Top 5 merit badges for fans of the Olympics and future Olympians

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A character-defining challenge for those willing to push themselves harder than their peers. A commitment celebrated by community and country. A uniform featuring the American flag.

Yes, the journey to represent Team USA in the Olympic Games has a lot in common with the journey of Scouting.

As we unite to cheer on the athletes of Team USA in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, be sure you’re prepared in the most Scout-y way possible: by reviewing the “Top 5 merit badges for fans of the Olympics and future Olympians.”

It’s a list for everyone, including those who dream of some day earning Olympic gold (remember that a Scout or Venturer who is 14 now will be 21 during the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles) and those who merely dream of watching every minute of the Tokyo Olympics on TV (remember that NBC is presenting 7,000 hours of live coverage over 17 days, meaning we’ll only need to watch 412 hours a day to see it all).

Before you tune in for the table tennis, behold the badminton or marvel at the modern pentathlon, you’ll want to review this list below.

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In the 10-event decathlon for men and seven-event heptathlon for women, Olympians spend two days running, jumping and throwing for a spot on the medal stand.

You’ve got to be in tip-top shape to earn a medal in either event, which is why the winners are widely considered to be the “world’s greatest athletes.”

The decathlon and heptathlon have a clear equivalent within the merit badge program: the Athletics merit badge.

You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to earn this merit badge, but you do need to have the commitment and dedication of one. Scouts must plan, train and show improvement over three months in four of the nine athletic activities from the following list:

  • Sprinting (100-meter and 200-meter dash)
  • Long-distance running (3,000-meter and 5,000-meter run)
  • Long jump or high jump
  • Swimming (100-meter and 200-meter swim)
  • Pull-ups and push-ups
  • Baseball throw
  • Basketball shooting
  • Football kick or soccer kick
  • Weight training

Notice a theme? With the exception of pull-ups/push-ups and American football, all of the activities above are Olympic sports.

Links: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet | Tune in: Decathlon (Aug. 3–5), Heptathlon (Aug. 3–4)

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When sport climbing makes its Olympic debut this summer (joining fellow newcomers karate, skateboarding and surfing), scores of Scouts can sit back and say, “been there, love that.”

Rock climbing has been part of Scouting since the very beginning. In a July 1923 article in Boys’ Life, the magazine writes that “the successful rock climber must have a cool head, a steady nerve and be a gymnast in perfect condition.”

Those three traits will be on full display in Tokyo where the world’s best climbers race to the top of the wall — and the podium.

Olympic sport climbers will compete in three different styles of climbing, with their scores in each discipline combined to determine the winner:

  • Lead climbing, where athletes first have six minutes to study a wall and mentally plan their route to the top. Then they have six minutes to climb as high as they can up the 49-foot wall. The climber to reach the highest before the time expires is the winner. If they fall, the climber gets points based on how many holds they reached. There is no belayer in lead climbing. Each climber clips their rope into bolts while ascending the route.
  • Speed climbing, where athletes ascend a 49-foot wall that is identical in all competitions. Holds are the same size, shape and position every time, meaning climbers can memorize their favorite route to the top. An auto-belayer system is used (like those found at the Summit Bechtel Reserve) to keep the climbers safe.
  • Bouldering, where climbers scale multiple 15-foot “boulder problems” in a predetermined amount of time. Athletes don’t see the boulder problems before the competition, meaning this discipline tests both their mental and physical strength. The climber who reaches the top of the most boulders in the fewest attempts wins. Ropes aren’t used, but the floor is heavily padded.

As for the Climbing merit badge itself, it debuted in 1997 as climbing gyms opened across the country and rock climbing rose in popularity. Ever since, Scouts have been able to earn a badge to represent their love of the sport that’s always looking up.

Links: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet | Get climbing gear | Tune in: Sport Climbing (Aug. 3–6)

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Cycling was one of the original 57 merit badges introduced by the BSA in 1911. But unlike Olympics newcomer climbing, Olympic cycling predates the debut of its corresponding merit badge.

Cycling has been a part of every Summer Olympics since the first modern Olympics in 1896 — 15 years before the Cycling merit rolled out.

Olympic cycling has evolved in the years since — and we don’t just mean the transition from 80-pound bicycles with steel frames to 15-pound bikes made of carbon fiber.

Mountain biking began as an Olympic sport in 1996, and BMX racing debuted in 2008. In Tokyo, we’ll see the introduction of yet another cycling discipline, and it’s the first one not based on speed. BMX freestyle will challenge riders to earn points by completing tricks and jumps on a series of obstacles.

As for the Eagle-required Cycling merit badge, since 2013 Scouts have had two options for where they earn it: mountain and road.

For the road option, they must map out a safe 50-mile course and complete it in eight hours. For mountain biking, the requirement is a 22-mile course in six hours.

Whether on tires that are thick or thin, Scouts who complete this merit badge learn a sport that can turn into a lifelong hobby — or even an Olympic medal.

Links: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet | Tune in: Cycling takes place throughout the Olympics, from July 23 to Aug. 8

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To the question “can Scouting and sports coexist,” we present this walk-off grand slam of an answer: the Sports merit badge.

Ever since the Sports merit badge debuted in 1972, it’s been offering Scouts the chance to deepen their connection to their club and school sports teams.

To earn the merit badge, Scouts choose two sports from the list below and complete at least one season (or four months) in each. They also develop a training plan, track their progress, and discuss how playing the sport has affected them physically and mentally.

This badge’s connection to the Olympics is obvious, so all we’ll do is add an asterisk to the Sports merit badge-eligible sports that are also contested in the Summer Olympics or Winter Olympics.

  • badminton*
  • baseball*
  • basketball*
  • bowling
  • cheerleading
  • cross-country* (assuming we count the Olympic marathon)
  • field hockey*
  • football
  • golf*
  • gymnastics*
  • ice hockey*
  • lacrosse
  • soccer*
  • softball*
  • swimming*
  • table tennis*
  • tennis*
  • track and field*
  • volleyball*
  • water polo*
  • wrestling*

Links: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet

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Canoeing, Kayaking and Rowing

It didn’t seem fair to pick one paddle sport and omit another, so we’re putting them all in the same boat with our last entry.

First, canoeing and kayaking. The BSA considers these sports different enough to warrant their own merit badges, but the Olympics combines them into a single competition category called “canoe/kayak.” Yes, that’s the case even though canoeing uses a single-bladed paddle while kayaking uses a double-bladed one.

You won’t see canoes competing against kayaks on the water, but you will see some boats that look nothing like those found at a Scout summer camp.

Olympic-class sprint canoes, for example, are just two feet wide (narrower boats are faster). Instead of sitting or kneeling on both knees, competitors rest on one knee as they paddle. And while a two-person aluminum canoe might weigh 70 pounds, a two-person Olympic sprint canoe can weigh as little as 44 pounds.

Olympic kayaks have some quirks, as well. The main one being that there’s a race involving a four-person sprint kayak. If you think staying in sync with just another paddler is difficult, try three others. You’ll likely never see a four-person kayak on any of your Scouting adventures.

There are two kinds of canoe/kayak events at the Summer Games:

  • Sprint: a race to the finish in a straight line over calm water.
  • Slalom: a timed descent down a steep, man-made whitewater course that includes gates hanging from above. Boats must pass through each gate (without touching the gate itself) to avoid a time penalty.

One other interesting note: canoeing and kayaking made their joint Olympics debut at the 1936 Games in Berlin, but the debuts of the Canoeing and Kayaking merit badges were separated by 85 years.

The Canoeing merit badge was added in 1927, while the Kayaking merit badge was released in 2012.

Now on to rowing, which was introduced at the 1900 Olympics in Paris. (The Rowing merit badge debuted in 1933.)

To earn the Rowing merit badge, Scouts must row in a straight line for 100 yards. That’s no easy feat — as anyone who has tried to row can attest.

But consider this: to compete in the Olympics, you’d have to row in a straight line for nearly 2,200 yards (or 2,000 meters). And you’d have to do so while averaging 45 strokes per minute and staying in sync with the other paddlers in your boat.

Olympic rowing has two styles: sculling and sweeping.

In sculling, rowers have two oars — one in each hand. You’ll find one-, two- and four-person sculling at the Olympics.

In sweeping, rowers hold just one oar, meaning they’re rowing on just one side of the boat. Olympic sweeping classifications include pairs, fours and eights. In eights, there are actually nine people in the boat — eight rowers and one coxswain who faces the rowers and tries to keep everyone pulling together.

Eight-person rowing? Seems like a fun challenge for a Scout patrol wanting to test just how in sync they are.

Canoeing: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet | Tune in: July 25–Aug. 7

Kayaking: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet | Tune in: July 25–Aug. 7

Rowing: See the requirements | Buy the pamphlet | Tune in: July 22–29

Just missed the medal stand

Is there a merit badge missing from the list above?

We didn’t have room for merit badges like Archery, Citizenship in the World, Golf, Horsemanship, Personal Fitness and Small-boat Sailing and Swimming. What others are missing?

Remember: This list is a top 5 (even though we combined the paddle sports for our last entry). Leave a comment below with your suggested replacements, but be sure to say which one you’d remove.

Ready for 5 more?

Click here for other entries in our “Top 5 merit badges” series, including:

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.