Love the Olympics? Looking for something other than alpine skiing/figure skating/hockey to entertain you in the cold winter depths of a Chicago February? Ever turn on your favorite NBC affiliate to see what sport is on while waiting for the “plausibly live” prime time coverage and think, “What am I even watching?” This article is for you.
While the sports listed here are no longer obscure due to 24-hour sports channel availability and the internet, many Americans probably think about them only once every four years. The fact is that these sports have major federations supporting them, including annual world cups and amazing professional athletes. The federations and media have worked tirelessly to make these sports accessible and entertaining on your TV or computer. During Beijing 2022, why not give them a watch?
Inspired by Scandinavian hunting practices, biathlon is a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting. At first blush, this combination of disciplines may seem strange or outdated, but it is arguably populated by the fittest athletes in any sport, summer or winter. Biathlon requires the cardio engine to ski for long distances, and the ability to quickly bring the heart rate down to a level that accommodates accurate shooting.
The 2022 Olympics will include 11 total events in biathlon, from relays, to short sprint events, to grueling 20K mass start and pursuit events. Each event, regardless of distance requires athletes to ski laps around a custom course with stops at the shooting range. At the range, the athletes are required to hit 5 targets, from either standing or prone depending on the lap, using their incredibly cool looking, expensive rifles. Targets missed result in either time-penalties or loops around a penalty area, depending on the event.
With many retirements since the last Winter Olympics, the field is pretty wide open, but watch for the Norwegian athletes in the women’s events and the French for the men.
I admit to being somewhat obsessed with Biathlon, streaming the world cup races nearly every week. My personal bias aside- if you enjoy watching marathon or bike racing and are intrigued by the complexity of mixing in shooting, this may be for you.
DON’T MISS: The Mixed Relay. The men’s and women’s combined event is one of the most exciting formats in all of sport. (Feb 5)
Cross Country Skiing
Like Biathlon without the shooting, but no less exciting, cross-country skiing at the Olympics provides an opportunity to see top of the line athletes give every ounce of their abilities in the pursuit of gold. With VO2 Max levels up to 96 (60 is considered “excellent”), these athletes reside at the pinnacle of endurance sports. When they collapse in a quivering heap at the end of their race, you know you just watched something amazing.
Like other endurance sports, cross-country events come in different sizes; from 10k sprints to 50k sufferfests. In addition to the varying distances in races, cross-country skiing includes two distinct techniques– classical, in which heel and toe are both bound to the ski and freestyle, which frees the heel for more mobility (and speed). The 2022 Olympics offers individual, relay, and team events that combine the performances of multiple athletes.
DON’T MISS: The women’s (7.5km + 7.5km) and men’s (15 km + 15km) Skiathlon. This unique format is two races back-to-back with no break in between. The first race requires the use of the classical technique and the second freestyle. The athletes even change skis between races! (Feb 5 and 6)
As the name implies, this sport combines two Nordic events– ski jumping and cross-country skiing. I like to think that the origin of this sport was accidental and the result of a fireside conversation about a harrowing event when a pleasant ski through the woods resulted in a plummet down a sheer cliff. Whatever the sport’s origins, the ability of the combined Nordic athlete to hone skills in both jumping and skiing to compete against the best in the world is nothing short of amazing.
The events begin with each athlete completing two scored ski jumps. The point differentials on the ski jumps determine the start order and start time delay in the pursuit-style cross-country event. First over the line wins. A strong jumper has a starting advantage for the race and a strong skier can make up a deficit during the ski portion. This is known as a Gundersen format—named for Gunder Gundersen, which is probably the most Nordic thing I have ever heard.
The 2022 Olympics in Beijing will include three Nordic Combined events. Two individual men’s events (small and big hill), and a team relay event on the big hill. There are no women’s events in the Nordic Combined.
DON’T MISS: Any of these events. This combination of the heart-stopping power and grace of participants hurling themselves off a giant ramp and the all-out crush of a sprint distance ski event is worth watching. (Feb 9, Feb 15, Feb 17)
The so-called sliding events are rarely talked about in non-Olympic years, but probably should be part of our sports conversation every winter. The melding of Formula 1 race car technology with the pure athleticism of an NFL fullback and the fearlessness of a base jumper is a recipe for exciting action. The three different sports share a winding, icy track where gravity pulls the vehicles towards the bottom at frightening speeds. The sports differ in the shape and composition of the vehicles and number of athletes.
A Bobsleigh is an incredibly expensive sled that encloses the athletes on the sides for aerodynamic performance. The sled is driven by the team with the goal of hitting all of the turns at just the right intersection of fast and safe to obtain the best time. Typically piloted by two or four athletes, bobsleigh at the 2022 Olympics features a new event on the women’s side, the monobob, with a single driver. Another exciting feature for 2022- the return of the Jamaican bobsled team!
Skeleton is a high-tech version of the sleds we rode as children, ridden face down at 80 mph! It is an individual event for both women and men run over four heats. This is not for the faint of heart.
Similar to Skeleton, but ridden feet first on the back, the luge event is run with one or two riders on a single sled. These sleds are steered through subtle shifts of weight in the feet and hitting the curves at just the right angle and speed is critical.
DON’T MISS: The opportunity to try luge yourself. Just 3 ½ hours from Chicago, Muskegon State Park in Michigan offers the opportunity to try luge (and cross-country skiing) to non-elite athletes like us! (All Winter Long)