Winter Olympics Sports at a Glance
Even in a tropical climate like New Orleans, most people watching the olympics have at least a basic understanding of popular winter games such as ice hockey and figure skating. Both can be fun to watch, but part of the joy and novelty of watching the olympics is catching the more exotic events. Here’s a primer on some of the lesser known sports you can enjoy on TV this February.
While this event was first played in the 1870s, it got a big surge of publicity in 1988 when Jamaica, a country not exactly known for its winter sports, sent a bobsled team to the olympics (later fictionalized in the hit 1993 film Cool Runnings). The sport features teams of two or four people making timed runs down narrow, twisty tracks in a sled at speeds that can reach 90 mph.
In the tradition of the Jamaican bobsled team, LSU graduate and olympic hurdler Lolo Jones has started bobsledding despite having no background in the sport before beginning her efforts in 2012. While the olympic team has not been named as of press time, Jones’ initial efforts have been impressive enough to earn her a spot on the U.S. women’s bobsled team (not everyone on that team makes the olympics, though).
Fun trivia: In 1994, one of the United States’ 4-man bobsled teams was disqualified because the sled’s runners were deemed “too warm.” The warmer the runners, the faster the sled.
This looks sort of like bobsled, but with one or two people lying on their backs as they careen down the track (if it’s done lying face first, then the sport is known as skeleton). You steer the sled by flexing the sled’s runner with your calves. It’s considered to be faster and more dangerous than bobsledding. Times are measured to the thousandth of a second, making it one of the most precisely timed events in the world.
Fun trivia: In 1998, German luge champion Georg Hackl became the sixth Winter Olympian to win the same event at three consecutive olympics. In 2002, Hackl became the first athlete to win five medals in one event.
One of the most watched sports of 2010’s Winter Olympics was curling. Even though it discovered a newfound popularity in warm-weather locales, the sport is hundreds of years old. Its origins date back to Scotland in the early 1500s, with the first written documentation of the sport occurring in 1541 and the discovery of an old curling stone with an inscribed date of 1511.
If you’re familiar with shuffleboard, you’ll likely get the gist of curling. The two sports aren’t identical, but you could easily argue that they’re cousins. A thrower slides a stone down the ice. The captain communicates to the sweepers how they should sweep in front of the stone to influence its trajectory. The goal is to land as many stones as possible near the button (similar to a bulls-eye on a target or dartboard), while keeping as many of your opponent’s stones away from the button (just like you try to knock opponent’s discs off the board in shuffleboard). At the end of a round, the team with a stone closest to the button wins and collects points for each of their stones lying closer to the button than their opponent’s closest stone.
Top teams: The top-ranked men’s team going into the 2014 competition is Canada and the top women’s team is Sweden.
Most people wouldn’t naturally associate cross-country skiing with rifle shooting, but at the Winter Olympics, those two disciplines are intertwined in the biathlon event. Contestants race each other in cross-country skiing, with breaks for shooting rounds. Half of the shooting rounds are done standing; in the other half, the contestant is prone while shooting. The biathlete has to hit five targets; if a target is missed, either a minute is added to the overall time, or the contestant has to ski a penalty lap (taking usually 20-30 seconds).
The sport is split into male and female divisions, with five separate competitions for each divIsion: individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start, and relay.
Fun trivia: The first known biathlon competition took place in Norway in 1767.
There are too many skiing events to go into too much detail for each one, but here’s a thumbnail guide to the different disciplines.
Downhill - Downhill skiing features the highest speeds and, therefore, the greatest risks. Courses plunge down a mountain with challenging and turns and dips.
Slalom - Competitors ski between poles placed much closer together than in the other skiing events. Turns are shorter and quicker. Giant slalom is similar, but the poles are placed farther apart.
Super G - Short for “super giant slalom,” this is more of a speed event than the other forms of slalom skiing.
Fun trivia: Norwegian-American ski jumper Anders Haugen is the oldest person to receive a Winter Olympics medal. He was 83 when he received a bronze medal in 1974. Settle down, octogenarians, he didn’t actually go flying off the ski jump at age 83. Instead, a scoring error was discovered from 50 years earlier, when Haugen competed in the 1924 Winter Olympics. It was revealed he should’ve been awarded the bronze and officials made the correction and gave him the medal. Better late than never!
Thought of as a combination of skateboarding, sledding, surfing and skiing, snowboarding is one of the newest sports at the Winter Olympics, making its debut in Nagano in 1998. Like skiing, there are a few different variations of snowboarding.
Halfpipe - Just as in skateboarding, snowboarders shoot back and forth on a halfpipe, performing acrobatic maneuvers for style points.
Men’s Parallel Slalom & Parallel Giant Slalom - Similar in principle to the slalom skiing events, but in snowboarding, two competitors race each other down parallel tracks.
Slopestyle - Performed on specially made trails, this sport sees the snowboarder performing an array of tricks (spins, grabs, jibs, and flips) while riding downhill. The emphasis is on performing different tricks instead of the same one repeatedly. It will also be seen as a skiing event in Sochi.
Fun trivia: Modern snowboarding began in Michigan in 1965. An engineer named Sherman Poppen fastened two skis together for his daughter and attached a rope at the end to give her more control as she went downhill. It was such a big hit among his daughter’s friends that Poppen licensed the item and began organizing competitions.