" made history and won the first ever gold medal for the United States in the team competition in 1996. The "Fierce Five" won gold in 2012. Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas are all household names, if only for a little while, in 2016.

    Don't just take our word for it. Ratings, per TV By the Numbers, jumped the second night of the 2016 Summer Olympics when the American female gymnastics team was featured. That broadcast showed events that occurred earlier that day. 

    Gymnastics gives viewers everything they could want from a sporting event. There are phenomenal athletes, compelling stories, pageantry and flips through the air that make for cool highlights. 

    The fact that judges determine who wins and who loses cannot even ruin the beauty of gymnastics. 


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