Power Ranking the Best Winter Olympic Sports
The Winter Olympics are, without question, a little less flashy and a lot less sexy than the Summer Olympics. The winter games have well under half the number of events and the snow and ice focus makes what they do feel a little repetitive.
That being said, the Winter Olympics are still pretty solid. What the games lack in variety and exposed skin, they more than make up for in death-defying action. Athletes treating themselves as human slingshots is certainly worth watching every four years or so.
Of course, not all events are created equal. Of the 15 sports and disciplines that will be represented in Sochi, at least a handful of them don’t translate particularly well to television. But the rest are worth a watch, particularly in the devastating absence of football.
Here are the Winter Olympics events ranked from worst to first.
15. Cross Country Skiing
On one hand, you have to appreciate the endurance and overall athleticism of cross-country skiers. No matter the distance, this event, which requires continuous work from every major muscle group, is one of the most physically grueling in the Olympics.
On the other hand, wow is it boring to watch. And the longer the event—the men compete in a 50km, women compete in a 30km—the more painfully dull it is. It’s like the marathon in the summer, except the only scenery is snow…and trees…and more snow.
14. Ice Dancing
Technically ice dancing falls under figure skating, but lumping them together just doesn’t seem fair to figure skating. Ice dancing is less athletic, more dramatic and overall a lot more ridiculous than the individual events.
Now, is there a chance that Chazz Michael Michaels, Jimmy MacElroy and the Van Waldenberg siblings from Blades of Glory have forever biased us nationally against the sport? Yes, that’s more than possible. Probable, even.
But the real issue with ice dancing is that it seems like a fallback event, or consolation prize, for skaters that couldn’t make it on their own. And the drop-off in overall athleticism required for the event goes a long way to back that up.
Biathlon is just cross-country skiing that is slightly elevated by the presence of firearms.
That’s not saying that guns elevate everything, but having the competitors in the cross-country event stop for a hot bowl of tomato soup would be a welcome improvement.
12. Speed Skating
It’s hard to say why speed skating is so much less compelling than the track and field equivalent at the Summer Olympics, but it just is. The track and field events have variety in length and speed and various obstacles impeding the runners.
Whereas the speed skating and short track speed skating are mind-numbingly similar—the distance and pace may change, but skating in an icy circle is skating in an icy circle. You can’t even tell the difference between the athletes because they’re wrapped up like sausage casings in head-to-ankle spandex.
11. Nordic Combined
Here we go again with the cross-country skiing, but this time it’s combined with ski jumping, as opposed to nothing or shooting a gun.
Ski jumping is a pretty compelling event by itself—it’s dangerous and visually stimulating—but cross-country just drags it down. Much like it drags down the fun of shooting a gun.
Like adding a box of Saltines to a fantastic meal.
Luge is the least entertaining of three somewhat similar events—it’s vaguely similar to bobsledding and damn near identical to skeleton. But luge lacks the team component of the bobsleigh and the ill-advised awesomeness of the face-first skeleton.
In a vacuum, luge is actually a pretty insane event. Single and two-man duos can easily reach speeds in excess of 85 mph, with the record of just over 95 mph being achieved at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. It’s the most dangerous of the sliding sports.
9. Alpine Skiing
Alpine skiing is one of the more popular events at the Winter Olympics, which is surprising given how repetitive some of the five different individual men and women’s events are. The downhill and super giant slalom are definitely the highlights due to the technical aspects and extreme speed.
Skiers in the downhill can easily reach speeds of over 80 mph, making it easy to take for granted the risk and the skill associated with the event. Exceptional performances by individual athletes can really elevate an event (on occasion). Generally though, it's a hit or miss affair.
Bobsleigh is an entertaining enough event, bolstered in the U.S. over the last year because of sprint hurdler Lolo Jones making the jump to the Winter Olympics after failing to medal in the last two Summer Olympics.
Another fun and nostalgic storyline going into Sochi is the presence of the Jamaican bobsled team, which recently qualified for the games. The early 90s classic Cool Runnings made them forever famous and sentimental favorites.
Honestly, having to pick between and rank the luge and skeleton events comes down to a matter of personal preference. I like the skeleton because of how reckless and crazy it is to go careening down an icy hill on a tiny sled face first.
Even though luge is more dangerous, it seems like leading with one’s legs would provide a welcome buffer between an object and one’s brain in the event of a crash. Either way though, they’re both a little nutty and virtually interchangeable on this list.
And they both beat the hell out of cross-country skiing.
6. Ski Jumping
Ski jumping is one of the most unfathomable sports out there. In the summer ski jumping hills actually look a lot like water slides, but instead of sliding down on your butt into a pool of water, athletes in this event slide down an icy slope on oversized skies to an awaiting incline and launch themselves into the great unknown.
For most of us, there’s just nothing that makes sense about that. How you get from practicing small little jumps to the point where you feel comfortable making that first real jump is an absolute mystery. It’s one of maybe two or three total Olympic events that merely attempting would most likely result in death.
Making it both awesome and horrifying.
The addition of snowboarding to the Winter Olympics in 1998 was a very welcome development for Americans. The U.S. doesn’t compete on snow and ice on anywhere near the same level as they do in the summer, but have absolutely dominated these events.
With 22 medals—7 gold, 5 silver and 10 bronze—the U.S. has more than double the medals of its closest challenger in Switzerland. Snowboarding isn’t just an every four-year event for American athletes.
The X Games keep it on the radar through much of the year and serves as a year-round training ground for up-and-coming Olympians. And the fact that it’s our best chance for a gold medal automatically makes it one of the best events.
4. Figure Skating
Obviously Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding aren’t going to be competing at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but their infamous scandal has been in the headlines again because of the 20-year anniversary of the attack.
ESPN recently aired The Price of Gold, a 30 for 30 documentary which probed the event in a way that wouldn’t have been possible 10-15 years ago. It was made clear that time doesn’t heal all wounds and provided a timely reminder of just how serious the sport is.
For the first time in a long while the U.S. isn’t sending any standout female stars in the event and isn’t expected to medal. Recently Businessweek said the sport has never been so unpopular, which is the perfect setup for a Cinderella Story if you ask me.
Curling is the most hipster event in the Olympics. It's kind of like the Pabst Blue Ribbon, super skinny jeans or ridiculously twisty mustache of sports. Of course, classifying curling as a “sport” is pretty generous.
It’s more like a game of skill, with competitors possessing the athletic ability somewhere in between your average poker player and your average golfer. The elaborate shuffleboard game on ice is ironically popular.
Ironically popular with people who like sports based on irony, which is apparently a larger section of the population than you would've thought.
2. Freestyle Skiing
Because it didn’t become an official event until the early 90s, freestyle skiing doesn’t have the prestige of a longtime Olympic event like alpine skiing. Although that doesn’t mean it isn’t better.
Freestyle skiing is what you get when you combine alpine skiing and snowboarding and throw in ski jumping for drama. With no Lindsey Vonn to hog the spotlight in Sochi, freestyle skiing may get a little more attention this year.
1. Ice Hockey
Unlike the Summer Olympics which has a number of events that people in various countries from around the world watch regularly in non-Olympic years, the Winter Olympics only has one. That one being, of course, ice hockey.
Hockey is kind of like the basketball or soccer of the winter games in that it’s the major team sport, as opposed to most of the other individual events. That’s probably the first and last time I’ll ever say basketball is like hockey.
For Americans, ice hockey has been one of the premiere events at the games since the 1980 Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics. Defeating the heavily favored Russians and going on to win the gold medal was, perhaps, the greatest international sporting achievement in U.S. history.
Four years ago the Americans surprised again, making it all the way to the gold medal game against Canada in both men’s and women’s ice hockey. Unfortunately both ended up taking silver in the end, but will have another chance to surprise and exceed expectations in Sochi.