Winter Olympics: All About Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating

All About Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating

Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating are two separate events but since they are somewhat similar and more importantly we’re running very low on time to write previews before the games start, let’s double up!

Speed Skating (long track) and Short Track are very similar to track and field in the Summer Olympics, Athletes race each other around an oval course. The fastest one wins! The only real difference is that there are skates and ice involved. Which, really when you think about it, is a pretty big difference. Running is natural and most everyone can do it to some extent. Skating is learned. Speed skating is more foreign than running and because of that, very impressive,

How Does Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating Work?

Both sports are contested on oval shaped skating rinks but, as their names suggest, the tracks are of different sizes. Short track tracks are 111 meters around. They fit in an international sized hockey rink which is just a bit bigger than an NHL rink. Long track tracks are 400 meters around, so basically the same size as a running track. The skates are different too. Long track racers have long skates and short track racers short ones, Full stop.
One important difference between the sports is that long track racers race primarily against the clock while short track racing is a bit more like a roller-derby, full of collisions and wipeouts.

Why Do People Like Watching Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating?

Both events are a joy to watch but they’re very different. I enjoy watching short track because it is so incredibly tactical. Racers lurk behind one another waiting to make a quick move to pass the leader and get to the front of the race. Move too fast and you could open the door for someone else to do unto you what you just did unto them. Move too late and you might not have the energy or speed to get to the front. There’s also the question of how teammates will react to one another in the individual events. Sure, there’s only one Gold medal, but athletes from the same country often help each other to a point. Watching where that point is when fellow countrymen or women turn from cooperation to competition is always fun. Long track is enjoyable in a different way. The skaters’ movements have a majestic quality to them. Every movement is powerful and efficient. Their strides are long and although they are moving insanely fast and putting out incredible effort, they look relaxed.

What are the Different Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating Events?

Long track has seven events, five for men and women and two that are single gender events. Six of the events are simply different distances of the same kind of race. In the 500, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000 (women,) 5,000, and 10,000 (men) meter races, two competitors start next to each other and proceed around the track in the same direction. So that they travel the same distance, on the back straight-away the two riders switch lanes — outside and inside around the curves. The last long-track event is a Team Pursuit. In the Team Pursuit, two teams of three racers each start on opposite sides of the course. They are allowed to stay on the inside track the whole time and if one team passes another the race ends. Usually this doesn’t happen and the clock ends up deciding who has won.
Short Track has five events, three for men and women and two that are just for one gender each. There are three individual races of different distances: 500, 1,000, and 1,500 meters. And there are two relay races of different distances: 3,000 meters for women and 5,000 for men. Short track races use heats to qualify for the medal races.

How Dangerous are Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating?

Not that dangerous. The only real gory danger comes from the blades of the skates which are razor sharp. In the unlikely crash during a long track race or the quite common crash during a short track race, you don’t want to see someone cut by a skate. Luckily these are Olympic athletes with Olympic reflexes and they are almost always able to avoid calamity.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating?

As you saw up in the section about events, these are two of the sports that set themselves up believing that women can’t or shouldn’t race as far as men. In Short Track it’s the difference between a 5,000 meter relay and a 3,000 one. In long track the men get the brutal and brilliant 10,000 meter race and the women instead get a 3,000 meter race squished in between the 1,500 and the 5,000 which both genders compete in. It’s time to change this — let the women race the 10,000.

What are Some Fun Speed Skating and Short Track Speed Skating Stories?

One thing I love about sports is how some nations can become so tied to a single sport and dominate it even or especially if they are nations you wouldn’t expect. Both of these sports have that element.

In long track, it’s the Dutch that are dominant. The Dutch have a long history of speed skating. There’s an awesome race called the Elfstedentocht that is run on frozen canals that connect eleven towns in the norther province of Friesland. It’s only run when the ice is good enough, so many, even most years go by without an Elfstedenotcht which makes it even more special.

In Short Track, South Korea reigns supreme over nearly everyone with 17 Gold medals. The other countries that are good at Short Track are China, the United States, and Canada. You can make up a good natural rivalry story between almost every pair of these four countries and the combative nature of the sport accentuates this. It’s really fun!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra

Winter Olympics 2014: All About Freestyle Skiing

All About Freestyle Skiing

Hi all, as you may know, I’m taking Dear Sports Fan on the road for the next four weeks on a European and near Asian adventure that will include lots of sports watching in various countries and I hope will make for a very interesting addition to the normal writing of this blog. So far… I’ve sat in JFK as my flight has been delayed three times, so… let’s talk about freestyle skiing!

Freestyle skiing is a lot like the subject of our last Winter Olympics preview — Snowboarding. Like Snowboarding, Freestyle Skiing is a relatively new sport although older than I thought. Its first appearance in the Olympics was as an experimental addition on 1988 and it became official four years later. Like Snowboarding, Freestyle skiing is an incredibly varied sport. Its events award skill, precision, strength, speed, and flight.

How Does Freestyle Skiing Work?

Freestyle skiing’s events are so different from one another that it’s hard to answer this question without saying that it works differently for different events and therefore stepping all over the events section farther down. In all of the events, skiers strap on helmets, goggles, and skis and go flying down the side of a mountain racing one another or the clock for speed, or putting on a wild show for judges.

Why Do People Like Watching Freestyle Skiing?

Freestyle skiing is a bit of a tweener sport. It sits down right between the pure speed and history of Alpine Skiing and the new-age X-Games culture of Snowboarding. For Alpine Skiing traditionalists, Freestyle skiing offers a more relatable, more palatable way to enjoy a more

Continue reading “Winter Olympics 2014: All About Freestyle Skiing”

Winter Olympics: All About Snowboarding

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the LugeSkeletonBobsledIce HockeyCross-Country SkiingBiathlon, and Alpine Skiing.

All About Snowboarding

Snowboard is one of the newer sports to be added to the Winter Olympics but it’s a surprisingly wide-ranging one. In its five different events it combines elements of other Winter Olympic sports like Alpine Skiing and Ice Skating with sports like skateboarding and motocross. Snowboarding is among the most daring and inventive Winter Olympic sport.

snowboardingHow Does Snowboarding Work?

Like Alpine Skiing, Snowboarding is a fairly common recreational pastime. According to Wikipedia, modern snowboarding began “when Sherman Poppen, an engineer in Muskegon, Michigan, invented a toy for his daughter by fastening two skis together and attaching a rope to one end so she would have some control as she stood on the board and glided downhill. Dubbed the “snurfer” (combining snow and surfer), the toy proved so popular among his daughter’s friends that Poppen licensed the idea to a manufacturer that sold about a million snurfers over the next decade.” Snowboards today don’t look exactly like surfboards but that’s still a good way to think about it. Snowboarders are fixed almost perpendicularly to their boards by their feet. This gives their movements a distinct forehand and backhand, something that skiers do not have.
Snowboarding can be a speed competition like the sledding sports and alpine skiing — whoever gets to the bottom first wins — or it can be a subjective contest like Figure Skating where points are awarded for completing difficult tricks and looking good doing it. 
The gold medal run in Men’s Snowboard Cross from Turin 2006:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPxUcCTfFVk

Why Do People Like Watching Snowboarding?

  • Something for Everyone: Like we mentioned above, Snowboard has such variety, there’s almost definitely something in one of the Snowboarding events that you’ll like to watch whether you prefer speed, power, tactics, or style.
  • It’s a Cultural Thing: For people who find the tradition and “purity” of other Winter Olympic sports annoyingly pretentious or for people who just prefer their sports to have the faint whiff of hippiedom, Snowboarding definitely scratches that itch. It’s fun to watch how Olympic Snowboarders balance their sport’s slacker culture with being world-class competitive athletes.

What Are the Different Snowboarding Events?

Snowboarding has five medal events in the Olympics and they fall into three pretty different categories. Two that are similar are the Parallel Slalom and Parallel Giant Slalom. These are like the corresponding events in Alpine Skiing (Slalom has more, tighter gates to turn through than Giant Slalom — fastest one to the bottom wins) but with a wrinkle. They are called Parallel because two racers go down the mountain at a time, one on one course, one on a similar course right next to it. The two racers take a second run down the hill from the other course. On the second run, the racer who won the first run starts before their competitor by however much they were faster the first time. Whoever hits the bottom first the second time through, advances to the next round. Seeing how someone is doing compared to another snowboarder as opposed to just the clock with Alpine skiing, adds to the excitement and drama. The Snowboard Cross puts racers on the same exact course and lets them jockey for position on their way down a hill studded with jumps and twists and turns. Snowboard Cross has a lot of contact between snowboarders, so it’s not unheard of for a favorite to get knocked out of the competition because of a bad-break in a qualifying heat. The Slopestyle and the Halfpipe competitions round out the events and are similar to each other in that they are scored by human judges who reward people who complete the most difficult tricks at the farthest distance up from the ground. In the Halfpipe, these tricks are done by snowboarders who launch themselves into the air from one side of a U shaped tube built on the side of a mountain to the other. In Slopestyle tricks are done on the way down a “terrain park” course that includes jumps and rails to play off of.

How Dangerous is Snowboarding?

It’s definitely slower than Alpine skiing, so the Slalom and Giant Slalom are reasonably safe. Snowboarding itself is probably a little easier than skiing on the knees. Where the danger comes into snowboarding is twists and turns in mid-air that snowboarders attempt on the halfpipe and terrain park. Acrobatics fifteen feet above packed snow is no joke and coming down badly is no punchline. The Snowboard Cross has a ton of contact between riders and crashes are frequent but the speeds are usually not high enough to cause serious injury.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Snowboarding?

Well, will you look at that — it’s perfect from what I can tell! There are ten medal events, five for men and five for women, and they’re the same five! I haven’t found any mention of any of the other inexplicable gender differences in rules found in other sports. Credit the newness of the sport or credit the laid-back attitude of the athletes but definitely give someone some credit!

What are Some Fun Olympic Snowboarding Stories?

Snowboarding has some outsized characters like its most famous champion, the “flying tomato,” Shaun White. White is joined by Canadian Mark McMorris who has his own MTV show and who won a silver medal in a recent X-Games event despite breaking a rib in the process.

Resistance is futile but it won’t stop some traditionalists from trying; or at least grouching about the popularity of snowboarding. Long-time announcer Bob Costas said of snowboarding, “this is just ‘Jackass’ stuff that they invented and called Olympic sports.”

Important Links:

The official snowboarding schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

The Snowboarding events begin on Feb. 6 and end on Feb. 22.

Winter Olympics: All About Alpine Skiing

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the LugeSkeletonBobsledIce HockeyCross-Country Skiing, and Biathlon.

All About Alpine Skiing

alpine skiingAlpine Skiing is one of the signature sports of the Winter Olympics. It’s a familiar pastime for many amateur downhill skiing athletes but it retains significant mystique. It’s highly technical and yet simple in concept: who can make it down a steep, icy course fastest without falling? It’s a classic sport for dare-devils.

How Does Alpine Skiing Work?

In all the Alpine Skiing events, racers start at the top of a mountain and must make it down to the bottom of a course safely and quickly while skiing between pairs of flags places strategically and deviously by course designers. Unlike the experience of skiing recreationally, the surface is not the powder snow found commonly in Colorado or the mix of ice and snow found on the East Coast. The course has more in common with an artificial luge, bobsled, or skeleton track than a natural mountain. It’s rock-hard, solid ice. As you watch Alpine Skiing events in Sochi, listen to the sound of the skiers turning. You can hear the razor sharp edges of their skis cut into the icy course. To make turns at speeds up to 75 miles per hour, skiers have to have incredible strength and flexibility as well as the willingness to throw themselves into positions that seem to guarantee calamity. Most of the times, they come out of the turn unscathed, ready to position themselves for the next one. 
 
The gold medal run in Men’s Downhill from Vancouver 2010:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYRvPJdlD9A

Why Do People Like Watching Alpine Skiing?

  • Relatable Speed: Lots of people go downhill skiing. I just did a few weeks ago. It was scary and exciting to travel down a mountain connected to the ground through only a couple of skinny pieces of fiberglass. I loved the feel of the wind and snow on my face as I hurtled towards the bottom. So, I know what these athletes are experiencing. Oh wait, no I don’t. What I was doing was a far cry from what Alpine Skiing olympians do but because it is unusual but understandable for me, I can imagine myself in Alpine Skiing events more easily than most other Winter Olympic events.
  • Fantastic Crashes: I’m not going to link to them but there are some incredible crashes in Alpine Skiing. A wrong move in this sport can take a skier airborne and deposit him or her a hundred feet down the hill in a heap… or a fence… or both. More than other sports, I remember Alpine Skiers making courageous returns from near-disastrous crashes.
  • More Cowbell: Alpine Skiing crowds are rowdy gatherings full of flag-bearing lunatics and lots, lots of cowbell.

What Are the Different Alpine Skiing Events?

Alpine Skiing has five medal events in the Olympics: the downhill, super giant slalom, giant slalom, slalom, and a combined event. The four classifications are actually pretty easy to remember. The downhill has gates that are placed the farthest apart, both across and down the hill, so the racers can go faster and more straight down the hill than in any other race. The slalom is the opposite — it has gates placed very close together and so it’s the slowest and most technical race. The other two are tweeners with the super giant slalom closer to downhill and the giant slalom closer to slalom. So, in order from speed to ticky-tackyness, it’s downhill, super giant slalom (often called “super G,”) giant slalom, and then slalom. The combined is a medley event that rewards the skier with the best combined time between a run of slalom and a run of downhill. Going outside a pair of gates disqualifies a racer in every discipline except for slalom. In slalom, a missed gate means a racer receives a time-penalty; not a fatal mistake but a bad one.

How Dangerous is Alpine Skiing?

It can be very dangerous. The higher speeds involved in the downhill make it the riskiest of the Alpine Skiing events. Torn knee-ligaments, broken bones, and internal injuries await a skier who mistimes a turn or loses control. Every skier wears a helmet but no other accommodations are made for protection. It’s a high-speed, high-risk game.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Alpine Skiing?

Hey! It’s pretty damn good! Each of the five events has a men’s medal and a women’s medal. The rules are more or less the same for both genders. The only difference is that the women’s courses are slightly shorter and have slightly fewer gates.

What are Some Fun Olympic Alpine Skiing Stories?

Lindsay Vonn was supposed to be the United States Olympic story of the year. Attractive, blond, strong, dating Tiger Woods, and attempting a dramatic comeback from a knee injury, Vonn had everything a television network could want to promote… until her knee refused to cooperate and she had to pull out of the Olympics. Now she’s joining NBC as a correspondent. It’s not quite as good.

Hubertus von Hohenlohe is Mexico’s one man Winter Olympic team and he’s making quite a stir. The Austrian raised, somewhat royal, five time Olympian plans to wear a ski suit designed to look like a classic mariachi costume. 

Important Links:

The official alpine skiing schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

The Alpine Skiing events begin on Feb. 9 and end on Feb. 22.

Winter Olympics: All About Biathlon

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the LugeSkeletonBobsledIce Hockey, and Cross-Country Skiing.

All About Biathlon

It doesn’t get much better or more pure than the Biathlon in the Winter Olympics. The Biathlon is an event that combines a brutal endurance sport with a highly technical one; cross-country skiing with riflery. If the Olympic sports we’ve profiled so far are extreme versions of sledding (Luge, Skeleton, and Bobsled) and just getting around (Cross-Country Skiing,) Biathlon is the first of another category of Olympic sports: tamed versions of war. In the same way that the Summer Olympic sports of Boxing and Judo are tamed down versions of hand-to-hand combat and Fencing is a safe way to practice sword-fighting, biathlon tests skills required in (only slightly) antiquated fighting in snow-covered, mountainous areas. Ski and shoot and then ski some more. If you’re still alive at the end of the day, you could win a Gold medal.
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Ski, ski, ski, breath, shoot, repeat.

How Does the Biathlon Work?

To excel at the Biathlon, biathletes must ski as hard and as fast as they can with a rifle strapped to their back, stop, and again as fast but also as accurately at possible, shoot their rifle and hit a very, very small target. In each race, competitors will shoot from various positions: either lying down or standing up. The targets are 160 feet away and for the prone (lying down) shots, are 1.8 inches across; for standing up they are a little bigger: 4.5 inches. The skiing distances vary from race to race but all of them are liable to induce heavy breathing. The athletes have that problem too, because heavy breathing makes it difficult to balance their rifles and make an accurate shot. A biathlete can make up for a missed shot by using one of their limited “extra cartridges,” by skiing a penalty distance, or by accepting a time penalty. In this very Who Wants to Be a Millionaire way, shooting accuracy is mixed into the score-keeping of the sport which is time-based. 
 
French Biathlete Marie-Laure Brunet gives an overview of the sport:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDtg7QXNEjM

Why Do People Like Watching Biathlon?

  • Delicate Balance: What happens if you’re running a few seconds behind? Do you push harder on the skiing sections? If you do, will you still be able to maintain focus and steady breathing enough to hit the rifle targets? What’s the right balance? It’s unusual and compelling to watch a sport that requires such control.
  • Those Targets are Satisfying: For everyone who keeps a to-do list just to get the satisfaction of checking things off, this is the sport for you! The targets flip from black to white (or white to black, I can’t remember) when they are hit in a completely satisfying way.
  • Running Around and Shooting Stuff is Fun: It’s like the acceptable precursor to paintball!!

What Are the Different Biathlon Events?

There are five different types of Biathlon events at the Olympics in Sochi. There are Individual events where competitors are spaced out by 30 seconds and compete against the clock. There are Sprint events which are exactly the same but about half the distance. There are Pursuit events where instead of a standard 30 seconds, biathletes are separated by the time-gap in their finish in an earlier race and the person who hits the finish line first wins. There are Mass Start events which are basically what they sound like — a chaotic start with up to 60 people sprinting on skis. With rifles. There are also Relay events where teams of four compete in sprint-like distances.

How Dangerous is the Biathlon?

Shockingly, considering EVERYONE has a gun, this is a pretty safe event. There have been some articles about the particular track in Sochi. Apparently it has a very steep turn that people feel may be dangerous to ski on. There’s also a faint whiff of intent about the curve — the suggestion being that the Russians who get to practice on that track more than other teams, have created themselves a home-track advantage. Nonetheless, it’s a very safe sport.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Biathlon?

Biathlon is one of the most egalitarian sports we’ve profiled so far! Every event has a male and a female equivalent and there are even three Relay events, one men’s, one women’s, and one for mixed teams of two men and two women. The women’s events are still shorter than the men’s but other than that, everything is equal.

What are Some Fun Olympic Biathlon Stories?

The United States Olympic team has one half of a set of twins on it. Sister Tracy Barnes gave up her spot to her sister Lanny who she felt had missed out unfairly because of illness. 

Dominance and the Opposite: The Biathlon is one of the few (maybe the only) event that the United States has never won a medal in. Norway, on the other hand, dominates the sport. Of particular interest is a 40 year old Ole Einar Bjoerndalen nicknamed “The Cannibal” who has won 11 medals in the Olympics and wants more.

The Russian Bear: The Russians are aimed at winning some Biathlon medals this year. They’ve thrown the full weight of their oligarchy behind the effort. Billionaire and Brooklyn Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has been put in charge of making this happen. The New York Times’ article on the topic is a must read.

Important Links:

The official biathlon schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

The Cross-Country Skiing events begin on Feb. 8 and end on Feb. 22.

Winter Olympics: All About Cross-Country Skiing

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the LugeSkeletonBobsled, and Ice Hockey.

All About Cross-Country Skiing

cross country
Cross-Country Skiing at the Olympics is exhausting and exhilarating

One of the charms of the Olympics is that many of the events are simply super-charged versions of common-place activities. In the Summer Olympics, no sport exhibits the chasm between Olympic athletes doing something and you doing something than the track-and-field events. Almost everyone can run 100 meters but after watching Usain Bolt do it gives you a sense for how amazing humanity can be when it puts its mind (and its legs) to it. Cross-country skiing is the Winter Olympics parallel. Although not a common form of travel in most of the United States, cross-country skiing is something most anyone can do, but not for 50 kilometers and not at a pace of fifteen miles per hour. Cross-Country Skiing in the Olympics is exhausting and exhilarating.

How Does Cross-Country Skiing Work?

Cross-Country skiers use two main styles to race to the finish line. These two styles, classic and freestyle, are like strokes in swimming. Some races are in one style, some in another, and some mandate that skiers switch part of the way through the race. The classic style is probably what you’ve seen or done if you’ve ever come across cross-country skiing. A classic style technique as described by ski.itrundle.com is “a striding action like shuffling in socks over a polished floor, with extra momentum provided by pushing with the poles diagonally opposite to the skis..” In this style the skis stay in parallel tracks and move only forwards and backwards. In freestyle style, skiers use their skis like ice-skates and push off back and to the outside, generating more grip to propel them forwards. Each style has different optimal skis and poles, so in races that use both styles, skiers will switch skis when they switch styles. Both styles use skis that are longer and narrower than down-hill skis and poles that are longer as well. When a pack of skiers launch themselves from the starting line, they look like large insects or speedy aliens. 
Here are highlights of a men’s 30 kilometer race from the Vancouver Olympics:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRCiO_zczas

Why Do People Like Watching Cross-Country Skiing?

  • Better than Doing It: Okay, that’s a little snarky, but I do think there’s an element to watching any endurance sport which involves being mostly in awe and slightly glad that its someone else who is pushing themselves far beyond the boundary between exertion and pain. It’s incredibly to watch…
  • Tactics, Tactics, Timing: Just like in cycling, strength, endurance, and a healthy pain tolerance are not enough to win, you also need good tactics and timing. In the longer races, making the right break away from the pack with the right people at the right time can set a racer up to win. And there’s not much better than the glory of a skier who goes out alone and manages to stay ahead of the pack to win or the inevitable heroic tragedy of making his or her break a little too soon and being dragged back into the pack despite all efforts to stay ahead.
  • Regional Dominance: Norway and Sweden have more than 43% of all the gold medals ever awarded in Cross-Country skiing, which has been a part of the Olympics since 1924. I love it when things make sense and I love it when otherwise non-dominant sporting countries can lord over global powers. Sure, the United States and Russia might win more medals but they/we don’t dare get into a Cross-Country Skiing fight with Scandinavia!

What Are the Different Cross-Country Skiing Events?

There are eight Cross-Country Skiing events in this year’s Winter Olympics. They fall into three categories: individual distance races, distance relay races, and sprints. The individual distance races come in 10, 15, 30, and 50 kilometer flavors, the relays are either four by five kilometers or four by ten kilometers (four teammates, each who ski a distance before the next can start,) and the sprints are 1.5 kilometers long. There is an individual sprint and a team sprint which is like a miniature relay race with two people on a team. Both the sprints follow the pattern of track or swimming events in the Summer Olympics with heats to determine the entrants to the final medal race.

How Dangerous is Cross-Country Skiing?

Uh, well. It’s really not very dangerous. It’s so not dangerous that this was one of the top hits when I asked Google how dangerous it was. It’s a scientific paper that studied “53,000 elite male skiers” (this was done in Norway, of course) and determined that the very best skiers had the highest chance of developing heart arrhythmias.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Cross-Country Skiing?

Of the eight Cross-Country Skiing events in the Winter Olympics this year, four are for both genders, two are for men and two are for women. The Male only events are the 50 kilometer individual ski and the 10 kilometer relay. Instead of those, the women get a 10 kilometer individual race and their relay is only five kilometers. This doesn’t make much sense because it’s fairly commonly understood that the gap between men and women in sports is less in endurance sports than power or sprint sports. Like many other events, there will be more male skiers than female.

What are Some Fun Olympic Cross-Country Skiing Stories?

Norway’s Petter Northug Jr. is the best skier in the world. He won four medals four years ago and is the favorite to get his hands on some more this time around. Anytime there’s a dominant athlete, the chances are good for excitement — either he continues his dominance (and that’s interesting because how can anyone be so much better than all these other Olympic athletes?) or someone unseats him (which is interesting because any change of power or era is interesting.)

The U.S. contingent includes a brother-sister tandem. Sadie and Erik Bjornsen of Alaska both qualified for the 14 person American team and will make the trip to Sochi together. 

Important Links:

The official cross-country skiing schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

The Cross-Country Skiing events begin on Feb. 8 and end on Feb. 23. They span most of the Olympic Games in Sochi.

Winter Olympics: All About Ice Hockey

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the LugeSkeleton, and Bobsled.

All About Ice Hockey

ovechkin olympics
The hopes of Mother Russia rest on Alexander Ovechkin and his teammates.

How Does Ice Hockey Work?

In Ice Hockey there are twelve players on the ice at a time: three forwards, two defencemen, and a goalie on each team. The goal is to shoot a small, vulcanized rubber disc into a six foot by four foot net. It’s harder than it sounds. For one thing, the goalies, who are enthusiastically padded, helmeted, and armed with a thick stick, a rectangular blocker, and a glove which resembles an oversized baseball mitt, are preternaturally quick and able to block over ninety percent of the shots that get through to them. Defenders are adept at taking the puck away from attackers or often removing the attacker from the puck by hitting them with a shoulder or a hip.
Although there are some real differences between NHL hockey and Olympic, they’re not as big as people will make them out to be. The biggest difference is the size of the rink — NHL rinks are 85 by 200 feet, Olympic rinks are 98 by 210 feet. This has the effect of favoring speed over strength and discipline over risk-taking. It makes crisp passing a better strategy than skating with the puck. Hockey in the NHL is notorious for permitting players to fight with virtually no penalty to their teams. Olympic hockey has none of this — but with rare exceptions, neither do the playoffs in the NHL. 
As much as it pains me to include these, here are the highlights from the 2010 Gold medal game between Canada (victors) and the USA (losers):

Why Do People Like Watching Ice Hockey?

  • So Many Reasons: About a year ago, I wrote a post all about why people like hockey. Among my favorite are “45 seconds,” and “you can see the puck.” Check it out!
  • Toughness: I also answered the question, “how tough are hockey players?” The answer? Plenty tough but you knew that already.
  • The Host Wants It: Of all the events at the Olympics, the one that means the most to Russians by far is the men’s ice hockey gold medal. In an interesting ESPN the Magazine article, Brett Forrest quotes a manager at the state-owned contracting company which built the olympic stadiums. This manager says, “Why do you think we built all this? If we lose, they should shoot everyone.” It’s not clear if he’s joking.
What Are the Different Ice Hockey Events?

There’s a gold medal to be won by the men and the women. That’s it. No fancy events, just ice hockey. The tournament is a little complicated though. Both genders start in groups of four — three groups for men, two for women. There is a round-robin tournament and in the men’s bracket, the group winners plus the second place team with the best record advances to the quarter-finals. The other eight teams are paired off and play a single elimination game to determine the other four teams to advance to the quarter-finals. From there, it’s a single elimination tournament. On the women’s side, the four highest ranking teams start out in one group and the four lowest in the other. All four of the top ranked teams advance to the quarter-final round but the top two teams get a bye while the bottom two teams in the top group have to play the top two teams in the bottom group to qualify for the semi-finals. 

It’s frankly just about the most complicated way you could possibly design a tournament for twelve or eight teams.

How Dangerous is Ice Hockey?

Surprisingly not that dangerous. Yeah, the puck is going to knock out a few people’s teeth and maybe break a jaw. Sticks can cut faces or break wrists, but compared to the catastrophic knee injuries of downhill skiing or the spectacular crashes in the sledding sports, ice hockey is relatively low risk. The fluidity of the game keeps the contact to a minimum. Concussions are the boogyman of the sport but in a short tournament like the Olympics, there aren’t likely to be too many concussion stories (partially because players and teams are likely to hide any concussions from view) unless a major player is injured.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Ice Hockey?

This is a hard one. It’s obviously not equal — there are four more male teams than female teams — but it’s hard to blame the Olympics here. The outside ice hockey world is dominated by the all-male NHL where the most talented male players in the world can make millions of dollars honing their skills. There are a few women’s professional ice hockey leagues but not at nearly the same scale. Women’s rules differ in a couple obvious ways: they must wear full face-masks and they are not allowed to body-check their opponents. This last rule must be enforced with something of a blind-eye though. I’ve watched women’s ice hockey and it’s still pretty rough.

What are Some Fun Olympic Ice Hockey Stories?

Old to Young, Selänne to Määttä, the Olympics is a time to meet budding stars like 19 year old Finnish defenseman Olli Määttä and bid a fond farewell to legends like fellow Finn Teemu Selänne who will be playing in his sixth Olympic Games. It’s a time to re-visit players like Czech Republic forward Petr Nedved who retired from the NHL in 2007 but who, seven years later could still, according to teammate Jaromir Jagr, be the “best player on the team.

It’s fun to see long-time NHL teammates like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin play against each other and long-time rivals like Blackhawk Patrick Kane and St. Louis Blues David Backes play with each other.

Important Links:

The official ice hockey schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

Women’s ice hockey begins on Feb. 8 and ends with the gold medal game on Feb. 20. Men’s ice hockey begins on Feb. 12 and ends with the gold medal game on Feb. 23.

 

Winter Olympics: All About Bobsled

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the Luge and Skeleton.

All About Bobsled

Bobsled, or Bobsleigh as it is officially called, is the kind of sledding competition that would have been designed by a combination of NASA and NASCAR. Two or four people travel down a narrow icy track at speeds that can reach over 100 miles per hour in a rocket-shaped vehicle made of steel, fiberglass, and whatever other materials teams can find that slide really fast! Of the three sledding disciplines, luge, skeleton, and bobsled, bobsled is the most turbo-charged.

How Does Bobsled Work?

Bobsled
Push, push, push, tuck!

Bobsleds are designed to hold either two or four people. The race begins with the sled at a standstill and the racers beside it. At the count of three (or as I remember from watching as a kid, commonly “eins zwei drei”) the racers sprint forward, propelling their sled by pushing thin metal rods that extend from the sides. Their goal is to get the sled up to speed as quickly as possible and then jump in and duck down. The farthest forward person ducks down into the tip of the sled/rocket and steers using a two rings, which are attached to ropes, which are then attached to a pulley, that is attached to the metal runners under the sled. It’s fascinating how simple the steering is. Shortly after the driver jumps into the sled, the second person leaps in and tucks down behind the first. Then the third and fourth, if it’s a four person sled. The metal handles retract into the sled to reduce air-resistance. Most races are won or lost by who gets the best start. After the riders are into the sled, the trick is to steer as minimally as possible because every adjustment slows the sled just a tiny amount. Obviously there is no braking until the race is done.

Here is a video of American bobsled driver Stephen Holcomb talking through a bobsled run:

Why Do People Like Watching Bobsled?

  • Accessibility: Of all the sliding sports, Bobsled has the most familiar elements. Pushing the sled is like pushing a football training sled which hundreds of thousands of American boys grew up doing. Driving the sled is not so different from driving a car (in fact until the 1960s bobsleds had steering wheels.) The importance of the start with its teamwork under time pressure is not that different from a pit stop during a car race.
  • Speed: Once they get going, bobsleds are the fastest of the olympic sledding events.
  • Power: The sled is heavy. It starts at a stand-still. It’s gotta get going. As a result, bobsledders are built like combination sprinters/weight-lifters. They’re more traditionally athletic looking than luge or skeleton racers.
What Are the Different Bobsled Events?

There are three bobsled events at Sochi. There’s a two-man sled, a four-man sled, and a two-woman sled. All of the events consist of four runs and the winner has the lowest cumulative time from all four runs. This means if one person is a little slow jumping into the sled, if one person slips a little on the ice or doesn’t get a good grip on the push-bar, or if the driver makes a tiny little mistake going around a single corner, that mistake could be hard to make up on the other runs.

How Dangerous is Bobsled?

If I gave you the choice of crashing into a wall of ice covered concrete going 80 miles per hour in nothing but a skin-tight suit or tucked into a metal container with three of your best friends, which would you choose? Okay, fine, they’re not your three best friends — you don’t actually want them to crash. It’s a tricky question and neither choice is a good one. Crashes in Bobsled have a higher chance of going right — after all, fiberglass is pretty tough and takes some of the impact away from the racers’ bodies — but they also have a high chance of going very, very wrong. The descriptions of some fatal crashes from the 1950s and 1960s in this article on stuff.co.nz are hard to read.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Bobsled?

Bad. This sport is crying out for equality. Why a four-man sled but not a four-woman sled? Is it because women are unable to work together? To coordinate their actions? That doesn’t even sound like a negative stereotype of women — it sounds like a negative stereotype of men! I’m guessing that, like starting lower on the course, it’s an attempt to slow the women’s race down so that women are less likely to get injured. This makes less sense to me in bobsled than in luge or skeleton. With all the sliding sports, the heavier the sled and rider are, the faster they go, but the lighter they are, the more likely they are to go airborne with drastic results when something goes wrong. I’ve got a solution. Make ALL the teams, men’s and women’s the same weight by adding ballast to the women’s sleds. Pah. At least there has been some improvement — before 2002 there was no Olympic Women’s Bobsled at all.

What are Some Fun Olympic Bobsled Stories?

Lolo Jones, the American Olympic hurdler and celebrity virgin has qualified to be a member of our women’s bobsled team this year. This type of cross-over from another sport to bobsled is not all that rare — football player Herschel Walker competed in the 1992 Olympic games — but Jones’ celebrity will make her a focus of attention. Despite being a strong contender in the 2008 and 2012 Summer games, Jones has never medaled and there’s always been the feeling that she was more interested in promoting herself than the team. The lower-profile and more team oriented nature of bobsled offers a redemptive opportunity for her to finally medal and recreate her image.

Cool Runnings, the Jamaican bobsled team made famous by the 1993 movie, is back with a cooler backstory than ever! This year’s team qualified for the Olympics but didn’t seem like it would be able to afford the trip. That was when THE INTERNET swooped in. Days later, funded by crowdtilt, indiegogo, and even a crypto-currency called dogecoin, the Jamaican sledders are going to Sochi!

Important Links:

The official skeleton schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

Women’s bobsled will run on Feb. 18 and 19. Men’s 2-man on Feb. 16 and 17, 4-man on Feb 22 and 23.

Winter Olympics: All About Skeleton

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is running a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled the Luge and Bobsled.

All About Skeleton

skeleton
Skeleton sends racers speeding head first around icy curves

Like the luge, skeleton is one an evolutionary spur of sledding but instead of lying down backwards, skeleton racers fly down the track head first and on their stomachs. I thought it was pretty daring when I was a kid and used to go head-first down the stairs on my stuffed whale. That was nothing compared to skeleton! Skeleton is an old sport but has only been a medal sport in the olympics in 1928, 1948, and since 2002. The U.S., Canada, and Great Britain have the most medals for this sport in Olympic history.

How Does Skeleton Work?

When a skeleton run begins, the sled is on the ice with the racer perched next to it in a sprinter’s stance. The athlete rocks back and forth and then explodes out of their stance, pushing the sled alongside him or her. The goal is to get the sled moving as fast as possible in the first 50 meters down the course. At the 50 meter mark, the timing of the run begins and the skeleton racer will have transitioned from sprinting as fast as possible to lying as flat and as still on their sled as possible by dint of a leap. From this point on, speed and fluidity are the essence of the sport. The sleds have no breaks (in fact, according to olympic.org, “Competitors attempting to slow down on the course are disqualified.”) and steering is a full-body maneuver accomplished primarily by pressing a shoulder down on one side or another but also involving legs and even toes. All of this is done at speeds up to 90 miles per hour with their heads inches from a concrete-reinforced tube of ice.

Here is a video of a skeleton run at a recent competition:

Why Do People Like Watching Skeleton?

  • Duality: Like the biathlon, (an olympic event that combines cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting,) skeleton rewards athletes who can sprint very, very fast and then calm their bodies to do something highly technical where even breathing heavily can cost them a spot on the olympic podium. It’s actually fun to think of skeleton as a biathlon where the athlete plays the part of the bullet.
  • Safety: Huh? Well, despite its name, skeleton is safer than luge. A few factors play into this: skeleton sleds are much heavier than luge sleds and closer to the ice, so there is less chance for the athlete to go airborne in a crash; the head first position allows athletes to see where they are going without reducing speed as opposed to luge where not looking (and therefore raising their head into the wind) increases speed.
  • The Name: Despite its relative safety, blood-lustful viewers may be tricked into favoring skeleton because of its bad-ass name. In fact skeleton is either derived from the fact that early skeleton sleds looked like skeletons or (and I like this explanation better,) a mistranslation of a Norwegian word for sled.
  • Questionable sex appeal: See our post on luge. Same thing, just flipped over.
  • The Helmets: Whoa!! Like hockey goalie helmets but even cooler, the Canadian Olympic skeleton team’s helmets this year are amazing to look at.
skeleton helmet
Canadian Olympian, Sara Reid, has a Dio de los Muertos themed helmet

What Are the Different Skeleton Events?

There are only two sets of medals issued for skeleton in the olympics, Men’s singles and Women’s singles. The winners are calculated by taking the cumulative time from all four runs and awarding the gold medal to the athlete with the lowest time. Because the time from every run is used in the final score, there’s very little room for error.

How Dangerous is Skeleton?

There may be fewer catastrophic crashes in skeleton than in luge, as we mentioned above, but it’s  still not particularly safe. The Canadian Olympic team has been limiting the number of training rides for their members because of what skeleton riders call “sled head.” Sled head is a nice term for the mental state of skeleton riders who have suffered too many concussions. As we are discovering in other sports, concussions happen most frequently from blows that twist the neck or rotate the head. This happens regularly to skeleton riders on rough tracks and whose heads “are exposed to knocks along the wall if they make a steering mistake.” Yikes.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Luge?

Annoying at best. There are two medals up for claiming: one for men and one for women. Women are allowed to be lighter than men (okay) and start lower down on the track so that they go slower than men (less clear why.) The really annoying part of the gender dynamics of this sport at the Olympics is that with a total of 50 spots for skeleton in the Oympics, 30 go to men and 20 to women. Wha? Huh? I’m guessing the argument is that this represents and equal or even higher percentage of competitive skeleton athletes of each gender (i.e. there are more than three competitive male skeleton racers for every two women) but isn’t that the point? Equalize the number of potential Olympians and my guess is that the number of women competing at lower levels will rise too.

Important Links:

The official skeleton schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.

If you’re interested in becoming a skeleton sledder, or are just curious about the sport, newsliders.com is a great website about participating in skeleton.

Women’s skeleton will run on Feb. 13 and 14. Men’s skeleton on Feb. 14 and 15

 

Winter Olympics: All About the Luge

To prepare for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia which begin on February 6, 2014, Dear Sports Fan is going to run a series of previews of Winter Olympics events. So far we’ve profiled Skeleton and Bobsled.

All About the Luge

The luge is in that set of Winter Olympic sports that take common place winter past-times and turn the intensity up, up, up. Luge is basically sledding on a combination of speed and steroids. Luge is sledding after years of evolutionary change.

How Does Luge Work?

Luge is sledding on speed and steroids.

Luge racers ride on a minimalist sled that consists of not much more than two metal runners and a seat. There are no steering or braking mechanisms. They get up to speed by sitting up on the sled and propelling themselves down the first part of an icy track with specially made spiked gloves. As soon as they swooshing along, they lie back on the sled to become as aerodynamic as possible for the rest of the ride. Their equipment: skin-tight rubber suits, rounded helmets, and even specialized luge shoes are all designed to reduce wind resistance. From their backs, luge riders hurtle down their evolutionary sledding hill which has become a steep, skinny, and deviously winding concrete U covered only by a thin sheet of slick ice. The athletes, lying flat on their backs, can reach speeds close to 90 miles per hour and through turns can impose up to 5 Gs of pressure on their bodies.

Here is a first-person video shot of a luger practicing on the Olympic track:

Why Do People Like Watching Luge?

  • Speed: it’s one of the fastest events and some people just like speed
  • Danger: the crashes are spectacular and violent. If you watch car racing hoping there might be a crash, this sport is up your alley
  • Questionable sex appeal: If skin-tight full-body rubber suits are your thing, you’re in luck, although I must warn you, aerodynamics is key, so don’t expect any curves or lumps to show on for male or female ogling.
  • Disbelief: this is probably the most common reason why people like watching luge. It’s just hard to believe that people have spent so much of their lives becoming so incredibly accomplished at sledding down an icy track.

What Are the Different Luge Events?

Olympic luge has Men’s single races, Women’s single races, and gender-neutral doubles races that basically always consist of two men because weight is an advantage. This year the Olympics will add a new luge event — the team relay. This race combines all of the previous races into one. Each country gets one men’s single, one women’s single, and one doubles sled. They are sent down the track in succession with the next sled only being allowed to start when the previous racer has reached the finish line and hit some kind of electronic sensor with their hand (or foot or elbow, or head, or whatever is fastest, I would imagine.)

How Dangerous is Luge?

It’s one of the more dangerous Olympic sports. Traveling at almost 90 miles an hour down an enclosed track of concrete reinforced ice turns mistakes into tragedies all too easily. The last Olympics in Vancouver were marred by the death of Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run. Kumaritashvili’s death sparked a dialog about how the designers of luge runs are leading the sport into faster and more dangerous territory for the sake of gaudy speed figures.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Olympic Luge?

Moderately okay. On paper it looks a little better than it really is. Men and women’s singles events are the same number of runs (four) but they start at different heights and are therefore different lengths. The doubles competition is officially open to any gender but invariably is stocked with male athletes.

What Are Some Fun Olympic Luge Stories?

Well, okay, we all saw the movie Cool Runnings about the first Jamaican bobsled team to qualify for the Olympics. We laughed, we cried. In 2014 the parallel story is about Shiva Keshavan who became the first Indian athlete to represent his country in the Winter Olympics by qualifying in luge. He’s being called “Spicy Runnings” and this video of him training on a Himalayan road is incredible.

Important Links:

The official luge schedule.

NBC home-page for US TV information.