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

Netherland's Simone van de Kraats reacts to an official's call during a preliminary round women's water polo match against Spain at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28.
Netherland's Simone van de Kraats reacts to an official's call during a preliminary round women's water polo match against Spain at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28.

Updated July 29, 2021 at 10:26 AM 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.


Dressage

Isabell Werth of Germany competes during the equestrian dressage individual grand prix freestyle at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, July 28, 2021.
Zhu Zheng / Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images
Isabell Werth of Germany competes during the equestrian dressage individual grand prix freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28.

Curious how dressage horses are transported overseas. Obviously a plane, but, like...how?
Horses are loaded in two-per-stall. They fly with a support 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.


Diving

Why do divers immediately hit the shower as soon as they're out of the pool?
The pool's 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 Team Japan react after their final dive during the Women's Synchronised 10m Platform Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Tuesday in Tokyo, Japan.
Al Bello / Getty Images
Minami Itahashi and Matsuri Arai of Team Japan react after their final dive during the Women's Synchronised 10m Platform Final on day four of the Tokyo Olympics Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 27.

What's with those tiny towels?

They're called shammies and help them 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.


Swimming

Katie Ledecky of Team United States competes in the Women's 1500m Freestyle Final on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 28, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Maddie Meyer / Getty Images
Katie Ledecky of Team USA competes in the Women's 1500m Freestyle Final on day five of the Tokyo Olympics on July 28.

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?
Ah, the air horn — the vuvuzela of the Olympics. They're loud for a reason. They're there to signal to the swimmers it's the final lap.

Why do swimmers slap themselves before a race?
It's a warm-up 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.


Gymnastics

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

Simone Biles of the United States chalks her hands while training on vault for artistic gymnastics at Ariake Gymnastics Centre venue ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Ashley Landis / AP
Simone Biles of the United States chalks her hands while training on vault for artistic gymnastics at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre venue ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

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.

In the balance beam, gymnasts wear a slipper. Why on only one foot, though?
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.


General

Why does everyone keep referring to these 2021 games as 'Tokyo 2020'?

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.

Team USA's 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 at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Monday.
Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images
Team USA's 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 at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Monday.

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.