The Winter Olympics’ Weirdest Sports, Explained
The 2018 Winter Olympics have begun and it’s time to cheer on
our athletes. Trouble is, it’s hard to know what the heck’s
going on in some of these events. Why are there so many people
skating at once? What is curling exactly? Is ice
dancing the same as figure skating? And, woah, does that lady
have a gun?
If you have cable and the full suite of NBC channels, this is
easy. But for everyone else, full…
Mass Start Speed Skating
Speed skating isn’t anything new, but Mass Start Speed Skating
is. The event is making its debut in PyeonChang, and it’s the
closest professional ice skating is going to come to roller
derby. Competitors can’t intentionally obstruct one another,
but the way the race is set up almost makes contact
unavoidable. There’s very little space for the competitors to
operate on the 6,400 meter course—there are up to 24 skaters on
a course designed for six skaters in the Team Pursuit Event—and
the structure of the race encourages constant jockeying for
Basically, imagine a bunch of skaters trying to draft behind
one another and change position on a course that’s too small
for all of them and you’ll get the idea. As Ivanie Blondin, one
of Canada’s Mass Start Speed Skaters,
“The rules are there are no rules, so you can’t really get
disqualified unless you were to, like, drop the gloves and
start beating on someone…”
All in all, it’s a typical race. The first three skaters to
cross the finish line go to the podium, but the rest of the
placings are based on a point system. Skaters who win “premium
laps,” namely laps 4, 8, and 12, earn points that determine who
gets fourth through sixth place. But you don’t really need to
know all of that to enjoy watching the event.
The Biathlon is not anything new—in fact, it’s very old—but
it’s still a bit confusing for casual winter sports fans who
only tune in during the Olympics. Essentially, the Biathlon is
part cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The event’s roots
are outdoor skills that were once crucial for survival in snowy
winter climates like Scandinavia.
Again, this is just a race with different rules and a gun. The
competitors must ski a cross-country trail system, all the
while making stops to shoot five targets with their specially
made .22 rifles. Furthermore, they must shoot targets in both
prone and standing positions according to the station they stop
at. Not only is it important to ski the trail
quickly—competitors are gunning for the best overall time—but
the competitor’s accuracy when shooting matters a great deal as
well. A poor shooting performance adds extra distance they have
to ski (usually in the form of a looping trail that comes back
around) or extra minutes to their total time as penalties. It’s
important to know that while watching, as the first competitor
approaching the finish line may not actually be in first place.
Ah, curling. Everyone’s favorite winter sport event to watch.
It’s like a friendly shuffleboard game at the retirement
community blow up to Olympic proportions. The game, which is of
Scottish origin, involves players sliding granite stones along
sheets of ice toward a target made of four concentric circles.
Two teams of four players take turns sliding one of their six
to eight stones (or “rocks”) toward the target. At the end of
each round, whichever team has stones resting closest to the
center of the target, scores points. Pretty straightforward if
you’ve ever played shuffleboard or bocce.
The most interesting aspect of curling is each team member’s
Skip: This is the captain of the team who
determines where to slide the stone, and how hard it needs to
Thrower: This is the person that actually
pushes off and slides the stone along the ice according to
the skip’s instructions.
Sweepers: These two players sweep the ice in
front of the stone in order to influence its path.
The sweeping, which everyone seems to get a kick out of, is
actually quite necessary. It ensures no small objects affect
the trajectory of the shot and reduces any friction the stone
might encounter on the ice. This year at PyeonChang, Mixed
Doubles Curling is making its Olympics debut. This version of
the game has only two players on each team, a man and a woman.
To shorten the game some, teams only throw five stones per
round (or “end”), and there are only eight rounds instead of
the usual 10.
Moguls, part of the freestyle skiing competition at the
Olympics, is one of my favorite events to follow. It’s got
speed, it’s got cool aerial tricks, and it always looks
intense. If you’re not sure which event I’m talking about, it’s
the one where it looks like a skier is getting their knees
violently jammed into their chest over and over, then they do a
kick-ass backflip. The name of the event comes from the course
itself, which is heavily “moguled,” or built with a series of
artificial bumps that resemble the mounds formed when skiers
push snow as they make sharp turns down a slope. The term comes
from the Bavarian word “mugel,” which literally means mound or
Throughout the bumpy course are also two small jumps, where
competitors must perform upright or inverted tricks. Those
sweet aerial maneuvers only account for 20% of the competitor’s
score, however. The rest comes down to speed, at 20% of their
score, and how well they handle the moguls, which is a whopping
60% of their score. It’s a very technical event, but it’s a lot
of fun to watch.
Everybody gets the Ice Dancing event confused with the Pairs
Figure Skating event, but they are not the same thing. The
biggest difference being there are no jumps in ice dancing like
there are in figure skating. That’s right, no triple axels
here. In fact, jumping is against the rules.
Generally speaking, ice dancing has more in common with
ballroom dancing than figure skating. Certain rhythms and steps
are used, competitors often hold each other in a traditional
ballroom style, and there are required elements for each
competition. For example, the main theme for the 2018 Olympics
Short Dance is “Latin.” Each team has to do the same rumba step
sequence, and the Latin theme must be reflected throughout the
entire program. In the past, these required elements have
included swing, polka, and even hip hop. The free dance gives
the competitors more, well, artistic freedom.
In terms of scoring, judges are looking for technical
perfection and amazing artistic style. Their total score
reflects those two main components from both the short dance
and the free dance. All you really need to know is a score of
around 200 and up is good.