With so many events to choose from at the Summer Olympics in Rio, we've narrowed down the list to the most exciting and surprising sports the whole family can watch together.

By Erin Strout
August 02, 2016
Credit: Shutterstock

Once every four years the world has the opportunity to watch 28 sports that normally don't receive much attention. At the Summer Olympics, the badminton players are just as heralded as the star-studded basketball teams, chosen to represent their countries because they are the best at what they do. It's an international celebration of competition and the fellowship fostered through athletics—and there's no better reason to gather the family in front of the television.

Watching the Games in Rio de Janeiro with your kids—which will be broadcast nonstop from August 5 to 21 on NBC and NBC-affiliated platforms—can be an opportunity to expose them to new sports and other cultures. Here are the best events to view with your children and what to look for while you're cheering on your favorite gold-medal contenders.

Track & Field

It's a big sport with 24 different running, jumping, and throwing disciplines. The winner of the 100-meter dash, a race that will last 10 seconds or less, is dubbed "The Fastest Man or Woman in the World," and showman Usain Bolt is back to defend his title. Our favorite race? The 3,000-meter steeplechase. The competitors hurdle 28 barriers and jump over seven water pits while running 7.5 laps of the track. Emma Coburn and Evan Jager are two big U.S. contenders.

What to watch: In the steeplechase, the runners want to clear as much of the 12 feet of water as possible before landing in the pit. Those who push off the barrier best and are airborne longest are usually the fastest.

Modern Pentathlon

Combing five events in one day, this is the only sport that was specifically created for competition at the Olympic Games. Athletes have to fence, swim, ride a horse, run, and shoot a target with a laser rifle. The sport was originally meant to test the skills of a cavalry solider—it takes speed, mental focus, coordination, and skill to win a medal.

What to watch: Athletes draw for their horses, so they don't know the animals before the competition begins. If the horse doesn't go over a barrier, the rider loses points.


One of the most popular sports of the Games, swimming offers 17 different events, including relays and open-water competitions. The shortest events are often the most exciting, like the 50-meter freestyle, where getting off the starting block fastest can make all the difference. Also thrilling: the relays, which offer a great illustration of teamwork.

What to watch: Team USA dominates swimming and this will be Michael Phelps's last hurrah. How many medals will he add to the 22 he's already taken home?


Also a household favorite for many, gymnastics has it all—individual and team competition, plus a lot of drama. Men and women compete in different disciplines. For the men, the rings and pommel horse display extraordinary strength. For the women, the balance beam takes precision and the vault takes power. Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas will join their three teammates who have a huge shot at taking home lots of gold medals.

What to watch: The judges are looking for artistry and skill, but one of the more obvious aspects to the spectator is the landing. Watch for a great score from a gymnast who can "stick" the landing—no hops or hobbles or wobbles.

Table Tennis

When is your family ever going to watch ping pong on television, unless it's the Olympics? Individual and doubles division are often fast-moving, more physical and technological than we realize, and mesmerizing. According to the International Olympic Committee, table tennis has the most participants of any sport in the world and China dominates.

What to watch: The players use super light-weight rackets made of carbon-fiber and can smash the ball across the table at 93 miles per hour. The reaction time of the opponent is everything.


At the Olympics, multiple equestrian events showcase these amazing animals, including jumping, eventing, and dressage. Most popular for spectators may be jumping, where you'll watch riders and horses navigate a series of barriers. Dressage is awe-inspiring, as the horse completes a series of moves and motions, almost dancing. Eventing combines all the equestrian disciplines and is considered the most demanding.

What to watch: In dressage, judges are looking for harmony between the rider and the horse. It's difficult to explain the scoring to the fleeting fan, but look for the horse's lightness on its hoofs and confidence in its movements, according to the United States Dressage Federation.


The Summer Games have four different cycling events: BMX, mountain, road, and track. The kids may find BMX the most captivating. It's fast and a young sport—it only made its Olympic debut in 2008. Athletes compete off-road over obstacles and jumps. In 2012, no U.S. athletes brought home a medal, but American Alise Post is a fan favorite primed to make the podium this year.

What to watch: In BMX, eight competitors race the course at a time. Because of the fast-and-furious nature of the sport, many of them will fall.


Springboard, platform, synchronized—the various kinds of diving events are breathtaking and beautiful. It's another sport that is largely dominated by Chinese talent, but Americans often medal, too. Possibly one of the most amazing disciplines to watch is synchronized, when two athletes dive together. Judges score them on how well they coordinate on every aspect of the dive—from the approach, takeoff, twists, turns, flips, and entries into the water. David Boudia and Steele Johnson lead the way for Team USA.

What to watch: When divers enter the water, the judges are looking for the smallest splash possible. An athlete who enters the pool gracefully will score higher.


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