Winter Olympic Sports: The Unusual Suspects

So, you’ve got your ice hockey vs. figure skating figured out, you know what events to watch in skiing, and you can even make a comment about Herman Maier. How about bobsledding vs. luge? And are curling and skeleton actual sports?

Turns out when the snow and ice come out, and people strap either skis or skates to their feet, they can get themselves into trouble. And sometimes, they don’t even bother with skis or skates, preferring to hurl themselves through the icy world on flimsy bits of fiberglass.

Ski-Style Sports


This sport hearkens back to the days of hunting. Olympians ski cross-country with a rifle strapped to their backs. At specified stops along the way, biathletes have to stop and shoot at five targets with a total of five bullets. Yep, one target, one bullet. In addition to an individual, sprint and team designation, biathletes also participate in the pursuit.  For this competition, biathletes’ starts are staggered according to their time in the sprint. The objective is to overtake the leader and cross the finish line first.

Starting Glitch Costs Teela in Olympic Biathlon

Way to show off about biathlon: “Wow, it takes an immense amount of discipline to ski fast enough to stay competitive, but not so fast that’s you’re breathing too hard to hit the target.” True story!

Nordic Combined:



Olympians in this event, which combines ski jumping and cross country skiing, compete over two-day stretches. On the first day they jump, on the second they race on skis. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Nordic combined includes:

  • Individual: solo competitors
  • Sprint: faster than individual
  • Team: run as a relay.

Sled-Based Sports

Do you have any fond memories of sledding down a hill on a snowy afternoon? These sports will not remind you of that – they are fast!



The team event of sledding, bobsledding is made up of either two-person or four-person teams. The objective is to sled down a narrow, twisty, icy track as fast as possible – and survive, of course.

  • Two-person: The front sledder steers and the rear person brakes.
  • Four-person: Teams still have a driver who steers and a brakeman, but the team includes two pushers to get the sled started.

Conversation starter: The movie “Cool Runnings” is based on the real-life story of the first time Jamaica qualified (or even really bothered to try qualifying) for the bobsleigh competition.  Check out our “Lolo Jones on the Bobsled” post…


These guys and gals are traveling so fast, they’d be ticketed on most highways – over 90 mph! No less, they’re doing it on glorified fiberglass lunch trays! No, seriously, luges are precise pieces of equipment that allow lugers to barrel down a winding track – the resemblance to cafeteria trays is purely superficial.


Lugers may compete either as an individual, doubles or the new addition of team relay. Athletes and equipment are weighed before the race, and they’re allowed to put on weight to make a pre-determined total. In doubles luge, by the way, the luge itself is about the same size as for singles, and one luger lies on top of the other.


This sport’s name probably doesn’t have anything to do with bones – it could just be an Anglicized version of the sport’s original name “Kjaelke,” a Norwegian word. Or, maybe somebody thought the first sled looked like a skeleton – even the International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation can’t decide. In any case, the sport of skeleton essentially looks like luge. Except lugers are lying face-up and feet-first, whereas skeleton participants lie face-down, head-first.

Skeleton - Day 7

Sports on Skates

Speed Skating:

Ice skaters race around a track. The quickest one wins. Only two racers compete at once, and they must stay within their own lanes.  Speed skating takes place on a 400-meter oval track and consists of five designations: 500 meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, 3,000 meters and 10,000 meters. Pretty straightforward, really.


Speed skating debate: “Who do you prefer, Heiden or Blair? Jansen!” Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair are the most decorated US winter Olympians. Heiden has five golds. Blair has earned five golds and a bronze. Dan Jansen only holds one gold medal, but he’s got a story: He had to take the ice right after his sister died of leukemia in 1988. He crashed – literally – falling twice and failing to complete even though he had been the heavy favorite. Then, in what hardly seems fair, he competed again in 1992, stumbled again and failed to place. Finally, in 1994, he not only won gold, he set a world record.

Short Track Speed Skating:

You know about roller derby, right? Speed skating is roller derby on ice. Four or six racers crowd onto a, fittingly, hockey-sized rink and emulate that sport while trying to whip around the track. Well, they’re not allowed as much ramming power as with hockey, but they are allowed to jostle and bump each other as they jockey for position.

2008 ISU World Short Track Speed Skating Championships: Day 3

Short trackers participate in the same 500 to 1,500-meter racers as speed skaters, the big difference being the jostling. However, they also participate in a 3,000 (women) or 5,000 (men) relay race during which time teammates give each other a mighty shove in lieu of handing over batons. Seriously, just like roller derby and hockey, right?


Curling is shuffleboard on ice. That’s essentially what you need to know. (Oh, and, full disclosure, curlers wear special sliding shoes rather than ice skates.)


Ok, there’s an element of the bocce ball to curling. See, curlers shove a rock toward an under-ice bulls eye. Teammates use a broom – no joke – to sweep the ice in front of the stone (it really is a stone – polished granite with a handle). Sweeping the ice smoothes it out, allowing the stone to travel straighter and farther. Teams acquire points by getting the stone as close to the bulls eye as possible.

So, curling, skeleton and the contact sport of short-track. What’s your fancy of the unusual suspects at the Winter Olympics?


Contributed by Nadia Archuleta

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