What’s the Hardest Olympic Sport?

What’s the Hardest Olympic Sport?
Illustration: Elena Scotti/Gizmodo

Let’s stipulate, first, that no Olympic sport is easy. Relaxing, kicking back, lounging around — these are not activities that will lead you to the Olympic Village. If I was an Olympian, I’d probably take issue with some physically deteriorated internet writer telling me that softball’s a relative breeze. Which is fair. But — granted that every Olympic sport requires skills of agility and concentration lacking in most of us, and especially lacking in me — there are still, inevitably, degrees of difficulty. Some sports are harder than others. But which one’s the hardest? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts to find out.

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Matt Bowers

Associate Professor, Instruction in Sport, Management University of Texas at Austin

Given that you’re asking this question as we prepare for the start of the Tokyo Summer Games, I’m going to just ignore the Winter sports altogether. In the spirit of this Olympic moment, I’m also going to eliminate any sports that aren’t featured in the Tokyo Games. (Sorry, American football, polo, cricket, and squash.) That leaves us with 33 contenders, some of which have been featured in every modern Olympics (athletics, aquatics, cycling, fencing, and gymnastics) and some of which are making their Olympic debut (karate, skateboarding, sport climbing, and surfing).

Now that we have narrowed down to our 33 competitors, things start to get interesting.

If we think in terms of a Venn diagram where we have two circles indicating the two most basic factors that could make a sport hard — physiological exertion and complexity of skill/movement — then the hardest sport would be classified where those two circles overlap. In other words, a sport that is demanding in both the physical and the skill requirements. Can we identify sports of those 33 that clearly do not fall in one category or the other? Since virtually any sport being played at the Olympics requires a high level of respective skill, perhaps it is easiest to make the first cut on the physiological side. Are there sports that do not require maximal exertion during competition? That eliminates, at a minimum, archery or equestrian sports. Next, do we believe it to be harder psychologically to compete solo than to be part of a team? You may disagree, but if so, then we can remove the team sports from contention. Another question to debate is whether we believe that it is harder to be competing against nature (for example, kayaking or sailing) and/or on a course (for example, cycling or golf or skateboarding), or whether it is harder to be competing in a sport where a fellow Olympic-level athlete is physically trying to prevent your success. Assuming the latter, that would mean that we have narrowed down to only considering a physiologically-demanding individual sport where the competitors must directly overcome their opponent in order to win. That leaves us with boxing, fencing, judo, karate, table tennis (singles), taekwondo, tennis (singles), and wrestling. Remove table tennis and tennis due to the lack of direct physical confrontation, and we are left with, right or wrong, our most ancient forms of hand-to-hand combat. Take away fencing because of the additional layers of padding/protection, and our choices are essentially boxing, one of the martial arts, or wrestling. At this final stage, one way to further differentiate would be to examine the length of the matches within the respective remaining sports. After some basic calculations, the three potential rounds of three minutes apiece in an Olympic boxing match offers the longest potential match time of any of these sports.

So: Is boxing the hardest sport? According to our approach, you can certainly make a good case for it. But maybe we overlooked something and went astray in our model somewhere along the way. Is it harder to be pummelled by the fists of an equivalent-sized human for up to nine minutes, or is it harder to to swim 10 km (marathon swimming) or to complete a triathlon or to try to stay afloat and score a goal while someone is dragging you underwater (water polo)? Without the benefit of a controlled laboratory setting, we’ll have to just embrace the uncertainty and enjoy the festivities. USA! USA!

Timothy Baghurst

Professor in the College of Education at Florida State University and Director of FSU COACH: Interdisciplinary Centre for Athletic Coaching

There is no definitive answer to which Olympic sport is hardest, primarily because each sport requires excellence in different areas. Archery, for example, requires incredible hand-eye coordination, not to mention the ability to account for environmental variables such as wind speed and direction. In fact, archers have been known to be able to control their heart rate so that they release the arrow between heart beats. Compare this to figure skating, which requires power, balance, and an acute awareness of the movement of one’s body within space. So, each event requires its own expertise.

For me, the most challenging sports within the Olympics are the multi-event sports. Perhaps the most difficult of these are the decathlon (men) and heptathlon (women). They require the athlete to master physiological systems that are counter-intuitive. For example, the javelin, 100 meters, and shot put, while highly technical, require absolute power from the body. This is in contrast to the 1500 meters, for example, that requires middle distance endurance. So, the athlete must train for power and endurance at the same time. The body needs muscle for power, yet that same muscle mass can impede endurance performance.

The second additional challenge that makes these events the most difficult is that they occur over two days. This means that athletes cannot rely on a one-off performance to carry them to victory. They must time their meals, rest, mental activation and recovery, and so on to repeatedly perform at their best. This is both a mental and physical challenge that, in my opinion, makes these events the most difficult to master.

Lisa Delpy Neirotti

Director of the MS in Sport Management Program and Associate Professor of Sport Management at George Washington University

My answer would be gymnastics. To be on the gymnastics team, you have to have mastered at least four different disciplines: the balance beam, the uneven bars, the floor exercise, and the vaults. Each one of these requires different skill-sets. The floor exercise requires artistic/dance skills; the balance beam requires extreme mental focus. If you lose that concentration on the balance beam just one bit, you’re done — the balance beam is four inches. The room for error is very small in gymnastics compared to team sports. And each of these disciplines also requires different kinds of practice routines and different muscle groups.

All of that said, synchronised swimming might be the runner-up — all those moves performed underwater, while holding your breath…it’s not as easy as it looks.

Megan Matthews Buning

Teaching Specialist, Interdisciplinary Centre for Athletic Coaching, Florida State University

Let me preface this by saying that you could probably make an argument for any Olympic sport being the most difficult. In trying to sort out my own contender, I’ve limited my options to those sports being played at this summer’s Olympics, and taken into consideration 1) the age of the athlete and 2) the physical and mental/emotional stresses of the sport. Taking all those factors into account, I think the hardest sport is gymnastics.

Oftentimes, gymnasts are younger than a lot of the other athletes at the Olympics. The younger you are, the tougher it is to prepare, mentally and physically. Then there’s the fact that gymnastics is an impact sport — it makes a hard impact on the body pretty consistently. And while every sport comes down to a matter of inches, in gymnastics it’s a matter of just millimetres. If they’re off on their landing, or miss the bar, they’re facing legitimate injuries that could sideline them forever. Gymnasts also have to be flexible, mobile, and extremely strong. They need to be able to rigorously control their bodies. A lot of training goes into that.

On the psychological side, there’s the fear of failure, which can destroy a gymnast. When you’re scared of failure, you might hesitate — and given the kinds of movements gymnastics require, any hesitation can lead to disaster.

It’s true that gymnasts don’t have to react to things in their environment, which might make things “easier” than some team sports, but the other side of that is the fact that the pressure is placed on the individual to perform: when you have a pitcher on a softball field, the team can pick them up. So I’m going to stick with gymnastics.

Jim Johnson

Professor Emeritus of Exercise & Sport Studies and Former Director of the Human Performance Lab at Smith College

The two that come to mind: 1) the 2,000-metre rowing race and 2) the 1500-metre race that decathletes run.

Why? For any sport to be really tough, it has to have a significant anaerobic effect. Both of those will lead participants to generate quite a bit of lactic acid — when they finish the race, they’ll have a lot of lactic acid in their bloodstream, which is uncomfortable.

With the decathlon 1500-metre race, the reason it’s hard for its participants is that they’re not really trained for it. They’re primarily dealing with events that only last seconds — the 100-metre dash, high hurdles, shot put, discus, javelin, etc. So decathletes are not really trained for distance events, because you can’t adequately train for both. Which is why you often see these athletes pretty much collapse at the end of their events.

Amy B. Bass

Professor of Sport Studies and Chair of the Division of Social Science & Communication at Manhattanville College

This is not an easy question, because it really depends on what you think makes anything hard. Most disciplines to learn? Then we need to be talking about decathlon, heptathlon, gymnastics, and the truly bizarre modern pentathlon. Crazy accurate precision? Archery blows my mind — those targets are so far away. I’m shocked every time they hit the target, never mind the bullseye, and gold medals are lost and won by distances that the naked eye can barely see. Sports that make me shake my head in awe when I watch? Pole vault and hurdles, with the 400-meters right up there (I mean, they throw up at the end. Because it is a distance run like a sprint. It’s crazy. No pacing whatsoever).

But I think I have to say — and I’m not alone in this — that water polo is the winner here. I never saw a water polo match until my first Olympics, in Atlanta, but when I got the assignment, I was all over it. Obsessed. Those teams are playing hockey, lacrosse, and soccer while maintaining the viciousness of a football game (seriously — take a look at the underwater camera to see what is really going on) and swimming miles per game. I cannot fathom doing what water polo players do if I was standing on grass, never mind treading water that goes well over my head. The first time I watched it, I just kept thinking: this cannot actually be a sport. But it is, and it is awesome.

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