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16 Extremely Random Questions About The Olympics (Answered In 50 Words Or Less)

Jul 28, 2021
Originally published on August 5, 2021 11:58 am

Updated August 5, 2021 at 1:32 PM ET

See, the thing about the Summer Olympics is that it comes every four years. And that's a long-enough span of time for us to forget the things we thought we knew. ("Tell me again how they figure out the order of countries in the parade of nations.")

So as you sit on your couch cheering on sports you didn't think you cared about during the Tokyo Games, we're here to answer all those random questions that keep popping up in your brain.

You've been tweeting them to us with the hashtag #NPRanswers. Keep doing that. We'll keep the answers short — like 50 words or less — so you can skim this list during those commercial breaks.

Water polo

Why do water polo players wear swim caps with plastic discs over the ears? (from @ArrasmithSarah)

Water polo balls are heavy and ear drums are sensitive. So, the plastic coverings offer protection. And according to this piece from The Independent, the caps also have small holes in them, allowing players to hear each other.

Beach volleyball

Sand flies as a player jumps for the ball in the men's beach volleyball quarter-final match between Latvia and Brazil during the Tokyo Olympic on August 4, 2021.

Where do they get the sand for the beach volleyball matches? (from @Captcurtporter)

In Tokyo's case, officials shipped in 3,500 tons of sand from Vietnam. As this AP story explains, there are some pretty stringent specs, including the shape of the sand and even how it smells.


Barthelemy Chinenyeze #1 of Team France reacts with team mates as he competes against Team Argentina during the Men's Semifinals volleyball at the Tokyo Games on August 5, 2021.
Toru Hanai / Getty Images

Why does one volleyball player wear a different color uniform? (from @hab169)

That person is called a libero and they have a very specific role, mainly: defend. The color helps "the referee identify them clearly and make it easier for them to enforce the rules of the libero position," says this piece in Eurosport.


Isabell Werth of Germany competes in the equestrian dressage individual grand prix freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28.
Zhu Zheng / Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Curious how dressage horses are transported overseas. Obviously a plane, but like ... how? (from @corieorieo and @tterrag)

Horses are loaded in two per stall. They fly with a staff of vets and groomers who, among other things, try to make sure they stay calm. Stallions travel at the front of the plane so that they're not distracted by the mares. And just like people, they need passports.


Why do divers immediately hit the shower as soon as they're out of the pool?
The pool is cold and can cause their muscles to cramp. The warm water of the shower helps keep the muscles loose. That's also why you're increasingly seeing divers sitting in a hot tub between dives.

Minami Itahashi and Matsuri Arai of Japan react after their final dive during the women's synchronized 10-meter platform final at the Tokyo Olympics on July 27.
Al Bello / Getty Images

What's with those tiny towels?

They're called shammies, and they help the divers dry faster. Why do they need to dry faster? So they're not cold. Also, when you're wet, you're slippery. And you don't want to slip and lose your grip when you're doing, say, a knee tuck.


Katie Ledecky of Team USA competes in the women's 1,500-meter freestyle final at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28.
Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

How are lanes assigned in Olympic swimming?
A swimmer ends up in a particular lane depending on their qualifying time. The fastest gets the center lane. Lanes 3 and 5 go to the next fastest. That, according to the explanation here, is why you'll often find the gold-medal favorite in Lane 4.

What's with the air horn that's blasted constantly during certain swimming events? (from @CaGirlInSF)
Ah, the air horn — the vuvuzela of the Olympics. They're loud for a reason. They're there to signal to the swimmers that it's the final lap.

Why do swimmers slap themselves before a race?
It's a warmup technique. You slap yourself to get the blood flowing. It's fine. It's part of their pre-race ritual. (It's not fine when your judo coach slaps you — even when you say it's part of your ritual.)

Why do they wear those big puffy coats?
To warm themselves up. Heat helps relax the muscles so they don't cramp.

Why do we hear whistling throughout some swim events? (from @CAGirlinSF)
The whistles are how coaches communicate with the swimmers. The Focus did a really interesting piece about it, where the piece broke down the different kinds of whistles. Basically, the whistles signal to the swimmers "where they stand in the race and what to do."

Gymnast Simone Biles of the U.S. chalks her hands while training on vault at the Tokyo Olympics.
Ashley Landis / AP


Why do gymnasts rub that white powder on their hands before a routine?
It's chalk. It absorbs the sweat off their hands, helps them keep a better grip on, say, the parallel bars and decreases the friction between the hands and the bars.

I thought the score to shoot for in gymnastics is the "perfect 10." I'm seeing scores like 15.400. Explain.
In the olden times, the maximum score was a 10. The rules have changed. Now, you're scored on difficulty (how hard the thing you're trying to do is) and execution (how well you did that hard thing). Your final score totals the two.

On the balance beam, gymnasts wear a slipper. Why on only one foot, though? (from @kurkoski)

Some gymnasts wear one, some two. Either way, it helps with grip and helps them turn more efficiently on the balance beam or during floor exercises.

Caeleb Dressel wears a USA-branded face covering while waiting to receive his gold medal after the final of the men's 4x100 meter freestyle relay swimming event during the Tokyo Olympics on Monday.
Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images


Why does everyone keep referring to these 2021 Games as "Tokyo 2020"? (from @c_bass69)

That's what the IOC decided when it announced the postponement last year. Part of the reason: money. "Torches, medals, other branding items and merchandise were already being made using the name 'Tokyo 2020,' and a name change would have meant additional costs," a Tokyo organizing committee source told Yahoo Sports.

Why is Team USA wearing masks that make them look like Bane from Batman?
We looked into this. The masks, made by Nike, aren't extra-protective or anything. They're mostly a fashion statement. The pleats are meant to evoke the folds of Japanese origami.

What's stumping you? Tweet us your question with the hashtag #NPRanswers, and we'll get you an explanation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Gold medals, patriotic uniforms and tears on podiums are all things we know and expect from the Olympics. But also, what's with those teeny towels divers use? And how did they get those dressage horses to Tokyo? NPR's Jonathan Franklin has been looking into some of your burning questions about the Tokyo Olympics, and he joins us now with all the answers. Hello.

JONATHAN FRANKLIN, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So NPR asked our audience on Twitter about what's spiking their curiosity at the Olympics. And we got a lot of questions about water sports. So what is up with those small towels?

FRANKLIN: Well, Lulu, funny you mention it. They're actually called shammies. And those small towels, in fact, help the divers, surprisingly, you know, dry faster because we all know when you're coming out of the pool, you're prone to, you know, slipping and falling all over the place. And I'm sure the athletes do not want to cause any unnecessary injuries if possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, interesting. So another question we got is, why do the athletes slap themselves before a race?

FRANKLIN: Well, ironically, that's really just a warmup technique. So according to professionals, you slap yourself to get the blood flowing and, you know, to focus. So don't worry, it's totally fine, Lulu. It's just sort of like a pregame ritual that most athletes do before a game starts.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: OK. All right. I want to move on to the horses. I'm particularly interested in equestrian events. Dressage - how did some of those really, really big beasts get across the world?

FRANKLIN: Well, you know, they're actually flown overseas, you know, surprisingly, and they're loaded two per stall. So the horses get their own staff of vets and groomers, you know, to keep them in check, to make sure they behave on that long flight. And fun fact, Lulu - the horses also need their own passport to travel, just like us if we're traveling overseas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Gymnastics - a lot of talk about that. But what is the white powder gymnastics rub on their hands before a routine? What does it do?

FRANKLIN: Well, it's just chalk. So basically, it absorbs the sweat off their hands and helps the gymnast keep a better grip when on the bar. So, you know, they don't want to slip. They don't want to fall or create any other accidents to disqualify them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And also, people have noticed that the athletes wear only one slipper on the balance beam. Why's that?

FRANKLIN: Well, it's really up to the gymnast, to be honest. So gymnasts sometimes wear one, or they wear both. But either way, if they wear the slipper, it helps them with their grip and turns on the beam and the floor exercises.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And people really were wondering also about the food. I mean, there are athletes from all over the world. Are there cuisines from all over the world in the Olympic Village, or is it mainly Japanese or Japanese-inspired?

FRANKLIN: Well, due to the COVID protocols for this year's games, athletes don't really have a lot of chances to go outside in Tokyo to, you know, enjoy the actual cuisine. So during their stays, the athletes are asked to really go to - between the competition venues and the limited locations that are outlined in their activity plans. So basically, that means that they're banned from freely eating at all the restaurants and bars in Tokyo. But they do have plenty of Japanese food items, both traditional and popular - like, you know, ramen, noodles, rice balls, you know, all the yummy stuff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good to know. OK, lastly, someone brought up that the masks Team USA wear before and after their events look a little like a costume of an evil villain from a popular movie.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the deal?

FRANKLIN: Well, Lulu, it's honestly just really a fashion statement, so it's really nothing important. But people think it looks like Bane from the Batman movie called "The Dark Knight Rises." So it's really just kind of random. But, you know, nothing major. The masks have pleats in them. And, you know, they're meant to evoke the folds of Japanese origami, believe it or not. So, you know, shout out to Nike for that dope fashion statement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. That's NPR's Jonathan Franklin. Thank you so much.

FRANKLIN: Thank you for having me.