#8. Speed Skating
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It’s one of the marquee sports of any Winter Olympics, surely a contender for the top spot because of its grace, elegance, athleticism, compelling cast of characters, and the way the music selections give it a Broadway feel. It’s undoubtedly one of the highest scorers in the fan interest category. But a major con is the confusing scoring system. How can a skater who fell twice beat someone who didn’t fall at all? It’s because the scoring favors degree of difficulty and a skater can get more points for a splattered quad than by completing a triple, but that’s not exactly common knowledge.
It appeals to a younger crowd and was designed to interest that demographic in the Olympics. A strong personality factor is amplified by the popular X Games, and the variety of snowboarding events, from slopestyle and big air to halfpipe and snowboardcross, puts a range of athletic skills on display. However, a lexicon that is difficult to understand is a downside for the average fan.
Short-track’s appeal is its universality. Asians are good at it, Europeans are good at it, and North Americans are good at it. There is a level of drama and uncertainty because anybody could win. It’s fast, there are thrills and spills, and you know who wins quickly so it’s more gratifying than its long-form cousin.
Ski racing checks all the boxes. There’s drama — even the best ski racers can fall at any time — and danger. There are fascinating personalities such as Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, who are both teammates and rivals. You can see the skiers’ faces, and the format is as simple as it gets: fastest one down the hill wins. Plus, you have instant knowledge of where they stand. A skier crosses the line, and a number flashes up. Someone sits on the top of the podium until they get bumped. What’s also good about ski racing is you don’t need to know a lot about the sport. You know whether you’re seeing a great performance. And fan interest is amplified because of all the Winter Olympic sports, skiing is one many viewers have tried, so for many it’s easy to relate.
Danger is very attractive to Olympics viewers, and freestyle skiing events such as aerials, moguls, and halfpipe are loaded with danger. There’s incredible athletic ability involved — who hasn’t wondered how a moguls skier’s knees tolerate such torture? — and while these events are judged, they are easier to understand. Plus, American success in this sport elevates it.
While immensely popular, hockey slots in below two other ice sports because the field of true contenders is more limited. Without the NHL in the men’s field, rosters are going to be almost as anonymous as those in the rest of the sports. The women’s field features the compelling US-Canada rivalry, and the nation-vs.-nation team concept taps into the allure of other international team events. But on the downside, hockey is a two-week commitment before you know the medals outcome
ne of the classic Winter Olympics sports continues to fascinate anyone who remembers “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” and it also gives them the chance to educate a younger generation on where the phrase “the agony of defeat” was made famous. But it is judged, which brings it down a bit.
The sport of bobsled—or if you prefer, bobsleigh, was made popular by the movie Cool Runnings. Among the sliding sports, bobsled is the most dangerous. You have four people involved in pulling off a fast-paced, choreographed start, and those athletes often can come from all walks of sporting life. Plus, bobsled is becoming more diverse and attracting competitors from the unlikeliest of places, such as Jamaica, Nigeria, and Brazil. Underdog stories such as that add a lot.The best Olympic sports are those whose histories are widely acknowledged and understood. Viewers want to be able to measure the sporting feats of the current generation against the accomplishments of their forebears. Also, there is something endearing about a sport that can sustain true amateur participation
Like Nordic combined, biathlon is a mashup sport, combining cross-country skiing and riflery in one package. Pierre de Coubertin hoped the games would promote world peace, in part by bringing current and future military officers together in sporting competition and sublimating their aggression on the playing fields. Biathlon, which has its origins in a defunct Olympic sport called military patrol, is a nice callback to Coubertin’s original ideals.
Luge, otherwise known as “the feet-first version of skeleton,” has been around longer than skeleton—it’s been a Winter Olympic sport since 1964. But while luge has been around for a long time, it hasn’t really penetrated the consciousness of the American public. How many famous lugers can you name? Probably zero. (Peter Luger Steakhouse does not count.) And you can’t blame it all on lack of TV coverage. Luge has been around for decades; if it were interesting, someone would have noticed by now.
Skeleton is a sliding sport, that sounds great in the abstract—shooting head-first down ice tracks on flimsy skate-sleds! reaching very high speeds at great personal risk!—skeleton is not particularly beautiful but exciting in the short term. It’s only been a permanent part of the Olympic program since 2002.
Sam Evans-Brown wrote for Slate about the joys and pleasures of cross-country skiing, and made a strong case for why the sport is actually fun, for participants. and it wins points for aesthetics and history—there is beauty in the willpower required to force your body through a cross-country course, and the sport has been there since the very beginning.
Curling is a Winter Olympic outlier. The competitors are often older than their Olympic brethren, and their athleticism is often less immediately apparent. It’s probably the most complicated Winter Olympic sport insofar as a casual viewer will not immediately be able to apprehend the rules or the scoring. (The mixed doubles curling event, added this year, is purportedly simpler, in the same way juggling 11 balls at once is purportedly simpler than juggling 12. You still have to know how to juggle in the first place!) It has only been consistently contested in the Olympics for a couple of decades, and yet feels like a holdover from a much older era. It is cerebral where the other winter sports are elemental. And yet its oddness is its primary virtue. I will watch curling over many other Winter Olympic sports precisely because it is so different and I do not understand what is happening. The games could use more weirdness.
Nordic combined is the only Winter Olympic Sport that features no female competitors. It has been around since the first Winter Olympics. It combines the two sports of ski jumping and cross-country skiing into one.
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