Olympic Oddities

Rachel Jacobson, Special Features Editor

Living on the sunny Californian coast where snowy winters – let alone winter sports – are a mystery. Pres girls might find themselves perplexed at the seemingly strange array of athletic events in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

This month, the 2018 Winter Olympics will debut in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Amid the skiing, snowboarding, and ice skating events that many are familiar with, there is also a plethora of obscure winter sports that many have never heard of.

Take the sport of curling, for example. Curling involves two teams of four sweeping a 44-pound granite stone across a sheet of pebbled ice with a broom (which can be made of straw like a traditional broom, or the more commonly known brush called a “push broom”) to a circular target.

Unlike most other sports that require stamina, speed and skill, the best curlers rely on experience above all else, and are often much older than their other counterparts in the game.

As bizarre as it seems, this “roaring game” (nicknamed for the loud sound the granite makes as it is pushed across the ice) is popular in Canada, Great Britain and Switzerland, and has begun to gain momentum in the Northern US. It debuted in the first Winter Games in 1924 in  Chamonix, France and continues to grow. This year, curling will even feature the brand new “mixed doubles” event, where men and women compete together on the same team.

Next is the dangerous world of luge. French for “sledge,” luge is much more than just your run of the mill sledding activity.

Luge competitors slide feet first on a sled approximately the length of one’s own body, relying on reflexes to steer down the winding, icy path upward to 95 mph. Unlike the bobsleigh, riders are unprotected if they fall off their sled, and often sustain debilitating injuries as a result. One Olympian, Nodar Kumaritashvili, died in 2010 during luge practice when he fell off his sled on the runway in Vancouver.

As harrowing as it sounds, luge began as a fun activity for tourists in a Swiss Resort, and also debuted at the 1924 Chamonix Games.

An event that seems even more daring to attempt than luge is the skeleton (quite a fitting name for what you might become if you attempt this sport). Skeleton is similar to luge except in one way: athletes ride head first on their sled rather than feet first. It was thought to be so dangerous in the past that it was dropped from the Olympics from 1948 until the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, after various changes were made including improving sleds and moving the track to the same hill as luge and bobsled, as opposed to different hills.

Even though it can seem deadly, , lovers of the sport argue that it is, in fact, safe, and much safer in comparison to luge or bobsled.

This obscure sport was fittingly created under strange circumstances as far as athletics go, when British soldiers sled through ice paths in the Alps during the mid-1800’s. Like luge, it also became a popular sport for tourists, particularly the wealthy in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz at the famous Cresta Run.

Another strange sledding sport that will hit the ice this February is the bobsled. Bobsleigh involves racing down yet another icy, twisty path relying on gravity to carry speed after a synchronized running start. It originated as a four person event, but now bobsledders can compete in the men’s two person and women’s two person program, as well as the new monobob.

The bobsleigh began when the Swiss attached two skeleton sleds together into a toboggan with a steering mechanism in the late 1800’s. It appeared in the first Winter Games in Chamonix, and was altered in the 1950’s when weight limits were established to even the playing field (weight increases downhill speed when air resistance is factored in). It did not appear as a women’s event until the 2002 Olympics.

Perhaps one of the least known winter events is the biathlon. The biathlon combines cross country skiing with marksmanship. Biathletes race through a cross-country trail divided into two or four shooting rounds where they are expected to shoot a certain number of targets. Time is deducted for missed targets, and the fastest athlete to complete the run wins.

The biathlon originated in the Scandinavian forests where people hunted with skis, and debuted as an Olympic sport in the 1960 Squaw Valley Games. The sport has made a few Olympic appearances throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, but were only meant as military demonstrations.

Whether it’s curling or bobsledding, the Olympics are full of events that might make us mere mortals think twice about our standard definition of a sport or game.