The Olympics are an international celebration of sport, but not all sports are invited to the cool kids’ table. The first modern Olympics in 1896 had only a handful of sports represented — all of which remain on the schedule to this day. Over the last century, however, the total number of events has ballooned, with the International Olympic Committee even instating a 28-sport cap from 2002 to 2014. Nowadays, the IOC controls the size of the games by limiting the number of athletes, officials and events.
Until 2007, the IOC stipulated that a sport must be “widely practiced” to earn a place in the official Olympic program. When the concept was first articulated in 1949, the requirement was that at least 10 countries actively participated in the sport. In 2004, the last time the requirement was enforced, men’s sports had to have been active in at least 75 countries and four continents for inclusion in the Summer Olympics, while women’s sports needed to be active in 40 countries and three continents; for inclusion in the Winter Olympics, both men’s and women’s sports had to be active in at least 25 countries and three continents.
Every sport is governed by an international federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee, which is responsible for establishing the official rules, hosting international competitions and determining the Olympic qualification process. The federations also define “disciplines,” or specific types of the sport, which is what we’re showing in the chart above. Each discipline is comprised of different ranked “events” — what athletes actually get medals for. So, for instance, cycling is the sport ruled by the Union Cycliste Internationale. It includes disciplines such as freestyle BMX and cycling track. Athletes in cycling then compete in events such as men’s sprint or women’s madison.
Notably missing from this chart are “demonstration sports.” Officially introduced in 1912, demonstration sports, confusingly, are actually events1 that showcase sports either culturally significant or completely foreign to the host country, e.g. the Finnish men’s baseball event and the handball event at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. Events from demonstration sports awarded physical medals, but were not part of the official Olympic medal ceremony and didn’t contribute to each country’s overall medal count. Demonstration sports aren’t always included — there was an initiative to cut down on program bloat by eliminating them in 1972, but they were back 10 years later before being cut again 10 years after that, in 1992.2 Some once-demonstration sports, like baseball, have gone on to official Olympic glory.
Yet for some 2020 sports, that fame could be brief. As part of an effort to modernize the modern Olympics, in 2014 the IOC voted to adopt a set of recommendations called the “Olympic Agenda 2020.” One of those items allows for the host country to propose sports for their edition of the Olympics in order to make each event more unique (and yes, to appeal to the youth). The IOC approved baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing as contested sports for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. And just as swiftly as it rose to Olympic prominence, karate was knocked off its pedestal: The sport was not included in the list of proposals for the 2024 Paris Games. (Baseball and softball met the same fate.) At least there will be Olympic-level breakdancing in three years.
Neil Paine contributed research.
CORRECTION (July 22, 2021, 12:21 p.m.): A previous version of the chart in this article incorrectly showed rugby as a competitive discipline in the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics. Rugby was discontinued after 1924; rugby sevens was played in 2016 and will also be contested this year.