It’s the Olympics! Longtime readers will know: this is not my favorite time of the quadrennium 1. This particular one is not off to an auspicious start: despite the completely unprecedented joint North/South Korean presence, there’s still the fact that Russia won’t be present at all, having mostly been banned by the IOC, and the spectre of the fact that North Korea is busily building all of the missiles it can can’t be helping matters any. And all this is aside from the regular problems with the Olympics: that they’re a tremendous financial drain on the local economy that almost never turns out to have been worth it in the first place.
That’s also aside from the fact that, additionally, the Olympics marry some of the worst things about sports 2, with the worst things about television 3, and it takes over everything in the culture for its duration, so there’s basically no getting away from the goddamned things.
But I don’t relish being a killjoy so, for the next however-many thousand words, I’m going to be your guide through the “fun” part of the Olympics: the seemingly-endless parade of events that differ only in one to two details, which may not even seem to be significant.
So the thing to remember is that every Olympic event requires a nigh-superhuman amount of time and devotion, and that everyone who is competing is not only the best their country has to offer, but has already established (via the extensive trial process of Olympic qualification) that they are good enough to compete. And in this case, they’re going to strap lengths of wood to their feet and hurtle down a hill, making sure to not crash into some gates.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
Downhill skiing with the added challenge of having to ski through gates sprinkled close together throughout the hill. The idea is to see the skiiers ability to turn quickly. At least the skiiers move more in this one.
SHOULD I WATCH: If you must watch a skiing event, it might as well be this one.
It’s slalom but, y’know, bigger. So the visual interest of watching the skiers turn or whatever is significantly less.
SHOULD I WATCH: No.
So the downhill skiing events are categorized as either “speed” events (Downhill, Giant Slalom) or “technical” events (Slalom, Super-G), and the Combined is one of each (Downhill and Slalom). So many gates to ski through!
SHOULD I WATCH: If you didn’t already watch the slalom, sure, but remember that the first part is going to be super boring.
Biathlon is one of the Olympics’ more baffling constructions. The individual form, which is the oldest form, has five laps of 4 km each 4 alternated with four attempts to shoot a target 5. I suppose, in theory, this would be hunting behavior in, say, the taiga or the steppes or whatever. Now it’s a sport that they’re going to compete in. The race is timed, missing the target adds to the distance you have to ski, and at the end the person who does it all the quickest is the winner.
SHOULD I WATCH: Nope! It’s a marathon combined with watching someone else shoot. It’s nearly unwatchable.
This time it’s only 3 laps of 3.33 km 6, with only two shooting opportunities, but is otherwise the same.
SHOULD I WATCH: No. It’s better than the individual, because it’s shorter (which is great), but it’s still boring as all heck.
This time it’s 5 laps of 2.5 km 7, four shots 8. In the other events, the race is staggered such that each individual participant is basically alone on the course. In this one they are separated by the time that they finished a previous race – sprint – in. So they bunch up and sometimes have to wait for a shooting lane to open up. This makes it a race where it is sometimes necessary to wait. Doesn’t that sound positively scintillating?
SHOULD I WATCH: Lord, no. It’s a racing event where people queue.
This is the same course as the individual, thankfully, so I don’t have to type all of that out, and everyone starts at once and then waits in line to shoot. This race is the one where the shooting lanes are assigned, and oh my god why are there so many of these.
SHOULD I WATCH: Nopers.
3 laps of 2.5 km 9, two shooting rounds each, four interminable times. I’m not a fan of relay races in any circumstance, but relay distance races truly make a mockery of the notion of a spectator sport.
SHOULD I WATCH: Sure, if “a mockery of the notion of a spectator sport” sounds like a televised good time to you.
So bobsleigh (or bobsled, as it were) is a timed race event on an extremely-dangerous track where people cram themselves into a thin shell and hurtle death-defyingly toward the ground. It is literally the least dangerous of the race events on this track, which is simply ludicrous. 2 person bobsleigh is the only version of the event that includes women, for reasons that I’m going to call “delightfully baffling” I suppose. For lack of a better thing to call them.
SHOULD I WATCH: Sure. It’s short, anyway, and it gets fairly exciting.
Same deal, except more people shoved into the thing like Eisenhower-era college kids into a phone booth, and it requires more coordination to get exactly right. So it’s more technically demanding, but no more visually interesting, which kind of makes it microcosmic of the Olympics in general.
SHOULD I WATCH: If your appetite wasn’t sated by the 2 person bobsleigh races, then sure. Otherwise it’s just the same thing with more people, and it’s completely devoid of women.
OK, so, the difference between cross-country ski events is the direction in which force is applied to the ski. If you’re pushing dorsally 10 it’s “classical,” and you do it for 50 km, and then everyone dies of boredom.
SHOULD I WATCH: It’s a 50 km ski race. Of course you shouldn’t watch it.
The other option to provide propulsion in the cross-country skiing world is to push laterally 11, which in a freestyle race, the athlete is permitted to do. To make sure this is clear, there are expert judges in international competition whose job is to make sure that the force applied to a ski by an athlete’s foot is in the correct direction. In any version of reality, this is insanity.
SHOULD I WATCH: It’s much shorter than the classical, at only 15 km, but that’s still too long to watch someone swing poles (which is the visible action of the cross-country skier).
Rather than be free to do either way of providing thrust, as one is in the freestyle, in skiathlon it is mandatory to use both techniques. It’s the sort of thing that made one wish he had an angular momentum fetish. At least then it would be possible to get something out of it.
SHOULD I WATCH: No.
These are the same deal as their longer counterparts, but they’re shorter.
SHOULD I WATCH: It’s still not short enough.
This is a shorter race than the sprint, but it’s still a 10 km race, and it’s still repeated four times.
SHOULD I WATCH: No. Spoiler alert: I am never going to cosign a relay race in the winter Olympics.
True story: this year, curling events will start before the opening ceremonies, because there’s just too damn much curling to be contained in the regular strictures of the Olympic events. This year, they’re also allowing mixed doubles curling teams, and we will forever know if a man and a woman are equal wielders of a goddamn ice broom. SO EXCITING.
SHOULD I WATCH: Actually, curling isn’t that bad, compared to say, a long-distance ski race. I’m sure there’s better stuff on tv, and it’s not that entertaining, but if you have to watch some Olympics, you can do worse than curling.
Men and women are segregated here, but they each get two minutes and fifty seconds to perform items on a list of jumps/tricks 12, all of which are a little more esoteric than I can understand. That said: the requirements are definite, but the end scoring is decided arbitrarily by judges (with input from the execution of the required program elements), and it is thus a sport containing unseemly amounts of total bullshit.
SHOULD I WATCH: It’s visually interesting, and the physically-demanding parts of it are the sorts of things a layperson can notice, so sure. Be aware, though, that it’s tremendously frustrating, because again: it’s a judged event, and therefore bullshit.
Free programs are four or four and a half minutes, plus or minus 10 seconds. They are judged, in this case, by how well they skate in time to music. Having eliminated the technical requirements of the short program, we are thus adrift in the sea of bullshit that is “letting the judges figure out how good it was with no actual benchmarks.” This is the event where most of the dumbest things happen.
SHOULD I WATCH: No. If you want to see what skaters do when left to their own devices, watch the exhibition gala thing, where they can fling themselves around with abandon and not have to worry about the judges.
True story: pairs skating includes a required move called a “death spiral” 13. Consider that even skeleton, which is basically a rush to meet death head-first, doesn’t have anything called a “death spiral.” That is metal as hell.
SHOULD I WATCH: Sure. It’s got the technical advantages of the individual stuff, but the moves and elements are more technically-involved, and more visually complicated. Plus one of the moves is called a “death spiral”.
More of the same – looser time restrictions, no required elements, not as interesting, more bullshit, only this time there’s two people out there at once. Weeeeee.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
Ice Dancing Short
So in ice dancing, the first half of the program is compulsory (pre-arranged moves that everyone has to do and that are proscribed) and the second half is left up to the skaters to interpret, with required elements. The thing they’re dancing to is determined by the powers that be. Oh, and they don’t jump. So it’s the worst kind of figure skating.
SHOULD I WATCH: No.
Ice Dancing Free
They get to pick their own rhythms, music and choreography, but they still can’t jump. So it’s less stupid than the short program, but still pretty stupid, and on top of that, it’s still judged.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
This is a combination of my two favorite things: downhill skiing, and events that are judged. In this case they shoot off of ramps and flip around a bunch of times and then the judge says “golly, by these arbitrary and unfathomable points of judgment I guess that guy was better than the other guy.” Then the next person does it. That said, the individual runs are blissfully short, and they do look cool flipping around up there, so it’s pretty good visually, if not as a sport.
SHOULD I WATCH: Yes
Pity the poor skiier. For years they were alone as those who zoom on waxed pieces of wood. now the world has moved on, and skiing is the hobby of rich people 14, but that’s just not enough to get those eyeballs, so they have to steal events from snowboarding, the totally radical pastime of all the most exxxtreme of young people. This is, in a nutshell, why the Olympics are total bullshit: there’s no “tradition” in gluing skiiers into a snowboarding event, and the only reason it would have to be done is for the ability to draw in viewers for the various television broadcasts. It’s divorced from its natural state (snowboarding), it’s clumsily welded to a boring sport (skiing) and it’s a judged event (bullshit). It’s got nothing going for it, except for general bankruptcy and an ability to annoy me greatly.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
Did you think that downhill skiing needed to be bumpier? Because if you did, I have good news for you.
SHOULD I WATCH: Not unless you feel you need to be made motion sick.
This is more x-games nonsense, only this time the people on the skis go over a thing that’s like a BMX course, only they’re on skis. Words cannot express how stupid this is. Any of the entertainment value that would come from watching people do cool shit in the air is completely negated by the fact that, from the word jump, it is literally impossible to take this dumb, dumb sport seriously.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
This is like dressage for humans on skis. You know, the thing where they make the horses hop over jumps and stuff in a race. Only on skis, and without the horses. I suppose it highlights the existential abstract comedy of the whole thing – the people are like the show ponies! On skis! – and that’s useful from a general entertainment point of view, but I don’t think it’s enough to actually justify the existence of this dumb nonsense.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
“But,” I hear you saying, “if the Olympics are so terrible, why bother with any of it at all? Couldn’t you just ignore it like all the other stuff you don’t write about?” Well, I could. But then I’d be missing one of the finest sporting events the world has ever known: Olympic Hockey. International Rules Hockey is such a frigging fantastic sporting event that the Olympics can have all the stupid clown-show made-up events in the world, and I’d still have to pore over the listings to watch the damn hockey games. I mean, that’s kind of how it is anyway, but my point remains.
SHOULD I WATCH: Yes. And I don’t just mean “watch if you want to watch the Olympics,” I mean “you should watch Olympic Hockey. It’s so good it’ll make you forget it’s the Olympics”
So, Bobsleigh is a bunch of dudes crammed into a thin-shelled sled that rocket at insane, brain-splattering speeds down a course. The luge folks 15 do the same course, but they don’t have the shell. If you want to see people court an early, messy death, this isn’t even the one for you (see below), it’s just terrifying to watch. Stick with Bobsleigh, at least you can more easily convince yourself that not all of those people are going to die.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
The things that are combined in the Nordic Combined are a ski jump and a cross-country ski – one’s performance in the jumping part determines one’s time bonus in the cross-country part. This and biathlon are reminders that winter Olympic sports have always been dumb mashup events. I suppose it’s possible to appreciate the consistency, at least. Anyway, there’s no women in the Nordic Combined, despite there being women involved in Cross-Country skiing and in ski jumping 16. I guess just to get that last little bit of weird sexism in there. Tradition, everybody! Anyway, I haven’t gotten to ski-jumping yet, so you’ll be spoiled a bit to hear me say: it does not redeem cross-country skiing.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
I mention it only because I feel I cannot say it enough: watching relay races is not a good way to have a good time.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
Short Track Speed Skating
I’m just lumping them all together, here. Short-track speed skating is sort of classic-flavoured speed skating, and as such is about a satisfying a race event as there is: everybody starts behind a line, then skates around, then finishes at another line, and the first person across is the winner. Easy-peasy, and, since the longest race is still only 1500 meters, the whole thing is generally over quickly enough to stay engaging.
SHOULD I WATCH: Sure. It’s fun.
I mean, even the fact that short-track speed skating is as good as this stuff gets doesn’t change the fact that relays are still four times longer than the events themselves would otherwise be, and while the addition of teamwork and passing skills are useful and interesting, they’re still not useful or interesting enough to make watching a relay race engaging.
SHOULD I WATCH: No
So if luge is like bobsleigh without the protective shell, skeleton is the same thing only it happens head first. The speeds at which this takes place – head first – are enough to subject the body of the skeleton racer to 5 Gs 17. Anyway, the New York Times just did a thing about it. Go ahead and read that. I suppose I’m open to any arguments about why this is a “sporting event” worth watching for anyone that isn’t someone that explicitly wants to watch someone die, but I’m not convinced.
SHOULD I WATCH: Not unless you’re trying to watch someone die. NB that no one has actually literally died on the skeleton track. Yet.
Individual Normal/Large Hill
You ski down a big hill, then you launch off the end of it. Ski-jumping is a distance competition, which are my favorite kind of jumping competitions 18. It must be noted, further, that in non-Olympic ski-jump competitions, “normal” is the size above “medium,” because why should anything ever make sense? Anyway, a taller hill means they go farther.
SHOULD I WATCH: Yes. It’s pretty good.
Team Large Hill
So only the men get to compete in team ski jumping, which combines all the fun of relay races with all the fun of inexplicably not letting women compete. Fun!
SHOULD I WATCH: Probably not, although, to be honest, it’s not all that different from regular ski jumping (the team aspect really only comes into play for the scoring), so if you really want more ski jumping, you probably could.
The slalom in snowboarding is the same as it is in skiing – the two share many of the same courses and disciplines, mainly because the one is basically glued into the Olympics over the other 19 – except in this case the “parallel” means that two people run the course at the same time, next to each other. I guess this doubles the chances of a slalom race being exciting, in the literal sense that two people are doing it at once, but two times zero is still zero.
SHOULD I WATCH: Nope.
Parallel Giant Slalom
So it’s parallel slalom, only it’s giant. So there’s more of it. So it takes more time. And there’s less, like, movement. Because it’s just longer, see.
SHOULD I WATCH: Lord no.
So, despite the fact that the inclusion of snowboarding, and its derived events, is clearly an attempt on the part of the USA to shore up their medal count (although Japan is gunning for them this year), halfpipe is at least an event that lends itself well to the snowboard (and not to skis – see previously). If you’ve gotta watch some snowboarding, this is the one to watch. And hey, why not? It’s dumb that it’s an Olympic sport, given that it has minimal history and/or international presence, but it’s not dumb as a piece of entertainment, so it could be worse. If they figure out how to make a halfpipe relay, for example. That would be worse.
SHOULD I WATCH: Probably
Big Air is somewhere in between ski (or, well, snowboard) jumping and slopestyle. The snowboarders launch themselves off a ramp, then do some tricks, then land, then get judged and scored. Once again the flying and the spinning and stuff are fine, but it’s still not a sport, because someone still decides.
SHOULD I WATCH: It’s not actually as fun as slopestyle, so no.
This is the same as it is in skiing – track, obstacles, jumping, judging – and, while I tend to think of it as being better-suited to snowboards, if I think about times when I would actually find a judged event with so many moving parts entertaining, I have to confess that I come up short.
SHOULD I WATCH: Oh fine, sure
So this is known, non-Olympically, as “Boardercross,” and that’s because it’s basically the idea of a motocross track that you go through on a snowboard. It’s a race event, which helps, and it’s also still transparently a USA-booster. It has a lot of visual texture – a lot of ups and downs – and I have absolutely no doubt that it’s a tremendously difficult thing to have to do. But the things that make it difficult 20 aren’t things that it’s super easy to actually, y’know, see when you’re watching it, which makes it hard to get anything out of it other than the superficial “people are whizzing by on snowboards and sometimes they are also in the air” aspects of it.
SHOULD I WATCH: I leave it up to you to decide. If you need more snowboarding than halfpipe gives you, then sure.
So, long-track speed skating is largely timed (see below), and happens in four distance intervals per sex 21. They run two at a time, the fastest time wins. This officially means that long-track speed skating is the worst kind of speed skating.
SHOULD I WATCH: Probably not. It’s interminable, and in the end the two non-timed long-track speed skating events are more than enough speed skating to keep anybody satisfied.
So the two teams start on opposite straight sides of the track, and they skate around and around 22 and try to overtake (thus the name) the other team. Whether they do or not, the team that finishes the required number of laps first is the winner. Pursuit can be a little bit difficult to figure out if you aren’t paying attention, but it’s still better than regular long-track speed skating.
SHOULD I WATCH: Sure, if you like speed skating enough to need another event.
This is the proverbial “it” – a bunch of skaters start at once, and then race around until one of them wins. This is the first year this is going to be happening in long-track speed skating, which seems insane, and also proves my point that the Olympics hates people almost as much as it hates sports.
SHOULD I WATCH: Yes, this is one of the good ones.
And that does it! See you all in four years, when I’ll probably have many of the same opinions, but possibly could contradict myself wildly!
- although it’s worth noting that this is my first return-trip to this well: it was the 2014 Winter Olympics that occasioned my first trip down this road. ↩
- braindead, nigh-jingoistic regionalism, naked manipulation in the form of “human interest” stories about how whatever athlete overcame whatever thing ↩
- events broken up to sell cookies and prescription drugs, pretending that the behavior of obsessive maniacs (all olympic athletes are obsessive maniacs) is normal, the presentation of factoids and trivia as information. ↩
- or five laps of 3 km each for women ↩
- two prone and two standing, alternated each time ↩
- or 3 laps of 2.5 km for women ↩
- or 5 laps of 2 km for women ↩
- this time the order of the shooting is standing-standing-prone-prone. Isn’t that interesting? I submit to you that no, no it is not. ↩
- 3 laps of 2 km for women ↩
- that is down toward the ground, engaging a special “grip” section of the ski designed just for this purpose. ↩
- that is out away from the body, providing resistance by the angle of the blade of the ski ↩
- it invariably makes me think of show-jumping events, and the people involved as ponies. ↩
- the man and woman join hands, and then the guy plants his plant foot and spins while the woman is flung out away from him, and held in position centripetally, nearly parallel to the ground. ↩
- and really enthusiastic weirdos ↩
- with a maximum of 2 such folks per sled ↩
- and also in the other dumb-traditionalist-mash-up event, the Biathlon ↩
- the article here linked notes that when people leave orbit in a space shuttle, they are subject to three Gs, and that is done inside a suit, inside an enclosed vehicle, and not headfirst. ↩
- I mean, the spinning and flipping is fine and visually interesting, but also judged, and therefore bullshit. The distance stuff adds a nice, objective measure to the art of flinging oneself into the air. ↩
- Also, while it’s common enough to think of snowboarding as an Olympic johnny come lately, this is its twentieth year of acceptance, which also says something about the stilted, “frozen in time” aspect of the Olympics. ↩
- things like “managing air time” and “making it over moguls” and “not falling over all the damn time” ↩
- the women’s longest race is 3K, the men’s 5K ↩
- eight laps for men, six laps for women ↩