What Makes an Olympic Sport?

(Last Updated On: July 26, 2021)

What Makes an Olympic Sport?

Every few years, the top athletes from around the world come together to flex on the rest of us. There’s just something about watching the best of the best compete that seems to draw us in. But here’s something we’ve all probably thought of at least a little bit while watching: what makes an Olympic sport in the first place? And how do Olympic sports get considered?

Side note: we’re still working on ultimate frisbee.

List of Olympic Sports

Before exploring how to turn something like ultimate frisbee or competitive cheese rolling into an actually Olympic-level competition, let’s give you the list of sports currently in the Olympics.

Summer Sports Winter Sports
Archery Alpine/Cross-Country/Freestyle Skiing
Artistic Swimming Biathlon
Athletics Bobsleigh
Badminton Curling
Baseball & Softball Figure & Speed Skating
Basketball & 3×3 Basketball Ice Hockey
Beach Volleyball & Volleyball Luge
Boxing Nordic Combined
Canoe Slalom Short Track
Canoe Sprint Skeleton 
Cycling BMX/Mountain Bike/Road/Track Ski Jumping
Diving Snowboarding
Equestrian Sports
Judo, Karate, Taekwondo
Sport Climbing
Table Tennis & Tennis
Water Polo
Wrestling Freestyle & Greco-Roman 

Yeah there are quite a few more summer sports. But there’s a pretty simple reason for that; the Winter Olympic Games exist as a result of the Summer Olympic Games. As winter-based sports became more popular, the need to split the Olympics became apparent for logistical reasons. Try skiing in like Mexico City or Rio or Sydney. So the decision was made to create a separate Winter Olympic Games. But the fact remains that there are just a lot more sports in existence that don’t require snow and/or ice.

What Makes an Olympic Sport?

Defining an Olympic Sport

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does actually have a definition of what makes an activity a “sport.” And it’s a definition they kind of just offloaded onto a bunch of other people. A sport, to the Olympics, is anything that has its own international sport federation. So unless the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling competition we mentioned earlier can gain a bunch of business investors and vast international appeal, we’re not going to see Olympic Cheese-Rolling anytime soon. Shame, really.

This organization thing is also how you get many variations of different sports. Like how there’s different types of gymnastics or skating. The IOC recognizes the International Skating Union (ISU), thus all variations of skating governed by the ISU are Olympic sports. 

Since the Olympics have grown, the IOC has started being more restrictive about who can join the Olympic club. The Summer Games are capped at 28 different sports, so some sports just have to cycle out. No winter sport has been added since 1998 (curling).

The IOC has also been reluctant to consider motor or extreme sports as new Olympic additions. Though a prime exception is the addition of BMX, as the IOC attempts to modernize. 

No seriously, this is from IOC president Thomas Bach.

“We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”

The Winter Games, being comparatively smaller than their warmer counterpart, don’t have a cap on their sporting events.

Modern Olympic Definitions

If some of the sports on the table above looked a little off, that’s because they probably were. Since the Summer Olympics is hard capped at having a maximum of 28 different sports (they can have less, though), many sports have either taken breaks or been discontinued. 

Here’s where we note that Olympic Tug-of-War used to be a thing. Now that’s a sport we all want back.

Some sports, as a result of these stricter definitions, have been contested for inclusion in the Summer Olympics. Thus, a sport now needs a little more than just having a big committee to even be considered for Olympic inclusion. A sport needs to be (widely) played in 75 countries, as well as 4 different continents.

The Winter Games are less strict, requiring 25 countries of wide practice across 3 continents.

Cheese-Rollers, rise up!

Know your Olympics? See if you know who hosts them here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.