Swimming, track and gymnastics are the most popular Olympic sports amongst television viewers. Are they the best to watch on TV? Fourth-Place Medal has followed all 32 sports at the London Games (with the exception of taekwondo, which begins Wednesday) and ranked each in order of general TV viewing enjoyment.
32. Shooting -- Seeing targets explode into a puff of purple in skeet shooting is always enjoyable. But the competitors are so quick and the targets are so small that watching the event is a confusing jumble of noises and clouds.
31. Judo -- The only compelling part of watching judo is wondering why the competitors are wearing robes and speculating on whether they'll come undone. Judo's rules are completely incomprehensible to normal viewers.
30. Synchronized swimming -- A lot of Olympic sports are popular fodder for mocking. Synchronized swimming is the only one that deserves it.
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29. Sailing -- The soothing vistas and contrasting beauty of the white yachts against the blue water aren't enough to make up for the fact that there's not really much to watch.
28. Taekwondo -- "Punches to the head are forbidden but kicks to it are positively encouraged." -- From "How to Watch the Olympics" by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton.
27. Field hockey -- It's like regular hockey without the speed or theoretical excitement.
26. Badminton -- Fans of the sport tout its speed, which can produce shuttlecocks traveling as fast at 200 mph. That speed, unfortunately, is what makes it hard to enjoy on television.
25. Table tennis -- (See badminton.)
24. Fencing -- What you want: Something that looks like the sword fights in "The Princess Bride." What you get: Competitors flailing about until one of their helmet's lights up like a game of Simon. It's not until slo-mo replays that you can appreciate the intricacies of a fencer's movements.
23. Beach volleyball -- People seem to like it; how else to explain NBC airing it so often to open its prime-time coverage?
22. Basketball -- Less overall talent than the NBA, less overall excitement than the NCAA. If you love the sport, you can get your fill from October to June. Why not spend the Summer Olympics branching out.
21. Triathlon -- A long race where competitors don't swim, bike or run as well as competitors in those actual sports. Endurance events are great but don't necessarily equate to good TV.
20. Gymnastics -- This perfectly enjoyable Olympic activity (not a sport) often brings the drama. Throw in some very cool disciplines -- uneven bars, rings, vault -- and the enjoyable Cold War-era schadenfreude that comes from rooting against the Russians and gymnastics is an easy top-five sport. So what's the problem? Three words: judges, judges, judges. You don't know what they're looking for and, oftentimes, neither do they. The tangible joy of seeing a winner is replaced with a wait for a meaningless number from a faceless panel. The highest score is 16! Not a 10, not a 100, not a 50 -- 16. We talkin' bout 16! They can't use some equivalent fractions to make the score something palatable? It's bad enough we're forced to believe that one gymnast is 0.081 worse than another gymnast because a judge thinks so. Don't make us do math too.
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19. Boxing -- Watching boxing with headgear is like watching NASCAR with Priuses.
18. Soccer -- Men's soccer, which the Olympics turns into a glorified juniors tournament, would have been ranked near the bottom. Women's soccer is like World Cup 2.0 and saves the sport in our rankings.
17. Modern Pentathlon -- Combined events are always fun and make for compelling viewing, as the Brits showed this weekend when Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon.
16. Tennis -- Andy Murray's exciting victory and the historic London venue notwithstanding, tennis at the Olympics feels like a glorified Masters event. Like basketball and soccer, there are plenty of better times to watch the sport. Tennis ranks higher because it brings excitement to doubles and mixed doubles, events which are usually afterthoughts on the Grand Slam calendar.
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15. Road cycling -- Winding through the British countryside, the road cycling events gave the best view of London and its surrounding area outside of an NBC flyover intro.
14. Diving -- The individual dive scores, ranging in 0.5 increments from 0 to 10, are relatable, unlike the thousandths of points we see for a performance in gymnastics. Granted, without replay or commentary, laymen like myself can only really tell if a dive is good by how it ends. But isn't checking out splashes more fun that watching un-stuck landings?
13. Wrestling -- One of the best "once every four years" sports.
12. Handball -- Half the fun is knowing you're watching a sport that's exclusive to the Olympics -- at least for American viewers.
11. Water polo -- There's more going on underwater than viewers will ever know. Ball through goal makes it easy to follow.
10. Rowing -- Races get top billing on our list and ones with shouting coxswains, scenic waterways and coaches riding slowly alongside on bicycles rank highly.
9. Trampoline -- The "I'd love to try that" factor cannot be discounted. You don't get the same feeling while watching the pommel horse.
8. Equestrian -- People dressed like Abraham Lincoln? Check. Obstacle courses on hallowed British grounds? Double check. How can you turn away from a sport that involves half-ton animals jumping through replicas of Big Ben or racing through an English hillside?
7. Canoe/kayak -- Racing against a clock can make for repetitive viewing, but the unpredictability of whether competitors will miss a target, how they'll compensate for overshooting a gate and the always-great image of men and women paddling upstream gives each run a distinctive feel.
6. Volleyball -- The best team sport of the Olympics. If you find yourself disagreeing with the basketball ranking, give volleyball a shot before you send an angry email. Remember: You can only see it for two weeks every four years.
5. Archery -- If you've seen one shot, you've seen them all. Coverage only features a split-screen of the archer preparing and a close-up of the target. Yet the inherent drama -- "will she get an eight?" -- is palpable.
4. Weightlifting -- Lift this, you win. Don't lift this, you lose. Simple drama is often the best. Also, the possibility of this is always intriguing.
3. Swimming -- It's the best of the Olympics: Easy to understand, populated by stars and decided on the field (or pool) of play.
2. Track and field -- The 10 seconds of the 100 are the most exciting sporting event of the year.
1. Track cycling -- Olympic crushes are a lot like real ones: Fleeting, intense and often featuring narration by Bob Costas. Our biggest crush in London has nothing to do with Dutch field hockey teams or dreamy, grill-wearing swimmers, but with the sport of track cycling. The steep banks of the Velodrome, a rabid crowd, the strategy involved in the opening laps, the maneuvering on the final lap, the furious pedaling to the finish, getting reminded of Pringles; we love it all. No sport has brought upon more involuntary cheering in my house than track cycling. In one week, it will be time for the NFL and we'll forget about Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy. The definitions of "omnium" and "keirin" will be lost in the recesses of our mind. But for the two weeks of the Olympics, this is the best. We'll always have London, my two-wheeled friend.
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