I’ve heard your cries. Unlike Rorschach, You’ve all looked up, from the accumulated filth of your wrongfully-granted awards and misguided voting, and shouted “save us” and I am going to whisper “yes”.
The winter olympics are nearly upon us, sugarbeets. And of course that means a thousand tiny awards ceremonies, which means a nigh-infinite opportunity for confusion and bewilderment. Unfortunately, the olympic games are an athletic competition, which means “the rightful winner” is not who I declare to be so, but rather the person who actually, y’know, wins the game.
But the real battle, the one that matters, the one that pays for new stadiums and media coverage and all of that, is the battle for your eyeballs. So join me as I explain which winter olympics events are necessary for you to watch.
ALPINE SKIING EVENTS
Ah, the crisp winter air. The snow. The waxed wooden slats that you slide around on. The poles. The crouching. Skiing is about as quintessential as olympic events get, really. Say “winter olympics” and only figure skating is likely to top the imaginary Family-Feud-style survey in my head.
The quintessential event of the quintessential family, downhill skilling is actually boring as toast. See, they start at the top of the hill, and then, through the magic of friction and gravity, the end up at the bottom of the hill.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Nope. But it’s good that it’s there, all the same.
This is downhill skiing combined with slalom, thus uniting a “speed” event with a “technical” event. Considering that this means that you’re watching someone first rely on gravity, then get as close as possible to a flag, calling it “super” is a big fat lie.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No, and these people should be ashamed of themselves.
This is probably the most palatable alpine skiing event, as it renders the Super Combined extra-double redundant by being “slalom, only faster.”
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Well, I guess you’ve got to watch some Alpine Skiing event. Might as well be this one.
Regular ol’ plain slalom is watching people ski between flags and concentrate on being very close to the inside of them to wheel around and not miss the next flag. Giant Slalom is that, only the flags are further apart. Who comes up with these things?
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Not even once.
The problem with making these decisions in the order they’re run on television (that way, if you’re an impossibly slow reader you can follow along in real time) is that you all know how I feel about slalom. DON’T MISS THAT ONE FLAG, GUYS.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Not if you value your time.
Cross-country skiing then shooting! So the deal is, they ski a bit, then stop and shoot a bit, then ski a bit, then shoot a bit, etc. I probably don’t even have to tell you how fucking weird this is.
There are different race lengths for men and women here. The sprint is also notable because if you finish in the top 60 in the sprint biathlon, you then get to compete in the pursuit event. Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, this is the shortest event.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: If you absolutely must watch biathlon – and, I suppose, if you have any desire to watch cross-country skiing, at least this has some shooting in the middle of it, although I’ll tell you, watching someone shoot at a target on television is about as fun as watching astroturf grow – then I guess this is the one for you. But if you absolutely must watch biathlon, you probably have trouble reading sentences as long as that last one so you probably didn’t hear the verdict.
So the top sixty people in the sprint then compete in a pursuit race, in which they all start at different times based on their finish in the sprint (meaning that the person who finishes first in the sprint events starts the race a bit before the person who finished second, and fifty-nine bits before the person who finished 60th). Then someone wins that race.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No. See how dull that writeup was? That’s describing an event that you’d be watching on your television.
This is “vanilla” biathlon. One person skis a bunch and shoots a bunch and the person who finishes skiing and shooting first gets a medal.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Nopers! It’s twice as long as the sprint, for starters.
So this is basically the individual, except instead of being a timed, staggered event, it’s a flat-out race that everyone starts at once and plays alongside each other, with the winner being the person who crosses the finish line first.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Watch the first few minutes. As with any race event, the start is the most interesting part – watching people decide which battles fight and how to decide their position is fine. But the rest of it is just more biathlon.
It’s biathlon. Four times. In a row. By four different people per team. It’s neat that there’s a mixed biathlon relay for the first time this year. It’s also still a quadruple-biathlong.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No.
Only the men have a four-person bobsled event, which is the one that you’re thinking of because you don’t remember the Olympics after they’re over but you’ve seen Cool Runnings a bunch of times. DON’T LIE TO ME I CAN SEE THE TRUTH.
It’s got half as many people as the four-person, which mainly just means the accidents are less horrific.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Yes. It’s great.
It’s like two-person bobsled, only faster and with fewer women!
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Absolutely
You’re going to hear and read a whole lot about how cross-country skiing uses all of the major muscle groups, and is therefore the hardest athletic event to compete in. That’s a terribly interesting fact that is necessary to mask the fact that “difficult” doesn’t translate to “in any way interesting.” This is skiing. Across the country. Or, rather, the countryside, since it’s actually about terrain management and stamina more than, y’know, crossing an actual country. Which, in Russia, would just end in everyone’s snowy death by exertion.
Ok, so, there are two ways to cross-country ski1. The motions are similar to ice-skating vs. rollerblading, if you’ve ever done either2. If you haven’t, just know that one involves keeping your skis parallel and the other involves angling them. And in a skiathlon, you have to use both methods to cross massive distance and also cause people to fall asleep when they write about it.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Does the pulse-pounding excitement of watching them switch from angling their skates along the y-axis vs. along the z-axis sounds like your idea of fun? Of course it doesn’t.
The sprint is the skate-skiing one. The one where force is applied to skis along the z-axis.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No. But at least you know what it is now.
So what you do is, you push down on the skate (so that it gains traction on the ground) and then forward (like you would on a rollerblade).
SHOULD I WATCH IT: You sure shouldn’t!
The ski is oriented so that the x-axis is actually across the ski, see? So it’s the z-axis (i.e. up and down the width) that is rotated in skate skiing, not the x-axis. You have to think three-dimensionally.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Absolutely not.
The poles are associated with propulsion, but that’s more for events where there’s a hill to get up a head of speed before you slide down it. They’re predominantly for course-correction and to aid steering in cross-country skiing.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I am literally describing the mechanics of the sport rather than trying to figure out a way to make it interesting. It is literally boring beyond jokes.
Even the ability to watch people do the usually-entertaining early-race jockeying is basically not going to save a sport where the coolest part is the “whoosh” noise.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I’m happy enough to be done writing about it.
Just two curling events. There was much hue and cry when it was added to the olympics, because blah blah brooms and whatever. It’s basically bowling, it’s often called “chess on Ice,” and none of that is as cool as the fact that it is played in the “Ice Cube Center,” which is fun to imagine is named after the rapper and not, y’know, ice cubes. Although that’s also pretty cool.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Probably not. Like with bowling or billiards, play is so intricate that to see anything beyond the bare result you have to basically get a degree in it, and it doesn’t really translate to tv.
The other big one! Figure skating is a judged sport, which means, of course, that it is a “bullshit” sport. But I suppose decades of modern Olympic tradition are against me there. Anyway, if you know the difference between an “axel” and a “Salchow” and a “lutz” you’re probably in good shape. If you don’t, well, there’s not much I can do for you there.
Figure skating, more than any other olympic sport, has an absolutely inscrutable number of subdivisions. It’s hard not to be impressed by how many variations we squeeze in there. Pair skating is man/woman teams. This is the one where they throw each other around a lot, and the short programs tend to be more kinetic, since it’s more like a sprint. This is also the easiest to follow, since everybody has a list of stuff they have to do on the ice, and the announcers are usually pretty good about telling people what that might be.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Well, it wouldn’t be the Olympics without some figure skating, and this is the best one, so yes.
It’s not actually called “singles,” but just having the word “Short” as a category looked dumb. This is like the pairs short program – they have to do certain stuff, but they just do it by themselves.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Probably not – all the good stuff is in the pairs skating
The “Free” skate events are harder to get a handle on, since they’re more open and allowed to do stuff. On the one hand, it makes the routines more watchable because you’re getting to watch these people do more of the stuff they want. On the other, it makes it impossible to follow, because you are not a figure skating judge, and have no idea what you’re looking at.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I’m going to say “no,” unless you’re home sick or something.
This is the thing that we’re all supposed to be impressed by at the Olympics: a person going out there and representing their country with seemingly-impossible displays of athletic prowess. Hilariously, this means that dude that likes to pretend he enjoys macho things really should be the biggest figure skating fan you know. He probably isn’t, though. That yutz. Anyway.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Oh, sure. This isn’t any easier to follow than the pairs free skate, but you get a lot of really cool jumps this way. Especially recommended if you like watching people spin around.
You know how when you watch, like, Lethal Weapon on basic cable the fact that they’re using the network-tv edit really draws attention to how much Danny Glover swears? Well, ice dancing is like the pairs short program except that, in addition to everything else they can’t do lifts that are worth watching and it has to be in time to music. I’m too old for this shit.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Absolutely not.
So, Alpine Skiing is, as mentioned, one of the quintessential winter olympics events. Freestyle skiing, then, is kind of not. It’s like Alpine Skiing, only made interesting by the possibility of death.
A complete list of things that are made interesting by the addition of bumps: novelty condoms, blank books3, roller coasters. Do you see what isn’t on the list?
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I cannot in good conscience recommend anything that would require dramamine for viewing
This is a new sport, stolen for Sochi from the X-Games. That’s not a joke. The idea is that people on skis launch themselves off of jumps and do tricks. The event was also added for snowboarding, which makes me wonder what snowboarders were doing in the first place. Anyway, doesn’t that all same like it’s trying a little too hard?
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Well, it’s the first olympics it’s been at, so I don’t know what Olympic slopestyle is going to look like. If the novelty appeals to you, I’d watch it, but as it is I think it’s probably going to be better suited to just watch snowboarders do it.
The more respectable, less x-games-y version of Slopestyle, Aerials have been the best skiing event for basically ever. People launch themselves off of jumps and then do a trick and then land. “But,” I hear you asking, “didn’t you just say that was dumb when it was slopestyle?” No – slopestyle is about doing a bunch of different tricks, and aerials are generally about doing one set of tricks (actually it’s usually flips and spins and the like) until it’s right. There’s also “upright” and “inverted,” which has to do with how high your feet are allowed to go, but none of you need to know about that right now.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Enthusiastically.
Halfpipe skiing is a confusing jumble of wood and limbs and is also a judged event. It is, therefore, extra-special-stupid and I’m not even going to say anything else about it.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Nope. If you’re in Sochi and want to set the course on fire, though, I think that would probably be a reasonable public service.
This is EXXXTREME downhill skiing. Or, really, EXXXTREME moguls, since instead of bumps it is on a motocross-style track with hills and shit. It is illustrative of the effort you’d have to go to to get me to watch Alpine skiing: as far as building a fucking obstacle course, basically.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: If you have a skiing itch that isn’t scratched by Aerials and Suger G, then this is the event for you. But it’s still basically just Alpine Skiing with a five o’clock shadow.
You know all about hockey. The finest sport played on ice, the second-finest sport on the planet, and generally proof that the world is a good and right place. Watching International Hockey is like going to dinner your best suit: it feels good, even if it’s not something you do all the time.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I can’t even imagine having to ask this question. Of course you should. It’s beautiful.
Once again we have a hurtling sport that allows men to have twice as many bodies on the sled as women. I really have no idea why. Anyway, luge – that’s the one where they go down strapped to the sled itself, with no frame. It’s also the event with the weirdest scores, as scores are measured in thousandths of a second, so it looks like everyone finished at the same damn time.
One human body, one sled. Hurtling.
SHOULD I WATCH IT The fact that it’s basically the same thing over and over again, coupled with the fact that it has some of the most terrifying injuries in the athletic universe means that no, there is basically no reason to watch it.
The same thing as singles, only with a bigger sled and another body.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: The addition of the possibility that someone could suffer a compaction of the crotch against someone’s head is quite a wrinkle, but as it’s still covered by the “terrifying injuries” clause above, it still is best avoided.
Relay races where the team isn’t all on the ice at once are weird. This is the first year for this, and it’s going to be a woman and a doubles team, the first of which luges, then whacks a pressure pad. Then the doubles team goes. So basically, nothing is relayed.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Well, I would hate for the entirety of luge to not be represented, but “more time on the luge track” seems like a pretty risky reason to try. So no. Just catch up with luge highlights later or something.
This is ski jumping that ends in cross-country skiing. You jump, then you get some head start time, then there’s a cross country race. Wee. It’s also useful if you really hate watching women compete in things: it’s men-only.
Normal Hill 10k
This is a regular ski-jump (that’s what the “normal” here refers to – the size of the ski jump hill), followed by a 10k cross-country ski.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No
Large Hill 10k
This is a big ski-jump (that’s what the “large” here refers to – the size of the ski jump hill), followed by a 10k cross-country ski.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No
Large Hill 4x5k Relay
This is a big ski-jump (that’s what the “large” here refers to – the size of the ski jump hill) followed by a 5k cross-country ski four times.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No
Short Track Speed Skating
This is a racing event. There’s not a whole lot you need to know here – it’s short track. It’s speed. It’s skating.
OK, so, there’s six different races4 here, but there’s not a whole lot of difference, watchability-wise, between them. Speed skating is one of the most satisfying events in the Olympics precisely because of its elemental simplicity – is that guy faster than that other guy? Then he’s going to win.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Yes.
As you all may have noticed, I have a pretty low tolerance for relay races. I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of a longer race, but relay races are also exercises in scheduling (what other events are the athletes on the comedown from), planning (who goes in what order) and chemistry. Since I watch the Olympics for athletes and not an impressive front office, I’m generally less interested in what it looks like when individual events are played by teams.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Oh, sure. I mean, it’s still speed skating. It’s just not quite as essential.
This is luge, face-first.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: No. Terrifying injuries in luge are one thing. Skeleton is just asking for them. While the skiiers are trying to add some pulse-raising by throwing in half-pipes and rococo nonsense to their hills, skeleton athletes are basically begging for a racetrack to hit them in the face. I’ve never met a skeleton competitor5, but I’d imagine that if I had, I would be able to say that they were exactly like G.G. Allin.
This is another sport where it’s all right there in the name – you jump on skis. Maybe the olympics should take note that the more explanation is required of their events, the more likely they are to be some dumb nonsense.
This is classic, vanilla ski-jumping. They ski. They jump. My favorite thing about ski jumping is that they get a “training” jump – they get a practice jump because the conditions tend to be so crazy for ski jumpers. That’s a genteel sort of touch that you don’t often find in athletic events.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: It’s not essential, but it’s over so quickly it’s hard not to watch if, say, you’re just leaving the tv on after a good event
Same thing, this time with a bigger hill.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: It’s actually less interesting than the Normal Hill event, mainly because the jumpers spend more time in the air. It’s still short, so it’s easy enough to watch. I wouldn’t recommend it actively, though.
Team Large Hill
And here again we have another event that women aren’t allowed to be a part of. This is completely baffling, as it’s the same event this time, just with, y’know, team scoring.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Eh. There’s a lot of combining and averaging and stuff to figure out a winner here. Probably best to skip it. You’ve watched enough ski jumping.
The source of most of the dumber freestyle skiing events, snowboarding is the beginning of the somewhat-large number of new events in the olympics in the last few go-rounds. One board, a bunch of wax, and some flippy-spinny stuff. Y’know, generally.
Well, it makes a little bit more sense here than it does on skis, but it’s still just a downhill event with a bunch of tumors.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Nah.
After skiiers have made it look fairly silly, it might be refreshing to go see some snowboarders do it. That said, I’m not super into halfpipe as a skateboarding event, and that relies on having the correct amount of traction for jumps and stuff. I dunno.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: If you accidentally caught some skiing halfpipe and need to see halfpipe event that actually makes sense, then it’s probably a good palate refresher. Otherwise, it’s still kind of a half-assed halfpipe event, which means it’s kind of a dull version of the dull version of something.
Snowboard Cross, also called boardercross, is also done on a motocross-style track. It’s also an “everyone at the same time” race, which means that our friend Terrifying Injuries can make an appearance at the top of some hills. All that said, it’s not impossible to watch.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I can’t recommend it, but at least it’s a mass-start race, so you don’t have to remember a time to beat or whatever. Just look away if it looks like things are headed to crashtowne.
Parallel Giant Slalom
So, while it’s the case that I have a bunch of annoyed stuff to say about the donation to skiing of snowboarding-borne events that don’t make any sense on skis, I also have to say that the reciprocal is just infuriating. Anyway. “LET’S SEE HOW CLOSE THAT SNOWBOARDER CAN GET TO THAT FLAG, GUYS”
SHOULD I WATCH IT: I wouldn’t even put this on for someone that was in a coma.
This is the long-track stuff. It’s not as furious, and it’s timed instead of all-at-once.
The distances for men and women are different again, and these are long. Guys, these are one-at-a-time events that run for, at their longest, 10k. There is no way you have time for that.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Gosh, no.
Team pursuit is weird. Two teams skate at once, establish starting-time differences, and then if the team that started later overtakes the team that started first, they win. If they don’t catch up in 8 laps, the first team wins.
SHOULD I WATCH IT: Well, the first team basically always wins here. So, in addition to it being kind of weird to make visual sense of, it’s also largely forgone. So no.
And that’s it! Every event, helpfully arranged for your viewing convenience. Make sure to be as nationalistic as possible. Oh, and every human-interest story about how obsessed the athletes are with their performance from the time they were young and it caused some kind of problem (or represented a retreat from some prior problem) – yeah, those stories are designed to nakedly manipulate you into liking the one that has the endorsement deal with the company that payed for the spotlight. So please disregard at least one of them, if only just for me.
1 I have never skiied of any kind. Not cross-country, not alpine.This is because I’m an interesting person with interesting hobbies and I don’t need to “hurtle” to feel good about myself. This all comes from research.
2 these are both things I have done.
3 applies only if you’re blind, and thus require braille to read
4 to keep people like me on their toes, the men and women have the same distances here, because why should competition rules ever make sense?
5 skeletathlete? skeltestant? skeletater? skeletor?