The Only Olympic Sports You Need To Watch

Michael Phelps is also the gold standard for Olympic television. Pilar Olivares

This number is more outrageous than Katie Ledecky's split times: There are 306 separate events at the Rio Olympics, from the awesome (men's 100 meters) to the arcane (mixed nacra 17, which is a sailing event, even if deep down you are wondering whether it is also a patented synthetic fiber). You cannot watch them all. You will not—despite NBC having six networks partially or fully committed to airing the Rio Games—watch them all.

That's correct: The Rio Games boast 300-plus events, fanning out from 28 different sports (e.g., athletics, which you may recognize as "track and field") that envelop 41 disciplines. It may seem after one week that all of them are swimming, but trust me, it's an illusion. Green water is not an illusion, but the Olympics taking place entirely at a 50-meter pool is.

Because even an Olympian effort will fall short when trying to watch all the games, we've gone to the trouble of ranking the sports in terms of watchability, from least-watchable (Ryan Seacrest-level) to most watchable (Mary Carillo-level). We will note in passing that none of the 306 events are American Ninja Warrior, even though that happens to be NBC's most popular prime-time show. Is it too late for Tokyo to adopt it into the 2020 Games?


Events in Which Nothing Moves (or Moves Faster Than the Eyes Can See)

Archery and all shooting events except skeet and trap, where targets are launched. Bullets and arrows are visible in flight only in slow-mo (The Matrix), or during battle scenes from Game of Thrones. The conundrum for the viewer is that we never experience the journey, the part of any sporting endeavor that makes it compelling. It's like reading only the first and last chapters of a novel.

Cut to stationary male or female marksman taking aim. Then cut to target showing bullet hole or where arrow landed on bullring. Cut back to marksman reacting. Remind yourself that The Hurt Locker was far more suspenseful than American Sniper.

Jack Tripper Events

If an Olympic event is closely related to an activity that took place in the opening credits of Three's Company, then it belongs near the bottom of this list. That includes cycling, race walking and sailing. Having said that, we would not mind seeing bumper cars as an Olympic event.

There's an exception to nearly every rule, though. Last weekend's men's and women's road races were hot fire. Annemiek van Vleuten, who was in the lead with just 11 kilometers remaining when she suffered an all-timer of an "agony of defeat" spill, provided one of the most unforgettable moments of these games.

Festivus Events

Ah, the feats of strength. Did you know that there are 15 weightlifting events for men and women in the Olympics? And that none of them are the bench press? With nine of the 15 events completed through last Friday, the USA has yet to win a medal.


Events With More Prestige Outside the Olympics

Golf. Tennis. Football (soccer). Triathlon. Basketball. These athletes would rather win, respectively, the Masters, Wimbledon, the World Cup, the Hawaii Ironman and the NBA Slam-Dunk Contest than a gold medal. The gold is gravy for these sultans of sport, even if they are either a) the best in the world at what they do or b) not afraid of Zika.

Watching the U.S. men's and women's basketball teams is decent enough television, but hegemony is one step short of monotony. The most interesting moment in any of these sports thus far occurred when U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo allowed a penalty shot through her wickets.


We only watch in hopes that someday, some athlete will go full Inigo Montoya on his or her opponent, informing the person, "You killed my father; prepare to die," only to have that opponent switch sword hands halfway through the bout.

Dude Ranch Events

Canoeing, equestrian and modern pentathlon. This is also the answer to a question: Which athletes most often have their credentials double-checked by security inside the Olympic village?

Events We'd Watch if Americans Were Any Good at Them

Field hockey, rugby sevens, badminton and table tennis. Sometime not long after Old School was released, beer pong supplanted pingpong as America's most popular pong-related activity.

Water Polo

Somewhat overrated. If you ever wanted to know what it would be like to play soccer underwater with your hands instead of our feet, here you go.

Trampoline Gymnastics

Anything involving a trampoline is 50 percent more fun and 100 percent more dangerous. Ask the producers of America's Funniest Home Videos.


Somewhat underrated. If you ever wanted to know what it would be like to play soccer with your hands, here you go. Every four years, Americans watch handball, swear it would be a popular pro sport stateside, then forget about it as soon as the NFL season begins.


Now that mixed martial arts has overtaken boxing as America's favorite punch-throwing sport, this inveterate Olympic favorite no longer packs the wallop that it did in the days of Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman. Do you even know who the current heavyweight champion of the world is? He is a British bloke named Tyson Fury, who sounds more like the title of a "30 for 30" documentary on a certain former heavyweight champ.


Rowing involves power, grace, balance and every bit as much synchronicity between teammates as events with "synchronized" in their names. No sport has better made the transition from slave labor to Olympic discipline in the past two millennia. A reminder that the Ben-Hur remake opens nationwide next Friday!



On the sand or indoors, no sport has a higher quota of celebrations per point (1:1) than volleyball.

Cirque du Soleil Events

Diving and gymnastics are intensely watchable for two reasons: 1) Most of us cannot do more than a cartwheel and 2) gravity. Eventually, some gymnast will snap a limb as if it's a twig, or some diver will land wrong and here come the GIFs. Our only suggestion is that there should be a diving event akin to the high jump, where competitors keep moving the platform higher until one by one they chicken out.

I'll Race Ya! Events

Swimming and track and field are both primal and nostalgic. In a related and yet mathematically improbable matter, four out of five men were the fastest kid in their third-grade class. Just ask them.

Swimming has dominated Week One of the Rio Games, and track will overwhelm Week Two. With good reason. All of us on the globe can relate to racing against our peers. Also, these athletes are often possessed of the most aspirational physiques on the planet (check out the female heptathletes and the men's pole vaulters in track).

It's a strange irony that the event that takes the least amount of time compared with any other in the Olympics, start to finish—the men's 100—also brings with it the most approbation, as well as the most coveted title: world's fastest man.

The Only Olympic Sports You Need To Watch | Sports