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Ultimate Guide to Sochi 2014: What You Need to Know About Every Olympic Event

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 6, 2014

Ultimate Guide to Sochi 2014: What You Need to Know About Every Olympic Event

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    There are few events capable of bringing the whole world together. Divided by distance, religion and language, our lives increasingly fit in various niches.

    While sports tend to unite us, few contests are truly ubiquitous events the world over. The World Series, despite its grandiose name, only really matters in America. The Tour de France, a major spectacle in Europe and parts of South America, is relegated to obscure channels, the kind your remote has rarely reached.

    But the Olympics? The Olympics matter. Not only are the sports a breath of fresh air, a welcome change from the routine schedule that defines the calendar year for most fanatics, but they are imbued with special meaning. These are no mere athletes competing. They are avatars, representatives of something bigger than themselves. They are us.

    The Olympics matter.

    As much as I love the Olympics, however, I confess to being baffled by the Winter Games every four years. The sports are vaguely familiar, but I've never understood exactly how they worked. How do the mysterious judges decide who wins a figure skating showdown? What's all that sweeping about on the curling rink? And wait, was that celebrity endorser Shaun White?

    This year I was determined to know more about these sports we will all make a part of our lives. I explored all 15 Olympic sports to find out where they come from, how they work and who to watch.

    In addition, Bleacher Report's video team takes you down the slope and onto the ice, using GoPro cameras to put readers directly into the action. Press play to see Ted Ligety fly down the Alpine hill at 75 mph, the American bobsled team slide 20 curves in under a minute, short-track sprinting come to life on J.R. Celski's helmet and John Daly put you on his skeleton sled at speeds faster than any New Yorker has ever driven. You've never seen the Winter Olympics quite like this.

Alpine Skiing

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    How It Works

    There's a purity to Alpine skiing that doesn't exist in many Winter Olympic sports, contests that all too often rely on a group of judges to render a decision. There's little in the way of the subjective in downhill skiing. It's a pure meritocracy—the fastest skier wins. Period.

    Wearing wind-resistant clothing and special boots attached to their skis, competitors use special curved poles to navigate the course and cut wind resistance. Helmets and goggles are mandatory and for good reason. Speed is everything.

    "People don't understand how tough skiing is," two-time Olympian Steven Nyman told Us magazine. "We're basically resisting g-forces that can get to the thousands of pounds of pressure at every single turn. We have to be physically strong and have the endurance to do that over two minutes."

    There are five different events for both men and women, divided into two broad categories. The technical events, the slalom and giant slalom, require competitors to maneuver through a series of gates on their way down the mountain.

    In the speed events, the downhill and super-G, skiers reach up to 75 miles per hour. The super-G has more dramatic twists and turns, leaving the downhill champion as the fastest person on skis, the veritable king and queen of the hill.

    The super combined includes one run each of slalom and downhill, making the winner the most diverse speedster on the slopes.

     

    How to Win

    The downhill and super-G are decided by one run. The winner is the fastest person down the mountain, and the difference between first and second place is often merely the blink of an eye.

    The slalom and giant slalom are decided by combining two runs. Competitors are disqualified if they miss any of the gates.

    The super combined winner is the skier who posts the best combined time in the downhill and the slalom.

     

    History 

    Alpine skiing is in many ways the child of Arnold Lunn, an Englishman who organized the first event in 1911, and who, for a decade, fought to get the sport recognized by the Olympic Committee. Before Lunn, skiing was a mostly horizontal venture, with Scandinavians preferring the more practical cross-country races.

    "They used to say that downhill was for people too cowardly to jump and too feeble to do cross-country," Lunn's son Peter told The Guardian. It soon, however, became obvious he was on to something. Lunn brought the vertical, and an air of danger, to the Games. He created the downhill and the slalom, and both have become Olympic staples.

     

    Could You Do It?

    If you were a crazy person, you might give it a shot. But the courses, designed by Swiss mastermind Bernhard Russi, are both fast and exceptionally long.

    How long?

    “The track is very, very, very long," U.S. Olympian Ted Ligety said per TeamUSA.org. "That’s the most remarkable thing about it.”

    That's a lot of room to make a deadly mistake. And that's not hyperbole. Crashing is a fact of life in this event. Organizers even put up netting and safety barricades in areas they expect will be most brutal for the athletes.

    There's no room for error when it's just you and the ground—and you're hurtling at breakneck speeds. It's dangerous enough that Dainese, an Italian company, is even creating a special airbag for skiers.

    Verdict: You could not do it.

     

    Skiers to Watch

    "There are 15 girls who could crush me if I take my foot off the gas," American prodigy Mikaela Shiffrin told Time Magazine.

    Shiffrin, however, seems up to the test. With an injury eliminating Lindsey Vonn from the competition, she has become the nation's best chance to be a breakout skiing star in Sochi.

    On the men's side, Ted Ligety and Bode Miller will attempt to recapture past glory. But keep an eye on Alexis Pinturault. In his first Olympic appearance, the 22-year-old Frenchman is expected to make his mark on the sport and possibly medal in several events.

Biathlon

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    Felice Calabro'/Associated Press

    How It Works

    Originally called "military ski patrol" in its earliest Olympic incarnations, the biathlon combines two seemingly incompatible sports—skiing and target shooting.

    Target shooting, even at just 50 meters, requires superb breathing control and a steady heartbeat. Doing it well is incredibly challenging, even under ideal conditions.

    Now imagine attempting to shoot at a world-class level after engaging in intense aerobic exercise, in this case skiing across the countryside. Using longer and thinner skis than typically seen in other Olympic skiing events and carrying .22-caliber rifles on their backs, skiers must travel distances of up to 20 kilometers, periodically knocking down targets from the standing or prone position.

    “Your heart rate's going nearly maximum. And you come into the range. You have to get your breathing under control," American hopeful Tim Burke told NBC. "That's maybe the hardest thing to master in our sport.”

     

    How to Win

    The biathlon is divided into 11 different events this year. Per the official Sochi Olympic site, they work as follows:

    Individual Competitions

    Starting every 30 seconds, competitors ski five laps of a loop with periodic bouts of shooting. Missing a target incurs a one-minute penalty. The competitor with the fastest time, including penalties, is the winner.

    Sprint Competitions

    Starting every 30 seconds, competitors ski three laps with bouts of shooting interspersed. Instead of a minute penalty for missing a shot, a failure is punished by requiring the athlete to ski a 150-meter penalty loop. The competitor with the fastest time is the winner.

    Pursuit Competitions

    The start order and intervals are based on the results of the sprint competition. The winner of the sprint competition starts first with the other competitors following in the order and time they finished behind the winner.

    For each missed target, the athlete must ski a 150-meter penalty loop immediately after shooting. The first competitor to cross the finish line is the winner.

    Relay Competitions

    There are four members per team. All teams start simultaneously, and each member skis three loops. The team whose final skier is the first to cross the finish line is the winner.

    Mixed Relay Competitions

    A mixed relay team consists of two women and two men. The race starting order in mixed relay is female, female, male, male.

    Mass Start Competitions

    All competitors start simultaneously. The first to cross the finish line is the winner.

     

    History

    Born in the snowy forests of Norway, what would become the biathlon was actually standard training for Scandinavian soldiers in the 1800s and an important survival tool for some rural hunters.

    When introduced at the 1948 Winter Olympics as a demonstration sport, the biathlon included cross-country and downhill skiing, shooting, fencing and equestrian events. With a more limited focus, it was included as part of the Olympic program starting in 1960. The women’s biathlon was introduced as a medal sport in 1992.

     

    Could You Do It?

    The biathlon is the sweatiest sport in the Winter Olympic Games. A study commissioned at the 2002 Games determined the average male biathlete in the 20-km individual race produced four pints of perspiration.

    That should give you an idea of what kind of effort goes into getting to each of the targets. And James Bond made it look so easy!

    Of course, it's only when you get to the target that the real action begins. Most people aren't expert shots, and the targets are small—just 45 mm in the prone position and 115 mm in the standing position.

    Those who are expert riflemen are likely not accustomed to shooting after grueling physical exercise. That reason alone explains why so many of the event's standouts are current or former soldiers in one of the world's militaries.

    Verdict: You couldn't do it.

     

    Biathletes to Watch

    Norwegian star Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, at 40 the veteran of five Olympic Games, hopes to lead his homeland to the medal stand early and often in Sochi. In 2002 he won four gold medals, and he has 11 medals overall in the Games. He'd like to cap his career with several more.

    His countrywoman Tora Berger is expected to battle Russian Olga Zaitseva for the gold in women's competition.

    Tim Burke, a veteran of the 2006 and 2010 Games, is America's best chance for a medal. He won a silver medal in the World Cup last year, the first medal for an American in 26 years.

Bobsled

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    How It Works

    Four men run at a purpose, spiked soles sending ice flying as they propel a sled forward on the track. Together the men and their ride can weigh up to 1,388 pounds—this is no light load, which is why former football players like Herschel Walker are common-place on the ice.

    Despite its size, once a sled gets going, the race becomes as much a matter of survival as it is winning. The New York Times described the experience as akin to riding a garbage can down a mountain. Riders wear composite helmets to ward off a steady stream of crashes and bumps.

    The bobsled is not a sport for the meek. There is no stopping once a bobsled is in full motion. Even attempting to do so is grounds for disqualification. Once started, you are in for the long haul—all 50 or so seconds of it.

    The driver steers the sled with rings attached to nylon cords that, in turn, connect to the contraption's front runners. Everyone else just serves as added mass, hanging on for dear life.

    "Hold onto something, bite your teeth, close your eyes, do something," 2010 gold medalist Justin Olsen said, describing his death-defying sport. "We're either going to make it or we're not." 

     

    How to Win

    Three events make up the bobsled program: a two-man competition, a four-man competition and a two-woman competition. Olympic bobsled contests are decided by the combined time of four runs over the course of two days. The team with the lowest total time is the winner.

     

    History

    The first bobsled, called a bobsleigh almost everywhere in the world besides America, was likely nothing more than two sleds tied together with a cord. Introduced in the Olympic Games in 1924, the early sleds were quaint.

    Three members of the winning team in 1928 had never so much as set foot in a bobsled before. They were just three men brave enough to answer an ad in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune.

    Today, the simple design philosophy and spirit of amateurism of the past have given way to a battle of technology and science. Like NASCAR and other auto sports, in the bobsled, success and failure is sometimes a matter of equipment. The American team is relying on a new design by BMW almost as much as it is driver Steve Holcomb.

     

    Could You Do It?

    "It is challenging to get in. Trust me," 2010 Olympic gold medalist Steven Holcomb told NPR. "When you're at a full sprint and you have to jump over a three foot wall, basically, of the sled and you have to get in, it's not easy."

    And getting in, if anything, is the simple part. Then it's off to the races, plummeting at close to 100 miles per hour in a custom-made device built for speed, not for safety.

    Verdict: You could not do it.

     

    Sliders to Watch

    Holcomb, the first American driver to win a gold medal in 62 years at the 2010 Games, is back in both the four-man and two-man races.

    On the women's side, driver Elana Meyers is expected to battle Canadian Kaillie Humphries for top honors. But all eyes will be on former track star Lolo Jones, who hopes to win a coveted Olympic medal on the ice pushing Jazmine Fenlator, the third-ranked American driver, to victory.

Cross-Country Skiing

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    Elvis Piazzi/Associated Press

    How It Works

    The great divide in cross-country skiing is between the classical and freestyle methods. They are quite different, in both technique and equipment, and the 12 races that constitute the Olympic program are divided equally between them.

    The classical technique demands a diagonal stride. Skiers stick to machine-made grooves, using special ski poles that come up to their armpits to propel themselves through the snow. Choice of wax is paramount, with the more sophisticated teams using computer algorithms to determine which combination of equipment to deploy based on conditions on the ground, per The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.

    The freestyle technique, popularized by American Bill Koch in 1982, became an Olympic staple in 1988. It requires skiers to push off to gain additional speed, rather than focus on staying in a groove. Faster than the classical technique, it uses shorter skis and longer poles to propel athletes to the finish line.

    In the skiathlon, both techniques come into play. Half the 30-kilometer race is contested using the classical technique. Then, in a NASCAR-style pit stop with the clock running, athletes change into freestyle equipment and race to the finish using the "skating" technique.

     

    How to Win

    Only the Individual race is against the clock, with competitors starting in 30-second intervals and teams keeping their athletes informed about where they stand by yelling out times during the course of the race.

    Sixty to 80 skiers arranged into rows all start at once in the mass start race. It's a long haul, basically a marathon on skis, with men going 50 km and women 30 km in using freestyle technique. The end, after several loops around the course, is usually an exciting sprint to the finish.

    The skiathlon is another long race, 30 km for the men and 15 for women. It starts in the classical style before switching to freestyle equipment in a timed pit stop for a race to the finish.

    Teammates literally tag one another in specially designated zones during the relay. After a mass start, two legs of classical style are followed by two legs in freestyle. The winner is the team to cross the finish line first after the final leg.

    In addition to these long tests of endurance, there are also two sprints in Olympic competition, with speeds reaching up to 20 km per hour. In the individual sprint, competitors who qualify in a timed race with 15-second intervals compete in a series of elimination heats around a short loop (1.8 km for men and 1.25 km for women).

    The team sprint is contested between two-person teams skiing six legs in the classical style. The skiers alternate legs, tagging in and out in quick succession. The lead tends to change frequently in an exciting dash to glory.

     

    History

    Cross-country skiing didn't start as a recreational or athletic pursuit. Prior to the 1900s, in many parts of the world it was simply a means of transportation during the winter months.

     

    Could You Do It?

    In the 1972 Olympics, gold medalist Sven-Ake Lundback measured an oxygen consumption rate of 94.6 milliliters per kilogram, per The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics. This blew even elite distance runners out of the water, the highest rate tested at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences in Stockholm before or since.

    Many skiers take on long cross-country courses recreationally, especially when touring Norway or Scandinavia in winter. But as Lundback's elite cardio shows, there's a world of difference between a leisurely ski at marathon distances and the world-class athleticism of an Olympian.

    Verdict: You could do it, but much, much slower.

     

    Skiers to Watch

    Kikkan Randall, the World Cup champion in the individual sprint, has a chance to become the first American woman to ever medal in the Olympic Games.

    "I feel my career has been building up to this point," Randall told the Associated Press. "I know it's just one race on one day, but I would love to add an Olympic medal to that collection."

    "Golden" Marit Bjoergen is the most decorated skier in Norwegian history with 12 World Cup and seven Olympic medals. She's looking to add four more in Sochi in a variety of events. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, however, hopes to challenge Björgen at every turn.

    On the men's side, Bjoergen's countryman Petter Northug and Switzerland's Dario Cologna are expected to battle for supremacy.

Curling

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    Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

    How It Works

    Sneers greeted the reintroduction of curling to the Olympic pantheon in 1998.

    "It does further the International Olympic Committee's movement towards democracy by allowing non-athletes to take part in the Winter Olympics," David Wallechinsky wrote in one representative screed.

    Athletes or not, there's an inarguable and exotic appeal to curling. Each curling match consists of 10 ends, or rounds, during which both teams deliver eight stones (two per player) toward the house, the bull's-eye at the center of a series of four concentric circles.

    It's essentially shuffleboard on ice, only with each team desperately trying to influence the path of a 44-pound stone, often from the island of Ailsa Craig in Scotland, with constant sweeping of a synthetic brush and a variety of esoteric shouts and grunts.

    The sweeping is designed to keep the ice in front of the stone clean, and there are a variety of techniques to slow down, turn and speed up the stone at the direction of the skip, essentially the team captain responsible for strategy.

     

    How to Win

    This year’s men’s and women’s tournaments include 10 teams competing in a nine-game round-robin format. The top four teams advance to the semifinals. The winners play for the gold, the losers for the bronze.

    The goal is to deliver a polished granite stone as close as possible to the house and to knock the opposing team's stones away at the same time. Points are awarded for every stone nearer the center of the house than an opponent's corresponding stone.

    The team with the most points at the end of the match wins.

     

    History

    Curling is an ancient game of Scottish invention. The oldest known stone, the Stirling Stone, dates back to 1511.

    The game's origins, however, are not without controversy. Sixteenth-century painter Pieter Bruegel depicts a game that looks awfully similar to curling in two of his paintings, Hunters in the Snow and Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap.

    Regardless, Scottish soldiers brought the game to Canada around 1760, and that's where curling's modern history has been written. More than 90 percent of the world's curlers are Canadians, according to The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, although the sport is beginning to pick up steam worldwide since its inclusion in the Olympics as a permanent medal sport in 1998.

     

    Could You Do It?

    On the surface, there's very little to curling. While vigorous sweeping can certainly raise your heart rate, Journal of Sports Science and Medicine researcher John Bradley found tactics more important than athleticism in determining success or failure on the rink.

    Anyone can yell, grunt and sweep vigorously in the area of an enormous granite stone—but doing it well is another matter altogether.

    "It's a simple sport to learn, but it's a very challenging sport to master," Jonathan Reeser, a curling expert, told Fox News. "Getting the stone to go where you want it to go with the proper weight and trajectory is maddeningly difficult."

    Verdict: You could do it.

     

    Curlers to Watch

    Canadian teams have won a medal in every Olympic curling competition. That shouldn't change with Brad Jacobs and Jennifer Jones at the head of the ship in Sochi.

    Jones, a 39-year-old new mother, is capping her excellent career with her first Olympics berth.

    “It’s really hard to put into words," she told the Toronto Star. "This is something we’ve worked towards forever, to have it actually come true is unbelievable.”

    Look for British sex symbol Eve Muirhead to challenge Jones, while Jacobs fends off the dapper Norwegian team led by the stylish Thomas Ulsrud.

Figure Skating

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    How It Works

    There's something special about figure skating. Part sport, part art, it's as elegant as it is athletic, powerful yet precise. Bespoke and bedazzled, men and women perform for a panel of nine judges, each loop, jump and flourish scrutinized for the smallest flaws.

    While their outfits are truly fabulous, it's the skates themselves that are key. Thick leather uppers provide both flexibility and support—but their main purpose is holding carbon-steel blades.

    Each blade has two edges, one on the inside and one on the outside. In between is a hollow. Skaters spend most of their time on one edge or another, something former Olympian John Misha Petkevich equated to standing on the edge of a knife.

    According to Petkevich, the constant lean creates a series of circular motion, a rotational motion very different than the linear motion common in most sports. All these factors combine to create instability. It's the skater's job to stay aloft and complete their routines. The balance and strength required are monumental.

     

    How to Win

    The figure skating program is divided into four events—men's and women's singles, mixed pairs and ice dancing. There will also be a new team competition this year. All of the disciplines involve a short program and a free program.

    In the two-minute and 50-second short program, worth 33.3 percent of the skater's total, athletes complete seven compulsory elements, which are scored by a panel of nine judges. Each element has a predetermined starting value. The judges then rate the execution of the moves, and a computer tabulates the final scores.

    The long program, worth 66.7 percent of a skater's total points, allows additional flexibility in artistry and athleticism. It's here that skaters push themselves to the limit with challenging jumps and spins. Such dazzling techniques can also be dangerous— a stumble or missed rotation on a jump can result in the loss of precious points.

     

    History

    Figure skating in the Olympics actually predates the Winter Games. It was, inexplicably, a part of the Summer Games all the way back in London in 1908.

    Before the modern Olympic movement, however, figure skating was already thriving thanks to the efforts of two men. Edward Bushnell invented steel blades in 1850, increasing skaters' ability to pull off intricate turns and later leaps.

    Those were the tools of the trade. Ten years later, performer Jackson Haines utilized them to create what would become modern figure skating, bringing artistry and music to the ice.

     

    Could You Do It?

    Millions of people skate recreationally, but the technique and athleticism required to perform even the simplest element of a figure skating program is monumentally difficult. Even the most ambitious skater would struggle with a basic spin, let alone something as challenging as a triple toe loop.

    Verdict: You could try, but you'd likely fall during the first required element.

     

    Skaters to Watch

    While Gracie Gold may have wowed during the Olympic Trials, the women's competition may come down, as it did four years ago, to a battle between South Korea's Yuna Kim and Japan's Mao Asada.

    “Mao really had such a struggle after 2010, but this season she’s again looking like the Asada of 2010 and appears so consistent and sure of herself," NBC Sports commentator Tara Lipinski said. "I think it’s going to be interesting against Yuna. I think it’s going to be a rivalry again. It’s going to be a showdown.”

    Ice dancing will also earn the spotlight as Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir once again duel Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White for Olympic gold. The two teams actually share both a training rink and coaches, giving the rivalry an added, albeit friendly, intensity.

Freestyle Skiing

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    How It Works

    Let's face it—the Winter Olympics has traditionally had a very old vibe. The iconic athletes even trend old—Bonnie Blair with her glorious mullet and Dave Jansen, baby in tow for a victory lap, come immediately to mind.

    Enter the X Games.

    This year a whopping 10 events will be contested in the broad category of freestyle skiing, the same number as its older Alpine brethren. These are the hotdoggers and daredevils, the skiers often in it for style points as much as they are ruthless competition.

    "We're not really athletes," American skier Tom Wallisch joked with Us magazine. "I get out of breath quickly."

    British slopestyle contender James Woods agrees, telling the BBC ""It is a little weird suddenly becoming called an athlete."

    Athletes or not, freestyle skiing is an amazing spectacle. It can be roughly divided into four categories.

    In the moguls, the skiing is about both speed and style. The athletes, wearing knee pads that stand out from their ski suits, head down a bumpy course. While speed is a factor in the scoring, controlled turns and jumping technique make up the bulk of the scores. High speed turns and two jumps add to the degree of difficulty.

    Aerialists are like gymnasts on skis, often reaching up to five stories in height on their incredible jumps. You don't necessarily need to be a world-class skier in any traditional sense to compete in the aerials. Speed and technique don't count. Sticking the landing and pulling off some serious in-air contortions do.

    Skiers also need the mental strength to change things up at the last moment. Coaches often call audibles at the last minute, determining which tricks to try based on opponents' scores. Aerial specialists are nothing if not adaptable.

     

    How to Win

    In the aerials, height and distance count for 20 percent of your score, execution and form 50 percent and the landing 30 percent. Competitors get two jumps in the qualifying round. The top 12 skiers perform two more jumps to determine the winner.

    The two jumps account for 25 percent of a skier's score in the moguls. An additional 25 percent is awarded based on your time from start to finish. The remaining 50 percent is awarded based on a skier's ability to maintain a clean line during turns on the way down the course.

    In the ski cross, the top 32 competitors are determined based on time trials. They then race down a 1,000-meter course littered with jumps and obstacles both man-made and natural in a series of four-person knockout races. Two skiers move on, while two are eliminated, until four racers remain to compete for a medal.

    Slopestyle requires skiers to perform tricks on a series of pipes, rails and jumps where they are judged based on the technique and degree of difficulty. Skiers perform two runs in an elimination round, with survivors completing two more runs in the finals.

    Athletes in the halfpipe perform a cornucopia of twists, flips and jumps while skiing a halfpipe. Scores will be based on height, takeoffs and degree of difficulty. The elimination and final round both include two runs for each skier.

     

    History

    Extreme skiing is nothing new. It dates back to the early 1900s when Alpine competitors would spice up some of their competitions with a bit of artistry. By the 1920s, trick shows were a part of almost any major event.

    Because of the X Games, though, freestyle skiing feels young. Organizers aren't dumb. Already battling disinterest in the vast swaths of the world that are predominantly sun-drenched, they knew they couldn't afford to lose young viewers as well.

    The solution was obvious. While the moguls became an Olympic event in 1992 and the aerials in 1994, it wasn't quite enough. Skiing was passing the Olympics by. There was a popular niche winter sports extravaganza that was already defying the odds and maintaining interest even in non-Olympic years.

    There's a revolution on the slopes, and the Olympics have decided to acquiesce rather than fight. To their credit, the IOC added ski cross for 2010 and slopestyle and halpipe for Sochi.

     

    Could You Do It?

    If you are a skier, and you are under 40, you may already be doing it in some form. Snowboard and freestyle skiing may be the wave of the future.

    "It would be boring to just ski down the slope," Verneri Hannula, one of the stars of Real Skifi, told CNN. "That's why we like to do tricks. When we do tricks, the only limit is our imagination."

    Verdict: You could do some of it, but there would be major bumps and bruises.

     

    Skiers to Watch

    American David Wise is expected to take home gold in the halfpipe, where he's been dominant in X Games competition.

    "When I first won the X Games, I wrote on my jacket, 'embrace the opportunity,' with a paint marker so that I would remind myself every time before I dropped in," Wise told ABC. "It's not about winning or losing or what people think of you. It's about you going out and doing what you love to do, your art."

    In the aerials, China has come to the fore, with teammates Qi Guangpu and Jia Zongyang expected to battle for the top spot on the men's side, while Xu Mengtao is a promising prospect who may challenge established women stars.

    Hannah Kearney and Heather McPhie are the most likely medal hopefuls among the American women. The two are among the best in the world in the moguls, where Kearney is the defending champion.

    "I know everyone wants to beat me even more," she told the Los Angeles Times. "I know there’s no place to go at the top but to fall or to stay there."

Ice Hockey

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    How It Works

    Six players to a side. Two goals. One puck. Olympic ice hockey is the hockey you know and love, but with the added bonus of nationalism fueling some super intense games.

    Matches are divided into three 20-minute periods and will be played in two spectacular venues. The 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome is designed to look like a Fabergé egg. Three hundred meters away, the portable Shayba Arena will house the remainder of the games.

    If things look a bit spread out, your eyes aren't deceiving you. Olympic hockey is contested under international rules, meaning the rink is 200 by 100 feet rather than 200 by 85 feet as is the NHL standard.

     

    How to Win

    Twelve countries will compete for gold in the men's division, divided into three groups for an initial round-robin stage. The three group winners will advance automatically into the quarterfinals, as will the second-place team with the highest score. The remaining eight teams will play elimination games for the final four slots in the tournament.

    Ties are allowed in the round-robin portion of the tournament, but in the playoff rounds regulation is followed by a five-minute sudden death overtime and then a shootout. The gold-medal game will have a 20-minute sudden-death period followed by a shootout.

    The women's tournament will feature eight teams divided into two groups. Group A is made up of the four teams with the highest seeds. The top two Group A teams will advance automatically into the semifinals. The bottom two Group A teams will play the top two finishers in Group B to fill the final two slots in the semifinal round.

     

    History

    The origins of ice hockey are lost to time. The modern game, in the most romantic telling, began on Christmas Day 1855, in a game between the Royal Canadian Rifles and British soldiers in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, according to George Robert Fosty's history of hockey Splendid Is the Sun. Others claim the game goes back much further, to the beginning of the 1800s.

    It's enough to make researchers at the Society for International Hockey Research blue in the face. One thing we know for certain—hockey has been a part of the Winter Games since their inception, with Canada a dominant player in early competitions.

    With the development of professional hockey in the United States and Canada, eastern European teams came to the fore, with the Soviet Union winning six of seven Games between 1964 and 1988. The decision to allow professionals to compete, starting in 1998, has evened the playing field once again, creating an exciting tournament with worldwide interest.

     

    Could You Do It?

    According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, there are millions of recreational hockey players around the world, including more than 600,000 in Canada alone.

    But of those millions, only about 600 are playing professionally in the NHL at any given time. Since most Olympic hockey is contested at this very high level, it's not exactly the same thing as a local beer league.

    Verdict: You could do it, but not at an Olympic level.

     

    Teams to Watch

    Sweden, Canada and the Unites States are among the medal favorites here. But don't discount the Russians. The home country advantage could help the traditional powerhouse return to the medal stand after missing out in 2006 and 2010.

Luge

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    Roman Koksarov/Associated Press

    How It Works

    Propelled from the starting blocks with their arms, speed built to unimaginable highs with their spiked gloves, a slider has less than a minute to avoid messing things up.

    "Your finish time depends on making the least amount of mistakes, allowing gravity to do its work," 2010 Olympian Mark Grimmette said.

    "It is a difficult sport to predict," 1963 world champion Fritz Nachmann of Germany once said, and little has changed over the years. "It requires vigorous conditioning—weight lifting, gymnastics. But perhaps most important of all, you need peace of mind."

    Clad in a wind-resistant body suit and helmet, with the tiny fiberglass sled barely touching the ice at all, Olympians use their feet—encased in special zippered shoes to keep the toes in line—to steer their way through an often death-defying series of turns and twists, trying to maintain an imaginary perfect line to keep their speed at close to 95 miles per hour.

    Incremental pressure on the runners changes the trajectory of the entire apparatus in what can often be incredibly dangerous ways. The average run lasts less than a minute. It's a true "blink and it's over" event. Of course, should a slider be so undisciplined as to blink, he could find himself in the wall or a hospital bed in mere moments.

     

    How to Win

    Individual contests are decided by the combined time of four runs over the course of two days. The two-man doubles contest is a single day competition decided by the fastest total time of two runs. New in 2014 is a relay competition, adding the times of a woman, man and doubles team to determine the winner.

     

    History

    It's possible that the luge was created in the hills of Bavaria, where German woodcutters would demonstrate their courage on paths cut in the snow by carts lugging the heavy trees down the mountain.

    That origin, however, is hotly disputed. Luge is the French word for sled, but the true fathers of the event may be the Swiss, particularly high-end hoteliers who created special tracks for customers with the need for speed. The first major competition took place in Davos, Switzerland on a four-kilometer course.

    The luge became a permanent Olympic sport in 1964 despite cries from critics that it was too dangerous. A competitor was killed in that first year and two other grievously wounded—yet the show continued on. In the ensuing 50 years, according to David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky's The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, 112 of 117 medals have been won by athletes from just four nations—Germany, Austria, Italy and the USSR and its progeny.

     

    Could You Do It?

    Imagine lying your body on a tiny sled, at 50 pounds one that's just a fraction of your body weight. After propelling yourself off the blocks, the race truly begins. With your upper and lower body hanging off the edges of the pod, head tilted for a desperate look, you're hurled down the track at speeds that can literally be deadly.

    In 2010 Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training run, careening off the track in the final turn and crashing into a steel support beam. Ugly accidents are routine, and when soft flesh hits unyielding ice, there can only be one winner. There is no margin for error when you are a human missile.

    Verdict: You could not do it.

     

    Sliders to Watch

    Italy's Armin Zoeggeler will attempt to earn a medal at a sixth consecutive Olympic Games. Twice a gold medalist, the 40-year-old slider scored a bronze in 2010. The winner that year was German Felix Loch, who, at just 24 years of age, is expected to contend for the top prize again in Sochi.

    American Kate Hansen, who won the World Cup in Latvia in January, will challenge for Olympic glory. The competition will be tough, especially Canadian Alex Gough and Russian Natalia Khoreva. But the favorites, as always, will be the Germans, who held their top talent out of the World Cup. Natalie Geisenberger, Tatjana Hufner and Anke Wischnewski are all among the favorites to win gold.

Nordic Combined

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    Jens Meyer/Associated Press

    How It Works

    Nordic skiing combines two very distinct events, a ski jumping competition and a 10-kilometer cross-country race, to crown the best and most multi-faceted skier every four years.

    "I love the adrenaline push of the ski jump, as well as the pain and perseverance of the cross-country race," American Olympian Bill Demong told Voice of America. "And I feel like I never wanted to do either one without the other."

    First, wearing an air permeable outfit made of a single material, competitors strap on enormous skis, no more than 146 percent their body length, to fly through the air in a ski jump. Unique high-backed boots allow the skier to lean forward during flight, a special binding holding the skis steady in flight.

    The key here is gumption, balance and speed. As a baseline, the skier needs to fly at least as far from the jump as the jump is high. But distance alone isn't enough. They must maintain form, both in flight and during their landing, to compete with the top performers.

    After the jump is complete, competitors must enter cardio-beast mode, racing 10 kilometers in the snow in a man-on-man competition for supremacy. Now wearing narrower and lighter skis with curved ends, skiers race each other, not the clock, in a thrilling battle to the finish.

     

    How to Win

    The key to winning the Nordic combined is the cross-country event. Prior to 1988, the race came first, followed by the ski jump. But the difference in the race times made it almost impossible to come from behind with the jump. The event was all but decided before the competitors ever climbed the hill to fly through the air.

    Gunder Gundersen changed all that. In 1985, he created the Gundersen method. In his system the skiers competed in the jump first, with their finish determining when they started in the subsequent race. Points are determined by distance and artistic flair.

    The K-point is the distance from the takeoff that is equivalent to the height of the hill. Sixty points are awarded for reaching the K-point, with longer jumps earning a competitor more points. Up to 20 additional points are awarded for artistic merit by five judges based on flight, landing and outrun.

    In 2014, for every point they fall behind the leader, the subsequent skiers have to wait four seconds at the start of the cross-country race. The staggered start times mean the best jumper can get a head start of mere seconds or monstrous minutes. But rather than points, as in the past, the event will be decided on the snow, with every competitor knowing exactly where he stands. The first man across the finish line is the winner.

    The team event works in a similar fashion. Four skiers compete in the large hill jump, and then the Gundersen method determines the start times for a 4x5km relay.

     

    History

    The first major organized competition was at the famous Holmenkollen Ski Festival in Oslo, Norway, in 1892, where 12,000 spectators saw brave skiers jump more than 21 meters.

    The Nordic combined has been an Olympic event since the first Winter Games in 1924. It is the last remaining Winter Olympic sport that only features men. Women do not yet compete in the Nordic combined. Three medal events are the individual, individual long hill and the team competition.

     

    Could You Do It?

    Numbers don't really do the ski jump justice. In the large hill, skiers start 140 meters in the air. That's 5,040 inches. Still hard to visualize? Think of a football field. Then add another 50 yards. Now imagine flying just as long in the air.

    It's completely bonkers.

    And of course, the event is just starting. Shifting gears, these amazing athletes then race 10 kilometers in the snow, cross-country, their own muscles alone responsible for powering their bodies at a near sprint for more than six miles.

    Verdict: You couldn't do it.

     

    Skiers to Watch

    Norwegians, unsurprisingly, won the event at each of the first four Olympic Games. Later Germans and the Japanese made serious impacts as well. But it wasn't until 2010 in Vancouver that the United States made its presence known for the first time.

    2010 gold medalist Bill Demong is back for his fifth Olympics Games, at 33 competing in what he considers a victory lap of sorts.

    "It isn't quite carefree this season," Demong told Sports Illustrated. "But it's close."

    In the individual event,
    Germany's Eric Frenzel, the winner of three consecutive World Cups, is expected to battle France's Jason Lamy Chappuis for the gold. The Norwegians—Haavard Klemetsen, Mikko Kokslien, Magnus Moan and Magnus Krog, all medal contenders—will be tough to beat in the team competition.

Short Track

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    How It Works

    Speedskating is old Olympics: staid, traditional and often a little boring. Short track takes things up 10 notches, bringing a little roller derby to the race as competitors bounce off each other and off the track in a pack race for the finish instead of a battle against the clock.

    Everything about the sport is a bit edgy, starting with the razor-sharp blades that bend in a little toward the direction of the turn. The blades are set a little to the left of the boot instead of the dead center of the skate, preventing the skate from touching the ice as skaters lean hard into a turn.

    The roller derby comparison only goes so far. While contact is commonplace, and skaters wear helmets as well as knee, elbow and neck guards for protection, pushing and obstruction are grounds for disqualification.

    There is order in this chaos of churning arms and legs. Passing is ideally done to the outside, although ducking inside an opponent is legal if there is not contact.

    The race leader sticks tight to the inner side of the track, trying not to allow anyone inside his line. In longer races, competitors bide their time, waiting for the perfect moment for a desperate passing attempt. It's a game of strategy and nerves as much as speed.

    "In the 1,000-meter and 5,000-meter races it’s just like NASCAR, where drivers draft off each other and try to pick the right moment to take the lead,” 2010 Olympian J.R. Celski told ESPN.com. “My strategy differs from race to race. I don’t want to give away my plans. It’s about being unpredictable.”

     

    How to Win

    Individual competitions at 500 meters, 1000 meters and 1500 meters consist of 32 skaters participating in four-person heats. The top two finishers advance to the next round until the final four compete for the gold. The first person across the finish line is the winner. Time is not a factor.

    Relay competitions feature eight teams of four skaters each, with men competing in a 5,000-meter race and women a 3,000-meter contest. Each team decides how many laps an individual skater will race, but the final two laps must be done by the same skater. The next skater to compete is already moving forward in the inner zone before being touched from behind by their teammate, making timing essential to success.

     

    History

    Pack-style skating races date back to the early 20th century in America and Canada. They had a brief turn in the Olympics in 1932 but were contested on a regular 400-meter oval rather than the tiny 111.12-meter track used today.

    Short track speed skating became an Olympic sport in its own right in 1992. Speedskating has been good for the American team. Overall, they've won 85 medals in Olympic competition, including 18 on the short track.

     

    Could You Do It?

    The 500-meter race is an all-out sprint, putting it out of reach for most living room spectators.

    The longer the race, however, the more attainable it seems.

    Starting at 1,000 meters, skaters tend to begin slowly, eventually reaching full speed for the final few laps. But once they get going, the speeds and sharp turns are fairly flabbergasting.

    The faint of heart might not even make it all the way to the track. Former U.S. coach Jae Su Chun was accused of physical and emotional abuse as well as ordering a team member to sabotage an opponent's skates.

    Verdict: You could not do it.

     

    Skaters to Watch

    It's a transition period for the American team, as Apolo Ohno and Katherine Reutter retired after the 2010 Games. J.R. Celski, just 19 when he won bronze medals in Vancouver, is considered the top U.S. medal threat for Sochi and has stepped into a leadership role vacated by the veteran Ohno.

    “I am very happy to be in the position I am now. I looked up to that guy for a long time,” Celski told the Associated Press. “This time is completely different for me mentally, physically, I’m healthy. I’m going to ride that momentum.”

    The Chinese team is a powerhouse on both the men's and women's sides despite the loss of injured star Wang Meng. Meng's star-power void will be filled by 17-year-old South Korean Shim Suk-Hee, the young prodigy who has won the overall World Cup championship in her first two seasons.

Skeleton

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    How It Works

    "Shut up and go down."

    That's the advice most often given to rookie sliders, but the sport is much more complicated than that. Clad in a tight-fitting bodysuit and mandatory helmet, spiked shoes giving them extra traction on the ice, sliders push off the starting block to get a running start and propel themselves down the same track used for the bobsled.

    Headfirst, chin just inches off the ground, the daredevils who participate in this thrill ride travel at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. Sleds weighing up to 94.8 pounds are steered by adjusting body weight with slight movements of the head and shoulders and slowed only after the race is complete.

     

    How to Win

    Contests are decided by the combined time of four runs over the course of two days.

     

    History

    Born from tobogganing, the custom of Native Canadians to hurl themselves down snow-covered mountains on wooden sleighs, the sport of skeleton was popularized in Switzerland in the late 1800s. The sport took its name from the first metal sleds used in competition, said to resemble a human skeleton.

    Skeleton was featured twice in Olympic competition in 1928 and 1948. Not coincidentally, each of those games was held in the sport's home country. In 2002, skeleton became a fixture on the Winter Olympics circuit.

     

    Could You Do It?

    "They say bobsled is the champagne of thrills," Jim Shea Jr. said after winning the event in 2002. "Skeleton is definitely the moonshine of thrills."

    Compared to the bobsleigh, which costs in the realm of $30,000, the Skeleton is at least affordable at a mere $3,000. But affording it is not the same as doing it.

    Only the most daring would even consider competing. Very few would finish a course, especially in Sochi, called one of the most challenging tracks ever designed.

    The slightest flinch or movement can wreak havoc on a race—even a glance from side to side can be the difference in winning or losing in contests decided by mere seconds. Despite the tremendous speeds, sleds have no brakes.

    Verdict: You could not do it.

     

    Sliders to Watch

    American Noelle Pikus-Pace and Britain's Lizzy Yarnold are expected to compete head-to-head for the women's gold. Pikus-Pace, who missed a medal in 2010 by one-tenth of a second, has returned from retirement in pursuit of Olympic glory.

    Latvian brothers Martins and Tomass Dukurs will battle for familial and world supremacy on the men's side. Martins beat his brother at the World Cup in January by less than half a second. American Matt Antoine, third at the World Cup, is expected to challenge the brothers once again in Sochi.

Ski Jumping

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    How It Works

    "When I looked from the top of the jump, I was so frightened that my bum shriveled up like a prune."

    While there was something comic about Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, who finished in dead last place at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, in this he spoke truth.

    Only a fool wouldn't be terrified, at least a little bit, if they thought too hard and too long about ski jumping. Starting at 105 or 140 meters in the air, jumpers launch themselves down a steep ramp at 60 miles per hour, eventually flying through the air the length of a football field.

    Height isn't what makes ski jumping an extreme sport. As Olympic hopeful Sarah Hendrickson told ESPN, it's the speed and distance that is gnarly—she's rarely more than 10 or 15 feet in the air. There, the ability to read the wind and make corresponding minor adjustments is key.

    Success in the jump is all about body control. Skiers start in a near squat as they build speed on the ramp and then lean over until they are nearly parallel with their extra-wide skis, spreading the tips into a V-formation proven in wind tunnel tests to provide 28 percent more lift, per The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.

     

    How to Win

    In the normal hill competition for both men and women, skiers start with a baseline of 60 points, earned when they reach 90 meters, and add or subtract two points from their score for every meter above or below the 90-meter baseline.

    In the men's large hill competition, the baseline is 120 meters.

    In both events, skiers start with 20 style points. Five judges subtract points for minute flaws in the jump and landing. Skiers jump twice, with the highest combined score winning the gold.

    The men's team competition takes place on the large hill and features four jumpers per team. The eight teams with the highest combined point total jump a second time with the gold going to the team with the highest total score.

     

    History

    Ski jumping has come quite a long way since Ole Rye, a lieutenant in the Norwegian army, jumped less than 10 meters before a crowd of his fellow soldiers way back in 1808. Less than 60 years later there were ski jumping contests, and by the time the Winter Games started in 1924, it was a well-established spectator sport.

    This year the Olympics features women ski jumpers for the first time, despite some protest from the ski community.

    "We'd hear ridiculous things like it would damage our reproductive systems," American competitor Lindsey Van told Us magazine. "But that's history now."

     

    Could You Do It?

    Even the best in the world can barely do it safely. Three-time Austrian Olympic champion Thomas Morgenstern had to be flown from an event to the hospital after a bad crash in December.

    “I only remember how Klitschko started to punch,” Morgenstern said in a statement, a reference to the Ukrainian boxing brothers. “Then the lights went out."

    Unfortunately, such accidents are no laughing matter and happen fairly regularly, making ski jumping one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympics.

    Verdict: You could not do it.

     

    Skiers to Watch

    There is no clear favorite on the men's side, but that's not a sign of a weak class of potential Olympic heroes. Instead there is a glut of greatness, with nearly 10 skiers poised for the medal stand. Poland's Kamil Stoch and Slovenia's Peter Prevc are top contenders on the normal and large hills, but don't discount Simon Ammann of Switzerland, a four-time Olympic champion.

    American Sarah Hendrickson has spent months recovering from torn ligaments in her right knee. The 19-year-old is back on skis, however, and ready to make her mark as women make history in Sochi.

    “Every day in the gym, I was dreaming about the days when I would be back on the jumps," she told NBC. "Now that I have made it to that point, it is weight lifted off my shoulder.”

    Her top competition may be another wunderkind, Japanese sensation Sara Takanashi, the reigning World Cup champion.

Snowboarding

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    How It Works

    There has always been a bit of a disconnect between snowboarding and the rest of the Winter Olympic Games. When the two came together in 1998, worlds collided in ways that weren't always comfortable for either party.

    Case in point? The snowboarding giant slalom events in Nagano that year were held on Mt. Yakebitai, a resort that didn't allow snowboarding at the facility.

    Sixteen years later, as snowboarding enters its fifth Olympics, not everyone is convinced.

    “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,” professional curmudgeon Bob Costas told NBC's Today in January.

    While Costas followed his remarks with a laugh, a real tension still exists. But the Olympic Games, whether traditionalists like it or not, needs snowboarding.

    Snowboarders, like American Shaun White, are bona fide celebrities, especially in their niche culture. While other athletes struggle to train full-time and make ends meet, White is worth $20 million. It's that infusion of glamour and youth the Olympic Games is so desperate to borrow from this burgeoning sport.

    Snowboard events can be divided into two broad categories—races and trick competitions. Each requires a different kind of board and boots, but all demand incredible balance and gumption.

     

    How to Win

    In the halfpipe and slopestyle competitions, boarders earn points for a variety of tricks and aerial moves. Height is a factor when scoring aerial tricks, as is degree of difficulty.

    In the parallel giant slalom and parallel slalom—new this year—two athletes compete simultaneously on parallel courses with similar jumps and turns. The fastest down the hill wins the race.

    The snowcross, a mass start event much like motocross, features four riders racing down a course filled with moguls, jumps and obstacles. Divided by rounds, the winner is the first to cross the finish line.

     

    History

    In 1929, Jack Burchett cut out a piece of plywood and attached his feet to it with some clothesline. From that humble beginning, snowboarding was born. Things got more serious in the 1960s when engineer Sherman Poppen created the Snurfer for his daughters, basically two skis combined together in the form of a surfboard.

    Jake Burton did Poppen one better, adding bindings to the feet, thus making the new and improved snowboard technically legal at most ski resorts. With that, an industry was born.

     

    Could You Do It?

    With almost 8 million snowboarders worldwide, not only could you do it, plenty of you do. The learning curve for snowboarding, however, is steep. Once mastered, you enter a world of freedom and fun.

    "I love snowboarding because there is nothing like waking up in the morning to go ride an awesome park or pipe, or just cruise with your friends and have as much fun as possible," rising Slovenian star Tim Kevin Ravnjak told Olympic.org. "Just by having fun you can progress so much. Snowboarding is also a sport in which you can be creative and always progress, and that’s why I love this sport so much."

    Verdict: You could do it, but maybe lay off the rocket airs.

     

    Boarders to Watch

    Lindsey Jacobellis, goat of the Torino Games in 2006 for falling during an unnecessary trick on her way to snowboard cross gold, epitomizes the difference between a snowboarder's ethos and that of a more typical athlete.

    After two years away thanks to a torn ACL, Jacobellis will take another shot at the medal stand.

    "It wasn't hurting, and I still had love the sport and I wanted to do it," she told USA Today. "There was also that—do I want to do this anymore? Has my body had enough of this? And I was having so much fun, so it was like I need to give this an honest shot and see."

    Shaun White, looking to take the gold in both the halfpipe and slopestyle, fell and injured his wrist Tuesday and withdrew from the latter event Wednesday, just days before the Games begin. The slopestyle course has claimed several victims in training, including medal contender Torstein Horgmo of Norway, and officials are looking at ways of making it safer before the event begins.

    "After much deliberation with my team, I have made the decision to focus solely on trying to bring home the third straight gold medal in halfpipe for Team USA," White said in a statement announcing his decision to forgo the slopestyle event. He added, "With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on."

Speedskating

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    How It Works

    Speedskating, in some ways, is a battle against gravity. In the shorter races, skaters are traveling at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour, creating a gravitational push of up to 60 kilograms. That much speed, requires that the skaters lean in at a 45-degree angle in order to stay on course around the 400-meter oval.

    Special skin-tight body suits, rubbery and dimpled, are tested in wind tunnels to increase their aerodynamic qualities. Skaters also wear special "clap" skates, made of kangaroo leather and featuring a hinged blade that isn't actually connected to the entire boot, allowing much of the blade to stay on the ice while the skater is in stride, increasing their pushing power.

    Once the blade has fully extended, a spring snaps the blade back into the boot, creating the clapping sound that gives the skate its name. This technology, invented by the Dutch for the 1998 Olympics, increased speeds dramatically, allowing them to win 11 total medals and sweep the men's 10,000-meter race.

    Competitors race in pairs, but against the clock, not each other. Skaters switch places from the inner to outer lane on the backstretch of each lap, with the outside lane having right of way if they arrive simultaneously.

     

    How to Win

    Speedskating consists of 10 individual events and two team pursuit races. Men compete in the 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters and complete eight laps in the team pursuit race. Women compete in 500, 1,000, 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters and in a six-lap team pursuit race.

    The 500-meter race is determined based on the combined time of two runs, one starting from the outside lane and one from the inside lane. All other individual races are scored based on time in a single run.

    In the team pursuit races, two teams of three skaters start simultaneously from opposite sides of the track. The skaters take turns leading the group with the others drafting behind them. The winning team is the first to have all three members cross the finish line.

     

    History

    The Dutch pioneered skating, crossing the canals in the heart of winter to stay in touch with family and colleagues in other villages and towns. The British eventually embraced skating as a pastime, creating the first artificial rinks and developing a sport around what had been a practical tool for wintertime transportation.

    The sport has been a Winter Olympic staple since the very beginning. Many of the most prominent American athletes have been speed skaters, including Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen and Shani Davis.

     

    Could You Do It?

    Watching on television is misleading, as the best skaters make it look effortless. In truth, just holding the right form is enormously difficult.

    ABC's Scott Mayerowitz gave it a try. After struggling just to get his gear on, the competent skater watched in horror as two-time Olympian Nick Pearson lapped him over and over again.

    Verdict: You could do it, but much, much slower.

     

    Skaters to Watch

    American Shani Davis, king of the 1,000 meters, became the first African American to win an individual gold in the Winter Olympics. He looks to capture his third gold medal in his marquee event but will have to beat back a stern test from South Korean Mo Tae-bum, who finished second in 2010.

    "I just simply want to go there, do my best, and if I'm the best man that given day, I'll be more than happy to take home a gold medal and add to my collection," Davis told TeamUSA.org. "If not, I tried my best and that's the best I can do."

    In the women's competition, the Czech Republic's Martina Sablikova looks to repeat her Vancouver wins at both 3,000 and 5,000 meters. Germany's Claudia Pechstein, herself a five-time gold medalist but banned from the 2010 Games for blood doping, will look to stop her.

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