Everyone gets excited about the Summer games, seeing Team GB dominate the velodrome or watching the greats of Mo Farah, and Jess Ennis-Hill in the Olympic stadium bringing home the medals – but when it comes to the Winter Olympics, we’re generally not quite as familiar with several of the sports or the star competitors. Not wanting to miss out on what is a great sporting spectacle, we have put together a guide to help you sound like you know what you’re taking about down the pub with your friends.
Where are the Winter Games?
Due to obvious reasons, the Winter Olympics are hosted by countries with cold winters and a lot of snow. This year the South Korean city of Pyeongchang is the host – this is not to be confused with Pyongyang, in the North Korean dictatorship, well it wouldn’t be fair on the rest of the world if North Korea were the hosts as their leader would probably enter every event and win all the gold medals – that’s if Kim’s father’s golfing prowess is anything to go by.
This will be South Korea’s first time hosting the Winter Olympics, having hosted the Summer Games in Seoul in 1988. Previous Winter Games have been hosted recently in Sochi (Russia) in 2014, Vancouver (Canada) in 2010 and Turin (Italy) in 2006.
The Olympics historically has often been the centre of political and diplomatic tension. Boycotts of the Olympics were commonplace, with the hostile relations between the USA and USSR during the Cold War era being the most significant.
In an unprecedented move, this year’s Games, North Korea will participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, marching in the opening ceremony as a united delegation with South Korea and fielding athletes in five sports. They will do so under the Korean Unification Flag with two flag bearers, one from each country. The countries will field a unified women’s hockey team, it will also be represented by the unification flag and compete as Korea. North Korean athletes will compete for their own National Olympic Committee in four other sports: figure skating, short track speed skating, cross country skiing and Alpine skiing. This may be a token gesture in relations between the two nations but it could be the beginnings of something more meaningful – a ‘Cold Thaw’ you might say.
The Main Events
Alpine Skiing – A classic staple of the Games, everyone’s first thought of the Winter Olympics is of brightly dressed, and dangerously-looking under-protected skiers going up to 80mph down and icy mountain! There are a few disciplines in Alpine Skiing, the main events are the Downhill, Super-G and Slalom.
The Austrians and the Swiss tend to be strong in these events, as well as the USA, not even our James Bond would be able to keep pace.
Figure-skating – Majesty and art on ice, but immense hard work and risk of hard falls and injury. The competitors will make this look effortless. A favourite of many people, figure skating captivates the imagination, these gymnasts on skates will impress even the most macho bloke you know, even if he doesn’t admit it. They’ll roll out the classic 1984 footage of Torvill and Deane on TV no doubt but the figure skating these days is the domain of USA, Canada, Russia, China and most probably hosts South Korea this year.
Ice Hockey – High-intensity, rough, and seemingly chaotic – Ice Hockey is one of the more thrilling spectacles – if you can follow where the puck is, you’re doing well. The men’s final usually pulls in the ratings. Watch out for USA, Canada, the Russian Team and Sweden as these nations are usually the biggest forces to be reckoned with. Historically the ice hockey was a Cold War showdown between the USA and the USSR – its worth checking out the Miracle on Ice story from the 1980 Games when the plucky American team with bags of team spirit beat the almighty Soviet team against all odds, one of the most iconic moments in sport. No British team this year but the combined Korean team will no-doubt attract interest.
Speed-skating – Do not take your eyes off the race – it could all change in a split-second! Speed skating and short-track speed skating is high-adrenaline stuff, crowded track of super-fast skaters, with the risk of any given athlete’s hopes of medal glory being dashed in an instant. This can be a cruel sport with near finish line wipe-outs and unfancied competitors stealing glory. If all goes to script though, expect The Netherlands and South Korea to swell their nation’s stocks of precious metals.
Cross-Country Skiing – Not for the faint-hearted, these events can be a marathon on skis. Distances vary with different events but a gruelling 50km is the toughest event. Scandinavian countries tend to do best, if you beat the Norwegians or the Swedes at these events, you’re super-human.
The More Obscure Events
Curling – One event in recent history where Team GB have taken home medals (especially Women’s gold at Salt Lake City 2002). This seemingly bizarre event of sliding heavy stones and sweeping broomsticks may not be so all-action but has a mesmerising quality about it. Lawn bowls on ice basically, this team sport may hit the headlines if GB do well, but Canada are usually the ones to beat.
Bobsleigh / Luge / Skeleton – How many ways and configurations of going down a twisting ice-track at speed can you think of? The chances are its already been thought of, and already an event at the Winter Olympics. Bobsleigh involves teams of two or four in a bullet shape sledge hurtling down at speeds of around 100mph. Luge is similar, but without the protective shell of a sled, instead you’re on your back going feet-first. Skeleton, same kind of thing, but going down on your front, head-first on a tray. How do you even find out you’re good at that!
Even if you’re tempted to put a quid or two on Jamaica, the European countries tend to be good at these events, with Team GB having some success recently, but Germany usually take most of the medals on the ice-track.
Ski Jumping – Why would you? Hurtling down a steep slope gathering speed where you’d then jump a distance over 250m to the ground with only your skis acting like wings cutting through the air. Not for most people’s constitution but it’s another thriller to watch. Unlikely to feature plucky Brits such as Eddie The Eagle, this is another domain of adrenaline-junkie Europeans, its likely that a lot of the medallists will be German-speakers.
Snowboarding – If you wanted to watch something a little more chilled out (only a little bit, mind), these super-cool competitors will impress you with tricks and stunts or slalom racing. These guys look like they must have an enviable lifestyle – but I’m sure it’s not all fun, as with many other events, the risk of breaking a limb or two is always a threat. Expect the USA and Canada to impress on their boards.
Mogul Skiing – This is an event in freestyle skiing. Perhaps the weirdest looking event, skiing over lumps and bumps of snow, you’d be forgiven for not knowing fully what’s going on. Skiers are rewarded for speed, acrobatics, jumps and turns. Some of these winter sports must have been invented just because they’d gone to the trouble of hosting a Games so make the most of the TV cameras being in town. The freestyle skiing is a bit of a free-for-all with no country claiming supremacy, but you may see Australia do well, despite not having much snow back home.
The 2018 Winter Olympics start February 9th and is available comprehensively on BBC TV and Radio.