Olympics Terms Can Test Your 'Medal'

Rob Kyff on

Let the games -- and names -- begin! Here's a handy guide to the origins and meanings of Summer Olympics terms.

In freestyle swimming, a "gallop stroke" mimics the stride and glide pattern of a horse's gallop. Instead of taking strokes of equal length with both arms, the swimmer takes a slightly longer stroke on one side, and the extra glide time allows more time to breathe.

The dive called a "gainer" (a backward somersault) comes from a similar move in gymnastics in which the athlete lands slightly forward of the takeoff spot, thus "gaining" distance. Linguists say the term "pike" for a dive in which the hips are bent and the knees are straight comes from its resemblance either to the snout of a pike (fish) or to the tapered point of a pike (weapon).

On the track, the "steeplechase," a 3000-meter race that consists of 28 hurdles and seven water jumps, is named for the country practice of racing steeds over natural barriers such as hedges and streams to a church steeple.

A preliminary race in track is called a "heat" because it heats up runners for the finals. By contrast, field event competitors who hurl objects and sometimes themselves through the air are divided into preliminary groupings called, appropriately enough, "flights."

There's an important difference between a heat and a flight. While the best runners are spread out ("seeded") among the various heats so they don't eliminate one another in the preliminaries, flights are usually grouped by ability, with the best athletes all in the same flight, hence the term "top flight." In each flight, it's the distance thrown or jumped, not the finishing place, that determines finalist status.


Track and Field Trivia: In relay races, the 10-meter stretch in which runners accelerate before receiving the baton is called the "fly zone." "Pentathlon" and "decathlon" have three syllables, not four. You "put" the shot, "sling" the discus and "throw" the javelin and hammer. The "hammer," which is actually a ball attached to a wire and handle, is so called because sledgehammers were originally used for this event. Gulp.

And did you know there's a camel in your velodrome? "Velodrome" (an arena for bicycle racing) combines the French word for bicycle"("velo") with the Latin word "dromus" (a place for running), which comes from the Latin "dromad" (running). This is the same Latin root that gives us "dromedary," another name for the one-humped camel. Fortunately for cyclists, velodromes don't have humps or camels.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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