While the Winter Olympic events we have come to love will be there as always, the 2014 Sochi Games will have a strong sense of the new when they begin next month. Eight new events will make their debuts in Russia, with four of them awarding medals in both men’s and women’s competitions.
The additions are headlined by the long-awaited halfpipe and slopestyle competitions in freestyle skiing, which continues to grow in popularity. Likewise, snowboard will also add a slopestyle event and will stage a parallel slalom race to complement its longstanding Olympic parallel giant slalom.
Joining those events is the much-anticipated arrival of the women’s ski jump, new relay events in the luge and biathlon, and a team figure skating competition that will extend our Sochi love affair with the kings and queens of the ice.
Here’s a look at the competitions making their Olympic debuts next month and a sense of what to expect when the events ultimately get underway.
For the first time ever, the sport that provides the most individual drama in the Winter Games will dish out some team intrigue as well.
Similar to the gymnastics competition in the Summer Games, the figure skating team event will make its debut in the Sochi Olympics with qualifying countries competing across the sport’s four disciplines—men’s, ladies, pairs and ice dancing—for one combined score.
Ten countries qualified for the first-ever competition—Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States. Only skaters that individually qualified for the Olympic teams may compete in the team event, which will begin on Feb. 6, the day before Opening Ceremonies, and conclude on Feb. 9.
The addition of the team event not only provides additional figure skating competition, it will also allow countries that might lack individual favorites, such as the United States, to challenge for an additional medal in the Sochi Games.
The top five teams after the long programs will qualify to compete in the free programs, with each team allowed two substitutions, meaning different skaters can compete in the short program and free skate in any one of two disciplines (i.e. men's or women's).
While the U.S. team lacks a true favorite at the top of any of its teams, save for ice dancing, it's among a handful of countries favored to win a medal and could very well claim gold in Sochi.
In addition to the Yanks, the Canadians and the Japanese are expected to be significant contenders in Sochi.
In an example of X Games meeting the traditional Winter Olympics, slopestyle snowboard features snowboarders performing along specifically made trails called “terrain parks.” The mountainside course is filled with various types of jumps and rails that the snowboarders use to create tricks and high-amplitude jumps as they move down the slope.
In what should be a thrilling addition to the Sochi Games, male and female snowboarders will look to execute a multitude of different maneuvers and tricks throughout the course and will be awarded points for both difficulty and technical precision. The event will have both a semifinal and final round with contestants taking two runs in each if qualified.
Previously considered a fringe sport, slopestyle snowboard is an X Games favorite and became part of the FIS Snowboard World Championships in 2011, the first step in bringing it to the Olympic Games.
For the new generation of winter sport enthusiasts, the Olympic inclusion of the sport is a welcome sight that will bring added enthusiasm to the Winter Games. Others, including high-profile NBC commentator Bob Costas, however, wonder how it will mix in with the more traditional skiing and snowboarding events.
“I think the president of the IOC should be Johnny Knoxville, because basically, this stuff is just ‘Jackass’ stuff that they invented and called Olympic sports,” Costas told the Today show’s Matt Lauer while laughing.
That opinion did not sit particularly well with fellow NBC commentator Todd Richards, who posted the following on Facebook:
Let me get this straight: All the sacrifices of body and mind I and countless others have made to progress the discipline of slopestyle have now been reduced to the byproduct of an MTV show … by someone that is "hosting" the Olympics? On behalf of NBC’s snowboarding coverage team I apologize to everyone in the sport. This does not represent the feelings of the people that work hard to bring you the snowboarding broadcasts.
Given his domination of the event at the X Games, it should surprise few to discover Shaun White is among the favorites to win gold in the inaugural men’s Olympic competition. The American has won eight total medals in the event during his X Games history, five of them gold.
White will be strongly challenged by Norway’s Stale Sandbech and Canadian Mark McMorris, who is the reigning X Games champion in the event.
On the women’s side, Jamie Anderson will be the face of the American team and is a strong candidate for a gold medal. The talented snowboarder will be pushed by Canadian Spencer O’Brien, who won gold in the event at the 2013 FIS World Championships, and Finland’s Enni Rukajarvi.
A test of snowboard speed and precision, the parallel slalom pits two snowboarders in side-by-side competition while racing down parallel courses marked by blue and red flags. The athlete who skis the fastest and best stays within the course border wins the race and moves on in the competition.
The distances between the gates the skiers must navigate are very narrow, which will deliver significant drama as the skiers make their way through the tight turns on the small course.
Snowboarders’ position at the start of the event will be based on time trials before the actual head-to-head racing begins. The snowboarder who finishes the Games undefeated will win the gold medal.
While the parallel slalom is making its first-ever Olympic appearance in the Sochi Games, it’s been a core competition in the evolution of snowboarding since the sport began decades ago.
The event is thought to be more difficult than its sister competition, the parallel giant slalom, because of the close proximity of the flags snowboarders must navigate between. The giant slalom has been part of the Olympics since 1998.
For the men, Slovenia’s Rok Marguc is the 2013 world champion in the parallel slalom and is a strong favorite to add Olympic gold to that accomplishment next month in Sochi. Should he accomplish the feat, he would become the first Slovenian to win a gold medal in the Winter Games.
American Justin Reiter, however, is a significant threat to steal that gold in Sochi next month. The talented snowboarder will also compete in the giant slalom and has the speed and technique to go up against the best international competition. Reiter was the 2013 silver medalist in the parallel slalom at the 2013 World Championships.
The United States is not expected to field a women’s team in the inaugural competition.
Very similar to the snowboarding version of this thrilling sport, athletes ski down a slope that has various obstacles, including jumps, rails and quarter-pipes. The skiers use these obstacles to their advantage in performing jumps and tricks of different styles and difficulty as they move down the slope.
The skiers are judged based on execution and degree of difficulty of their moves. The event features semifinals and finals with the men’s and women’s athletes scoring the most points claiming gold.
A core component to the growth of freestyle skiing over the past two decades, slopestyle combines the energy of daring moves and aerial tricks with the downhill elements of traditional skiing.
As the sport has grown in popularity and become accepted into the mainstream, ski resorts have added terrain parks where skiers can practice their tricks and jumps. Because of that immense growth, the addition of the sport to the Sochi Games provides a strong opportunity for the U.S. team to capture additional medals in both the men’s and women’s competitions.
American Tom Wallisch claimed the gold medal at the World Ski Championships in Norway last year and finished sixth in the 2014 World Cup, making him someone to watch in Sochi. Another Yank to follow is Nick Goepper, who qualified for the Olympic team last month and sits atop the Association of Freeskiing Professionals world rankings in slopestyle.
Australian Russ Henshaw sits just behind Goepper in those rankings and is an international threat to claim the first-ever gold in the event. Great Britain’s James Woods is also a medal favorite in Sochi.
Like the men’s side, the women’s competition is wide open with Americans Devin Logan, Keri Herman and fearless 15-year-old Maggie Voisin among those with a great opportunity to break through in Sochi. Canadians Dara Howell and Yuki Tsubota are medal threats, as is Norwegian Tiril Sjastad Christiansen.
After patiently waiting their turn, halfpipe freestyle skiers will finally have the opportunity to display their immense talent in this exhilarating competition.
Just as in snowboarding, athletes dive into the halfpipe and then soar into a series of high-flying twists, turns, flips and grabs that defy gravity for a precious short period of time.
Judging in the event is based on execution and degree of difficulty of the jumps, and the gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded to the athletes with the most points after the qualifying and final rounds.
While the halfpipe snowboard has been an Olympic sport for well over a decade, it’s taken freestyle skiing a little longer to get organized and to better advocate for its spot in the Winter Games.
The International Olympic Committee finally approved the sport just after the Vancouver Games, and its debut is one of the more anticipated storylines of the Sochi Olympics.
American David Wise currently sits atop the AFP world rankings and is certainly among the favorites to make history by claiming the event’s first-ever gold medal. Likewise, teammate Gus Kenworthy is a threat to medal not only in the halfpipe, but in the slopestyle event as well.
American Aaron Blunck is also worthy of keeping an eye on, and on the international front, France’s Kevin Rolland is a strong medal favorite, as is Canadian Mike Riddle.
It’s a deep field of American women freestyle skiers who seek halfpipe glory in Sochi, headlined by Devin Logan, Maddie Bowman and Annalisa Drew. Japan’s Ayana Onozuka is among the international favorites in Sochi.
After a long fight for inclusion into the Winter Games, women’s ski jump will make its Olympic debut in Sochi next month. Women will compete in the individual normal hill event, also known as the K-90 for its calculation point of 90 meters. The women are capable of making jumps as long as 110 meters.
Following a training run, two jumps are attempted to decide a winner, but only the top jumpers advance to the second attempt. Scoring is based largely on the length of the jump, but points are also earned for style and form.
For many of the sport’s top women, it’s been a long time coming for this Olympic debut, and it didn't come easily.
In fact, it took a legal challenge from several of the sport’s top athletes, including American Lindsey Van, to finally realize the sport’s addition to the Winter Games. Men’s ski jump has been part of the Olympics since 1924.
After a long and bitter fight that goes back years, Van and other women ski jumpers took the Vancouver Organizing Committee, the group in charge of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, to court in Canada, claiming sexual discrimination since men’s ski jumping was part of those Games but women's was not.
Van and the other ski jumpers got a favorable ruling from the British Columbia Supreme Court, and the International Olympic Committee finally relented and added women’s ski jumping to the Games for the first time ever in Sochi.
Given her role in getting the sport added to the Olympics, it’s fitting that Van will arrive in Sochi among the favorites to medal. The American owns 16 ski jumping national championships, a world championship and eight international victories.
Though still a teenager, Sarah Hendrickson is also an American to watch in Sochi. In 2012, the ski jump phenom won nine titles during what was the first-ever FIS World Cup season. Given her recovery from ACL surgery, however, Hendrickson is a question mark heading into the Olympics.
Seventeen-year-old Japanese flyer Sara Takanashi is the overall gold-medal favorite entering the Games and already has multiple wins in the 2013-14 World Cup season.
A new luge team relay event makes its debut in Sochi next month, with competing teams composed of a women’s single slider, a men’s single slider and a doubles team that will race consecutively over the course.
Following each segment of the race, the slider will hit a touchpad at the finish line that will then open up the starting gate for the sled in the next segment. The nation’s times are then determined when the doubles slide crosses the finish line.
Team relay has been a consistent part of the Luge World Cup season, and it finally gets its Olympic due in Sochi. Very similar to a swim relay, the event tests the depth of a country’s luge program, requiring equal talent in all three traditional competitions.
Luge first became an Olympic event back in 1964 and, until this year, has always featured competition in the men’s, women’s and doubles events.
While many predict the Germans will capture the team gold in Sochi, the Americans are expected to give them a challenge. The Germans won the 2012-13 World Cup team relay points championship and are the leader in the 2013-14 standings.
The Americans, however, won the silver medal in the Park City World Cup event this past December and finished the first half of this season just behind the Germans in second place.
For the first time in the Winter Olympic Games, men and women will compete alongside one another in the biathlon.
The new biathlon mixed relay will feature four athletes—two men and two women—competing in the Olympic event that combines cross-country skiing and shooting rifles. The two men will ski 7.5-kilometer loops and then shoot at set targets from both standing and prone positions. The women, who will ski first, will ski 6-kilometer loops and will also shoot from the two positions.
The biathlon is one of the more challenging sports in the Winter Olympics. The contest demands equal parts endurance and accuracy. It first became an Olympic Sport at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games.
Scores are determined by the athletes' speed through the course. However, athletes in the relay event are required to ski an additional 150 meters for every shot that is missed, making accuracy just as important as speed and endurance. Ultimately, it’s the Olympians who can move quickly through the course but then go slowly enough to maintain control when shooting that fare the best.
The United States is likely a long shot to significantly challenge in the event considering it has never won an Olympic biathlon medal. It’s far more likely the Germans, Russians and Norwegians will battle for the first-ever gold medal in the event.