Mysteries of 'Unusual' Winter Olympic Sports Unraveled

If like most people you think skeletons are for Halloween and curling is something you do to your hair, the PeongChang 2018  Winter Olympics will rock your world. Along with the usual skating, skiing, snowboarding and hockey, if you’ve been paying close attention you may have noticed more exotic-sounding events such as luge, biathlon, curling, and yes, even the skeleton comes out of the closet. Just what are these winter sports that seem to pop up only quadrennially during the Winter Games? Here’s a quick primer:


Technically, as the name might imply, the word “biathlon” means “two sports,” without specifying which two. But in practice it most often refers to the combination of cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting (top). It was pioneered as a discipline by Norway’s military in the 19th century, and has been part the line-up since the 1960 Olympic Games in Squaw Valley, California. In a biathlon event, contestants ski around a set of trails, broken up by either two or four shooting rounds, half standing up, the other half belly-down. Depending on how they score in shooting, extra distance or time is added to each contestant’s total running distance/time. Then, as in most races, shortest total time wins.


This may actually be one of the better known sports of this category – ironically, perhaps, because of oddball tales like the Jamaican bobsled team (made famous 21 years ago in the movie Cool Runnings). Here you’ve got a race in teams of two or four making runs down narrow, twisting, banked, ice tracks in a sled powered by nothing more than gravity, reaching speeds in excess of 120 miles per hour. The times of four individual “heats” are then combined to calculate the final score. In this Games there are six events. Germany is historically the dominant country in the Olympics, but the USA has done well in recent years, as in Vancouver in 2010.


Originating in medieval Scotland but most strongly established and popular in Canada, this curious form of boules on ice involves two opposing teams with four players each which take turns sliding heavy polished granite discs across an ice rink (called a curling sheet) toward a circular bullseye, with two team members using specialised long-handled brooms to sweep in front of the stone as it travels, thus influencing its trajectory and speed (the term “curling,” by the way, refers to the way the stone travels across the ice). Each team has eight stones, and the highest score goes to the team with the most stones resting closest to the target (or house). It has been an official (as opposed to exhibition) sport at the Olympics since 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

The way the curling Olympic competition works is that 10 teams (divided into men’s and women’s divisions) compete in a round-robin format in preliminaries, then semifinals – the winners of which square off for the gold medal. The losers of the semis play for silver and bronze. This year, mixed curling doubles (male-female teams) have been added for the first time (above).


Originating in the Swiss Alps in the 19th century, the luge is a  small, fast, fiberglass sled for one or two people lying face-up and feet-first with head slightly raised, zipping down a banked track, minimally steering by applying pressure against the steel runners with the thighs and shifting the shoulders. Lugers (referred to as sliders) can reach speeds of 95 miles per hour. If you think all this sounds dangerous, well, you’re not wrong. Luge already made the spotlight in a bad way in Vancouver 2010 when a young Georgian was killed during a training run, in the first fatal accident in the sport since 1969. Germany and Austria are the among the biggest luge powers of note.


Also rooted in the 19th-century Swiss Alps, the skeleton is a sledding event like the luge except that the sliders go face down and heading straight ahead, and the speeds not quite as high – maybe about 75 miles an hour instead of 95. Each slider completes four runs over two days (two on each day), with the winner having the lowest aggregated time. It’s been an Olympic sport since Salt Lake City in 2002.

There you go - now enjoy the games!

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