How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Cross Country Skiing

Cross country skiing is a beautiful sport to watch. Although the courses are designed to have an equal amount of uphill, downhill, and level sections, they are often perched in pristine mountains and wind through old forests. It’s a picturesque and predictable sport that Olympics television producers take advantage of by staging simply gorgeous camera shots of. The only problem is, at least for me, it’s often hard to tell whether the skiers are going up a hill, down a hill, or neither. As anyone who has ever skied will tell you, the problem is that the white snow doesn’t lend itself to depth perception particularly well. So, the detail to latch onto in watching Cross Country Skiing is which way the skiers are going: up, down, or level.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

This distinction is complicated by the bifurcation of cross country events between classic and skate skiing style. In classic, skiers are only allowed to move their skies back and forth. In skate skiing, skiers are allowed to move their skies sideways. Skate skiing is newer and faster. If you know which technique a skier is using and you observe how she uses her poles and skies, you will be able to tell if she is going up, down, or sideways.

Skate Skiing

  • Uphill: A skate skiing cross country skier who is going up a hill will have their legs turned way out. Their poles will be hitting the ground in a funny 1, 2… 1, 2…. 1,2 … rhythm.
  • Flat: The same skier on a flat portion of the course will have their skies pointed more or less forwards but will be sweeping each ski outward in each stride. He will be using his poles in parallel, striking the ground with each at the same time.
  • Downhill: Going downhill is the only time you will ever see a skate skiing cross country skier look like a classic skier. There’s just not that much of an advantage to moving your skies at all when you are going down hill. So, skis are completely parallel and poles are either used in parallel but less frequently than on a flat or not at all as skiers bend over into a tuck.

Classic Skiing

Distinguishing up, down, and flat for classic cross country skiing is harder. The limitations on how a skier may move her skies also limit the variety in technique that adapts to the pitch of the course. Still, with a little focus, it is possible.

  • Uphill: A classic skier going uphill is a painful sight to see after watching how the skate skiers do it. A classic skier going uphill looks like she is running. As one leg pushes forward, the pole held in the opposite arm strikes the ground. Then the other and the other. It looks simply exhausting.
  • Flat: On flat ground, a classic skier barely moves their skis at all. They look like they are being powered completely by their two poles which strike the ground at the same time.
  • Downhill: The only way that I can see to distinguish between flat and downhill is that during a downhill, classic skiers mostly don’t use their poles at all. Instead, they get into an aerodynamic tuck.

Learning these clues to when a cross country sky race is going up, down, or sideways will help you enjoy the Winter Games and put you in the top five percent of educated viewers.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Ice Hockey

The biggest story of 2018 Olympic Ice Hockey is the decision of the National Hockey League (the NHL is the American men’s professional ice hockey league, widely considered the best in the world) not to allow its professionals to take part in the games. While knowing that story may get you in the door, it won’t help you very much once the games begin. Here’s a detail to watch which will keep you interested and sounding like an insider: in addition to watching the puck, watch the line changes.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

Hockey is the most exhausting team sport in the world. Even the best ice hockey players in the world simply cannot play for more than about a minute at a time. Unlike football, play in ice hockey doesn’t stop and start frequently to conveniently allow for substitutions. Tired ice hockey players need to find a moment when sprinting to their team’s bench to be replaced by a teammate won’t hurt their team. The best time for a line change (when two or three teammates all go to the bench and are replaced by teammates) is when your team has the puck or has dumped it way behind the other team into their defensive zone where it’s going to take them a little while to fetch it.

Being aware of line changes may seem like a small thing or perhaps even a little boring but they can be quite dramatic. A bad line change often results in a scoring chance against the team that made the bad change. In a low-scoring game, one or two bad line changes can be enough to decide who wins and who loses. A good line change is sometimes the result of one player, already exhausted, pushing herself through her exhaustion to allow her teammates to get off the ice.

A veteran ice-hockey fan has an imaginary clock in his or her head that counts from each line change up to around 35 seconds. At 35 seconds you start getting curious about how your team will manage to change lines. At 40 seconds, the tension begins to mount. At 45, you are actively rooting for your team to get the puck into a good line change position. At 50, you are starting to panic and at 55 you’ve started to scream at the television. Make it to 60 seconds and you’re usually depressed over the goal your team just let in.

As a bonus, there is also a potential penalty associated with line changes called Too Many Men on the Ice (note that some women’s leagues use this language and some call it Too Many Players on the Ice). This penalty is called when a line change has gone so disastrously wrong that a team ends up with, you guessed it, too many players on the ice! It’s a near unforgivable offense in hockey because it costs a team two minutes playing with one fewer player on the ice than the other team. During normal play, this almost never happens, but in pressure situations, when players are tired and stressed, it does happen. If you have gotten used to watching the line changes, you will catch this and be the first person at your viewing party yelling about it.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Figure Skating

For many people, figure skating is the center of their Winter Olympics experience. There is a lot to recommend it. The athletic achievement of figure skaters is truly incredible. These seemingly slight skaters are able to launch themselves into a 1440 degree twist in mid-air and land and then transition into another one without pause. That’s ridiculous. The sport also has the potential attraction of being judged partially on aesthetics — something which adds to its intrigue and drama significantly. Lastly, for viewers in the United States, Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski are the best commentators since sliced bread.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

As a central sport, it has been covered perhaps even more widely than most Olympic sports. The most obvious technical detail of the sport to teach even long-time viewers is how to distinguish all the different jumps from one another. What is an Axel? What is a Salchow? How do you know if someone has done a flip or a toe-loop? On this topic, Alexander Abad-Santos provided “A GIF Guide to Figure Skaters’ Jumps at the Olympics” for The Atlantic four years ago that far exceeds anything I could ever produce. I recommend it.

With that topic taken off the shelf, I spent a long time watching clips of figure skating to see what I could see. The answer: very little. I have real trouble distinguishing the very best figure skaters from the just incredibly good enough to get into the Olympics but not good enough to win category. The only slight detail I think I found which gives me a hint for the quality of the skater is how smoothly they toggle from skating backwards to forwards.

During a figure skater’s routine, he may switch from skating backwards to forwards dozens of times in thirty seconds. If you’re not really watching for this, you might miss it because his legs continue to propel him in what looks like a single path and her upper body registers no discomfort at being swiveled one way and the other. The facilitator of all this movement is the hips, which, somewhat unbelievably from the perspective of someone with chronic hip-pain, SEEM TO MOVE WITHOUT FRICTION! I simply don’t understand how this is possible.

All great sports possess elements that make most pedestrian viewers think just that – we don’t understand how elite athletes do what they do. For figure skating, one detail which sets the very best apart from the rest is how smoothly they can alternate between skating backwards and forwards. Watch for it the next time you’re watching figure skating.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Freestyle Skiing

“Did she stick the landing?” is a question you normally associate with the Summer Olympics’ glory sport of gymnastics but it’s also the detail to watch in the Winter Olympics sport of freestyle skiing. Freestyle skiing is actually more like a loose conglomeration of related sports than it is a single sport. Two of its events, mogul skiing and ski cross are timed races. The other three, aerial skiing, half-pipe, and slopestyle are judged events. The thing that connects all five of these events, (and which should be obvious from the name of the umbrella sport,) is that they all involve skiers hurtling through the air. And, since we believe in cliches on this website, what goes up, must come down.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

In the downhill ski racing, skiers try to minimize the amount of time they spend in the air. While in the air, a skier inevitably slows down compared to a skier on the ice. The lack of friction is far overshadowed by an increase in wind resistance. In freestyle skiing, jumping is part of the sport, and athletes in all five events need to stay in the air as long as possible to do the flips, twists, and somersaults that characterize their sports. Instead of optimizing their path to minimize their time in the air, freestyle skiers optimize their performance to minimize the time they spend in the transition between skiing and jumping.

A very astute viewer may be able to see this optimization process in a skier’s approach to a jump. I can’t. But I can see it in how a skier lands a jump. The very best freestyle skiers are able to go from twirling in the air to a perfect skiers posture (legs parallel, knees bent almost to a 90° angle, torso and arms angled forward) in a single smooth and very quick motion. In the racing events, this is important because it limits the loss of speed. In the judged events, it’s important most directly because it is something that judges look for. That’s the only thing to watch for in aerial skiing which only has one jump at a time. In half-pipe and slopestyle, since athletes perform several jumps in a row, it’s also important for the same reason as in the racing events — to maximize the amount of speed skiers are able to maintain or even gain between jumps.

So, as you watch glorious freestyle skiers fly through the air, watch for how quickly they are able to get back to skiing once they land!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Biathlon

Biathlon is that appealing combination of cross-country skiing and rifle shooting which seems to pop into existence once every four years and disappear for the rest of the cycle. Skiing and shooting sounds simple enough, but there are five separate events within this sport: Individual, Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, and Relay. The diversity of these events is what gives us our single impressive detail to watch out for – the penalty for missing a shot during the shooting portion of the biathlon.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

In every form of biathlon, the athletes carry more bullets than there are targets. Although the very best may not miss a single shot during the race, most biathletes will miss one here or there. Athletes who miss a shot face a penalty for doing so.

In the individual biathlon event, the penalty is that a minute gets added to their total time. These individual races are quite long – 20 kilometers for men and 15 for women – so a minute is not an insurmountable penalty, but it’s not great.

In all the other biathlon events, the penalty for missing a shot is different. In the Sprint, Pursuit, Mass Start, and Relay events, any athlete who misses a shot must complete a full lap of a small, 150 meter track, before getting back onto the main course for another skiing loop. This is a fiendish penalty, because not only does the racer lose time, they also have to exert more energy, making it harder for them to shed their exhaustion and still their body the next time they get to the shooting gallery. Misses inevitably lead to more misses.

It’s a small detail, but knowing that this difference exists and tracking which penalty applies to the particular biathlon event you are watching will put you in the top 1% of Olympics viewers… at least outside of Scandinavia.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Curling

Curling is the thinking person’s Olympics sport. Whenever I see one of the many uncomfortably leering stories about how the Olympic Village is a colossal orgy of the most athletic young people on the planet, I always chuckle to myself and think about the curlers. Olympic curlers tend to be unassuming people entering the middle of their careers… as lawyers. Lack of voyeurism aside, there is a lot to love about curling! So much, that I found it hard to pick a single detail to focus on. Instead, here are two fun things to watch for.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

The Fourth Curler

There are four curlers on a team. Three of them are actively doing something on any given shot. One curler “delivers” or slides the stone along the ice. This person is the center of focus on television, being the one who starts out touching the stone and then usually slides for a while looking pleased or tormented. Two other people on the team sweep brooms furiously in front of the stone as it slides down the rink toward the bullseye shaped target called a house. The fourth curler… well, if you’re not watching carefully, you might miss them entirely. They don’t actually do anything during the shot except for yell, and it’s hard to tell who is doing what yelling. If you watch right before the shot starts though, you will see this fourth curler, who is hanging out near the house, place their broom on the ice. They are setting the target for the curler delivering the stone. It’s not where the stone will end up, it’s the direction the stone will be thrown in. Any deviation from this path is based on all that frantic sweeping.

Given that this is the Olympics, the person delivering the stone is going to hit the target 95% of the time and you can bet the sweepers will sweep precisely the way they are supposed to sweep. So, if we assume all that proper execution, it’s actually the person who decides where their team should aim that’s making all the interesting decisions. This fourth curler is worth watching!

Happy Feet

The most astounding aspect of curling is how the two sweepers are able to navigate through the target area without ever touching an already thrown stone. The next time you watch curling, focus on the sweeper’s feet. Notice how she nimbly steps over or around any stone in her path. She doesn’t break stride and her sweeping is seemingly not affected by her evasive maneuvering at all. And what’s more, she never seems to look down at all! It’s incredible!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Short Track Speed Skating

You’ll often see short track speed skating described as “NASCAR on ice.” This is because, unlike long track speed skating where athletes are essentially racing against the clock, in short track speed skating, the person who finishes the race first wins the race, no matter how fast or slow they go. This leads to two things: lots of crashes and a highly tactical race in which tactics matter as much as raw speed. As entertaining as the crashes are, I like to focus on the tactics. It’s here where I find a detail to focus on: short track speed skating passing moves.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

There are two ways of passing an opposing skater or group of skaters: the outside pass and the inside pass. The key to both of these passes is that speed skaters are able to generate the most power while turning. The New York Times has an amazing video feature that explains this better than I ever could. Skaters are able to pick up a lot of speed on turns, but only careful planning will allow them to use that speed to pass a skater ahead of them.

The Inside Pass

An inside pass is set up at the start of a single turn when a short track speed skater ironically enters the turn just on the outside shoulder of the skater ahead of them. They continue on a wider turn than the person ahead of them for the first half of the turn. This allows them to slingshot themselves back from the turn a hair of a second earlier than their opponent and exit the turn on the inside of where the leading skater does. Now they are going at least as fast as their opponent and, because they are now on the inside of the track, with a shorter distance to go to the next turn. By the time they get there, they will be in the lead.

A speed skater who pulls off an inside pass looks like she enters a turn behind another skater, goes farther outside during the turn, but then magically zips to the inside on the straightaway and enters the next turn with the lead. It looks like the pass happens on the straight part of the course, but it’s due to a choice she made entering the previous turn.

The Outside Pass

An outside pass takes even more advance planning than an inside pass because it happens over almost an entire circuit of a course. In the second half of one turn, a skater begins to pick up speed by exiting the turn a bit wider than the skaters in front of her. All through the straightaway, she remains on the outside, picking up speed. When she enters the second turn of this tactic, she enters to the outside of her peers but instead of cutting across, like on an inside turn, she stays on the outside the entire time, taking a wider turn than anyone else.

Although this means she is taking a longer path than any of her competitors, it can work. Remember that the act of turning allows for more acceleration than going straight. So, lengthening a full turn means more time for speeding up. Still, this is an exhausting choice. A skater who attempts an outside pass and doesn’t make it may be too tired to try again on the following lap.

Okay — I got a little deep in the weeds in this post. If you kept up with me, you’re brave! If you didn’t, the tl;dr is this: all passing in short track speed skating is set up by tactical choices made during the turn or two turns before the pass actually happens. If you watch to see how skaters enter a turn relative to the person in front of them (inside, outside, or straight behind) and how they exit the turn (inside, outside, or straight behind), you can predict whether they will be able to pass them and on which side!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Alpine Skiing

Alpine Skiing, consists of four main events in the Olympics: Downhill, Super-G, Giant Slalom, and Slalom. Each discipline is similar in concept to the others. The winner is the athlete who can make it down the mountain through a course designated by some type of flag in the least amount of time. The events are differentiated mainly by how steep the slope is and how tightly winding the designated course is. No matter which event you are watching, there is a single detail that you can watch and comment on which will make you sound smart during the Winter Olympics. In Alpine Skiing, this is how quickly a skier makes it through the top of the course.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable

In Alpine Skiing, like some other Winter Olympics sports – Bobsled, Luge, and Skeleton, as well as Long Track Speed Skating – a running clock tracks each athlete’s progress throughout the race. Only at certain spots on the course, however, does the racer’s time get compared to all of the other competitors’ times before her. These moments are called “splits.” The trick in Alpine Skiing is to focus on the first split which measures how fast a skier has gotten through the highest part of the course.

Time on the first split is highly correlated to overall time on the course and therefore, who is going to win. At first glance, the top part of the course may not seem like the most important or the most exciting. It’s usually not the most challenging or steepest part of the course. It doesn’t have any of the most dangerous corners where racers, especially in the Downhill event can wipe out spectacularly. So, why does it give us such a strong clue about who is going to win?

Imagine that, instead of a skier with agency, Alpine Skiing events were actually run by marbles or some other inanimate object that the Olympic Athletes simply placed at the start of the course and gave a tiny push. The exact route the marbles took at the top of the course would almost completely define how the marble completed the rest of its trip to the bottom. A little too far to the right at the top and you can imagine a marble bouncing way off to the side and not being able to stay within the defined course. Skiers, unlike marbles, are able to make adjustments part of the way down the mountain, but these adjustments are limited and costly. No matter how strong a skier is, their ability to course correct is limited by the incredible force they generate going downhill at 30 to 60+ miles per hour. Sometimes a skier will go off course or crash because they took the turn three turns ago a few inches too far to the right and the cumulative effects of this mistake are too difficult to undo. If they are able to course correct, they will do it at a cost – any side-to-side correction is going to slow them down, something they can’t afford to do and have a chance at winning. So, the precise route or line a skier takes at the top of the course has an outsized impact on how fast they will be able to go in the middle and bottom of the course.

There is another slightly cynical way of looking at the top of the course. The first split is the first time each skier is compared to all the other skiers. The better skiers will probably be going faster at every split throughout the course. Every split necessarily includes the first one! So, if you watch and comment on the first split, you will seem clairvoyant!

Thanks for reading and enjoy the Games,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Speed Skating

The first time you watch speed skating, you may be forgiven for thinking that it simply doesn’t have any details for you to focus on. Two skaters speed around a giant oval rink. They don’t interact. One of them is faster than the other. Eventually, at some point, they stop skating. All of that is true — appreciating speed skating is largely about appreciating the enormous amount of power humans are capable of producing and the amount of pain they are capable of imposing on themselves and enduring. Speed skating in a sport of humans as draft animals, regardless of how cool under pressure these athletes seem. The detail of speed skating to watch is one of the few important signs that a speed skater is suffering: when they begin to make small and unnecessary movements.

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

At the start or the middle of a speed skating race, skaters move in a lithe, long gliding stride. The upper body is bent at a 90 degree angle. On the straightaways, both hands are clasped behind the skater’s back. Aside from the speed skater’s tree-trunk-like legs, nothing moves. On turns, speed skaters continue to hold their inside hand behind their back but the outside arm comes out and swings rhythmically. At this point in the race, it seems like the entire purpose of the sport and the entire raison dêtre of the athlete is efficiency.

At the end of the race, particularly the longer races, however, things start to break down a little. Watch for any change in the body position and stride of the skater. Notice how an exhausted skater’s torso moves side to side a few inches farther than when she started the race. Observe that a skater who pushes himself to the very edge of his abilities has to strain to keep his inside hand behind his back during a turn. If possible, compare how one of the top skaters in the world is capable of maintaining 90% of her form all the way to the end of the race while the fifteenth best skater in the world completely breaks down and wiggles a tiny bit.

It may sound silly, but watching for these small unnecessary motions not only can give you an incredible appreciation for the power and pain of elite speed skaters, but it can also provide you with clues about who is likely to win the race.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

How to sound smart during the Winter Olympics: Bobsled

When watching bobsled, the very first thing you might use to make yourself sound smart is that the official spelling (and perhaps pronunciation) of the sport is “bobsleigh.” Smart, maybe, but also verging on the obnoxious. A second, much more fun factoid, is that the sport evolved from an absurdist  amateur sled racing arms race in a single Swiss town that eventually led to sleds having to be outlawed from being used on streets!

This post is one in a series of posts about the Winter Olympics that arm the casual viewer with a single tactic to sound smart while watching each event. Focusing on these details may also make your viewing experience more enjoyable!

Sports chatter notwithstanding, there is a single element of bobsled which you may enjoy focusing on as you watch and which will definitely impress your Olympics watching friends. This element is getting into the sled.

At the start of every bobsled race, none of the bobsledders are actually in the sled! In the two person events, one person is behind the sled, with a hand on either side and one person, the driver, is closer to the front of the sled on one side. In the four person events, two people are in the positions already described and the additional two people are on either side of the sled behind the driver and ahead of the person in the back. Got that? The race begins when these two or four people start sprinting like crazy, pushing their sled as they run.

This may seem like a slightly insane (or is it inane) way to start an Olympic sport, but it soon gets even more chaotic! As soon as the sled has picked up enough speed and by rule, before the sled has traveled 50 meters, the bobsledders need to get into their vehicle. As you might guess, this is minutely choreographed, because every moment when a bobsledder is neither pushing the sled nor aerodynamically tucked into the sled is a lost moment for the team. In the two person races, this means the driver jumps in and tucks themselves down followed quickly by the pusher at the back who leaps in right after. In the four person races, the driver goes, then the person behind them on their side, then the person on the opposite side, then the person in the back. The difficulty of getting all these motions just right at a full sprint it exponentially harder.

Any small blunder getting into the sled is not only incredibly costly to a team’s chances, it’s also sometimes… a little funny? Of course, missing the sled entirely or going in sideways is likely to be noticed by all Olympics viewers, no matter how casual, but if you look for the momentary hesitation of the third or fourth person into a sled whose routine is disrupted by an unexpected movement from someone ahead of her or a stray elbow that dangles too far out before being tucked in, you will be an impressive Olympics viewer indeed!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer