16 Extremely Random Questions About The Olympics (Answered In 50 Words Or Less)03:33

The Netherland's Simone van de Kraats reacts to an official's call during a water polo match against Spain at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
The Netherland's Simone van de Kraats reacts to an official's call during a water polo match against Spain at the Tokyo Olympics on July 28. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

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.

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