Here’s a “hot sports take” — positioning a controversial opinion on a trending, relevant topic. That opinion? Amidst all the clutter, all the pomp, and all the overbearing jingoism, the Olympics are actually pretty cool. It’s got some of the best athletes in the world, it’s held in interesting places (and Salt Lake City), and it acts as a nice exposition of sports that aren’t readily available to the average viewer — especially the Winter Olympics, since many countries don’t experience much, if any snowfall during the season at all.
Unfortunately, since watching and learning about the events puts viewers at the mercy of NBC programmers — should they deign to actually show it — the Games are handled by either of their decidedly blithe hosts, Bob Costas or Matt Lauer. Point is, it’s hard to pick up on a sport if you’re not already in it to the eyebrows, and during the event, no one’s really going to explain anything aside from the announcers — and Olympic announcers are a mixed bag. For every Skiatholon announcer, there’s someone who can’t even fake excitement let alone elucidate viewers on the ins and outs of the sport.
That’s not super. To enhance your viewing experience, here’s a brief overview of five sports that get a lot of Olympic coverage but are kind of hard to find between Winter Games. Enjoy.
One of the most fun sports to watch at the Winter Games, curling can also be one of the most confusing. While that might be expected for a game that has its origins in a bunch of 16th century Scots let loose on frozen ponds, it gets more fun to watch when the sweeping and pushing mean something. Did you really think that sweeping could ever be this intense?
An OG in the Winter Olympics, Men’s Curling was featured in the inaugural 1924 Chamonix Games, took some time off, then came back full-force for the 1998 Nagano Games in both Men’s and Women’s categories. Most likely because the IOC was forced to recognize that all things Scottish hold an inherent advantage over everything else. It’s played on a frozen surface in teams of four. On each team is a Lead who must live in a glass house, as he or she casts the first two stones; a Second, who is allowed to live in a real house, casts the second two stones; a Vice Skip, who throws the third pair; and a Skip, who shoots last and, by virtue of being the team captain, calls all the shots.
From there, the game is essentially an ice-bound match of shuffleboard that’s scored like botchi ball. Each team tries to get as many of their stones into the scoring area while keeping their opponent’s rocks out. As soon as one team member shoots, the rest of the team follows the rock, aggressively sweeping — or not sweeping — in front of the stone. Why the sweeping? The stones are thrown to curl by whoever’s shooting (hence the name of the sport.) By sweeping, the team can compensate for the spin of the stone and direct the rock to wherever it needs to be.
At the end of each round after both teams have shot, the Vice Skips from each team confer and figure out which stones are counted for points. The average score per round is under four. The last rock thrown in each round is creatively called ‘The Hammer.’ Rights to The Hammer are determined by a coin flip at the beginning of the match and then — generally, but not always — alternate between teams. A full rulebook for Curling can be found here.
Per the official Olympic literature, the Bobsleigh is “a winter sport invented by the Swiss in the late 1860s in which teams make timed runs down narrow, twisting, banked iced tracks in a gravity-powered sled.” Yawn. The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation has a lot more fun with the sport’s origin story. The start date remains the same, but by the governing body’s own admission, the ‘sleigh racing started out as something for the rich and adventurous to do while they were out partying in the mountains. Training? There was no training. The bobsleigh racers of yesteryear are the spiritual forefathers of NBC’s portrayal of snowboarders today.
Oh, how times have changed. Nowadays, the bobsleigh comes in two- and four-racer varieties, governed by a strict series of weight limits (a fully loaded two-man sled can weigh no more than 860 pounds, two-woman sleds have a maximum of 750 pounds, and four-man sleds must be at or under 1,389 pounds.) While “track and field competitors, handballers, gymnasts, and others who could deliver a vigorous push at the start” had been sought out for the ‘sleigh since the 1950s, the U.S. Bobsleigh team made headlines when former hurdler and mid-level Olympic celeb Lolo Jones jumped (get it?) to a spot as a pusher on the Women’s Olympic team.
This brings us to the rules. Bobsleigh is a race, so to win, a team must go down the track faster than all the other teams. What’s more interesting is the start. All teammates begin outside the sled and push the sled to start the race in a bit of sportsmanship reminiscent of the Le Mans start — for the car racing fans. Before the first turn, all the racers should be inside the sleigh. Speeds are recorded electronically, and races are won and lost by the milliseconds.
To a letter, Olympic sports are displays of athletic brilliance and sporting expertise. That’s kind of the point. But while some, like Curling, are fun to watch because they look easy enough for the average spectator to pick up, other sports, like Ski Jumping, attract crowds because they’re legitimately terrifying to contemplate.
On the face of it, Ski Jumping looks largely the same now as it did forty years ago. Long skis: check. Uniform: check. Going as far as possible by flying through the air for a really long time: check. But where the essence has stayed constant, the rules regarding the gear are always under revision. In the early days, no one was checking to see that the bindings were set back no more than 43 percent of the ski length, or that the ski was no more than 146 percent of the competitor’s total body height. While distance is the biggest focus in scoring, judges are also looking at the steadiness of the skis in flight and the skier’s body balance, as well as the wind conditions and the run-in length.
For a sport so visibly similar to its past, Ski Jumping made a big leap at Sochi by allowing a women’s competition for the first time. The sport is judged and scored identically between genders, and there is speculation that Ski Jumping is one of the only sports that may physically favor women.
The Luge & The Skeleton
Say what you will about the tenants of Bobsleigh racing — at least the racers are careening down the track ensconced in a protective shell. Luge racers have no such luxury. Coming out of the decidedly frozen annals of Norwegian history, records of sled racing have been around for close to six-hundred years. Let’s be real here — if competition is really an innate human quality, then it’s probably been around for as long as the sleds have.
The Luge is a timed race, and can be done as a singles race or in pairs. What separates it from spiritual siblings the Bobsleigh and the Skeleton is that Luge racers start on the sled, and are released onto the track to start the run. This means that the Skeleton — the frontward facing, on-the-stomach luge that somehow takes the terror of going 60+ mph down an icy track even scarier — has a running start. Think about that for a second.
So, after coming to terms with hurtling down an icy race track after running full speed down the start and jumping onto what is essentially a launch plate with skates (face first), it’s time to talk about the Skeleton. Undoubtedly the scariest Olympic sport, Skeleton racing came out of bored British vacationers in the Swiss Alps — seriously. Seems about right for a sport that matter-of-factly states that, “There are no brakes. Competitors attempting to slow down on the course are disqualified.” Of course. Since slowing down would be a measure of sanity, and there’s no place for that in the Skeleton. Fastest person to get to the bottom wins.
A strong candidate for the event with the most “obviously this activity must be a competition” style ever, the Biathlon consists of cross-country ski racing and rifle shooting. Developed by Norwegian soliders and first organized as a competition in 1767 by competing border patrols, the Biathlon saw early involvement in the Olympic Games as “military patrol,” but didn’t gain official recognition until the 1960 Games. So whoever skis the fastest and shoots the gun wins right?
Sort of. A biathlon course is divided into skiing and shooting elements. Shooting is done standing up half of the time and lying down for the other. The tricky part is the missing — after cross-country skiing for a second, the athlete is going to be tired. Then, they have five shots per shooting section, and for every miss, they either have to add distance onto their next skiing section or sometimes they only have a minute per miss added to their time, depending on the event. The price of failure is high, so it makes sense that this game came from military training.