Every two years the Olympics appear on my television, and they stay there for two straight weeks. At the start of each one, I know little about the athletes and have recently thought little about the sports. By the end, I have developed new heroes, bitter distaste for whole countries, and unshakable opinions about things like curling strategy.
The nationalism and drama of the Olympics are entry points that allow us to marvel at events that are generally ignored. At the 2016 Rio Games, for example, I decided to check out race walking. I thought I would laugh at it, but instead left transfixed by one of the greatest endurance tests in sport.
There are no bad Olympic sports; every one has the ability to teach us something about what humans are capable of. While the Summer Olympics feature sports that are usually at least somewhat familiar, the Winter Olympics are the Terror Games: Athletes fly through the air, strap knives to their feet, and hurtle down mountains at speeds where a spill might kill them. Winter is death, and the Winter Olympics are contested by people who have subjected it to their will — or are about to get into massive crashes.
As such, here is my attempt to rank the viewing experience of the 15 winter Olympic sports. More specifically, here is my attempt to evaluate the 15 categories of sports as listed by the Olympics’ official website, not each of the individual medal events. If I were to assess each medal event, I would praise snowboard cross (essentially downhill snowboard racing), and trash ice dancing (obviously the worst form of figure skating). The official listings, though, lump both into larger categories.
I’ve broken the events down into six tiers.
Tier 6: Scandinavian Pain Activities
Most winter Olympic sports sell thrill — the WHOOSH of speeding down a mountain or the WOW of seeing someone land an incredible jump. Not the Scandinavian Pain Activities. These ask competitors to demonstrate how good they are at enduring. Plenty of Olympic events make fans think, “Hey, that looks like a pretty cool thing to do!” These make us promise our loved ones never to move to Lapland.
15. Nordic Combined
The Nordic combined combines two sports that don’t need to be combined: cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Why would somebody need to be good at both skiing across flat land and elevating off of enormous hills? I don’t know. But somebody decided this convoluted event should be a winter Olympic sport at the first Winter Games in 1924, and, like modern pentathlon at the Summer Games, it’s just kind of stayed there.
Even more baffling, this is the only winter Olympics category in which women do not compete. For some reason, women have been deemed capable of both cross-country and ski jumping, and yet the International Olympic Committee apparently believes that asking them to do both in one event would cause their fragile little female bodies to explode, littering the course with cooties.
14. Cross-Country Skiing
Cross-country skiing answers a question that never should’ve been asked: What if marathons added frostbite? Some cross-country skiing races are tolerable, namely the sprint events, which take fewer than five minutes from start to finish. But the 50-kilometer race is probably the most grueling event in either Olympiad. The finish line of a cross-country skiing race is filled with carnage, as virtually every competitor immediately collapses to the ground in a heap of bones and lactic acid.
Watch this sport if you enjoy watching human suffering.
The IOC claims that one of its primary goals is to promote international peace. It doesn’t act on that in any significant way, of course, but at least it presents the biathlon, a sport that serves as a quadrennial reminder that no country should try to invade a Scandinavian country. This is cross-country skiing with guns; as it turns out, “X Sport With Guns” tends to make X Sport more exciting.
Tier 5: Ways of Getting Down a Mountain
Reaching the top of a mountain is supposedly great, but apparently it’s not that great. How else can we explain that a third of winter Olympic sports are based on the premise of getting off mountaintops as quickly as possible?
12. Ski Jumping
Ski jumping should be a top-notch winter sport. There’s a reason that ski jumpers are featured in all sorts of Olympics promo material — they’re flying.
But as I’m reminded every four years, this event isn’t particularly enjoyable to watch. Every jump looks virtually the same: A jumper tries to remain as aerodynamic as possible before taking off and then tries to imitate a flying squirrel by gliding to the ground as slowly as possible. And there are a lot of factors that go into ski-jumping scores besides the length of a given jump.
Athletes are awarded or docked points based on the gate they launch from and how windy it is when they jump, and judges grade the jumpers’ form and dole out points depending on how well a competitor lands with one foot slightly in front of the other. Other winter Olympic sports, like figure skating and snowboarding, assess athletes on their individual style; ski jumping grades them on how closely they adhere to the sport’s strictly specified guidelines. Imagine if a high jumper had to wait for a judge’s score to find out whether a record-setting jump would win a gold medal.
I understand why these regulations are in place — most are designed to prevent competitors from dying while jumping the length of a football field — but they make the sport a somewhat underwhelming from a viewership standpoint. Give me an event that’s scored solely by the length of a jump and that deducts points only because of a crash.
There are three sliding sports: skeleton, luge, and bobsled. Luge is the fastest of the trio, with competitors traveling speeds of around 90 miles per hour. Lugers lie down with more intensity than anybody else on earth, and there’s an undeniable thrill that comes from watching sliders zoom through every turn. Their precision at such high speeds is incredible: In the men’s competition, 2010 and 2014 gold medalist Felix Loch made a single mistake across four runs, costing him less than a second. It was a catastrophe.
He went from defending champion to not making the podium.@AmyWilliamsMBE explains what went wrong for Germany's Felix Loch on @BBCTwo's highlight's show.#Pyeongchang2018 #bbcolympics pic.twitter.com/4ZdUbeBHyr— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) February 11, 2018
Still, in spite of the speed, this is the third-best sliding sport. You win some, you luge some.
Skeleton is second in the sliding-sport rankings because (a) it’s named SKELETON and (b) the racers slide down the track face-first. Skeletors (?) realize that they are broadcast to the world as the top of a helmet speeding down an ice chute, so they tend to make sure the tops of those helmets are spectacular.
9. Alpine Skiing
I get a rush in my living room from watching downhill skiing. I love when the skiers come off the jumps at top speed. In those moments, I imagine that they weigh three separate, equally important thoughts: (1) the need to optimize the transition from the jump into the rest of a run; (2) the desire to avoiding falling, as that could break every bone in their limbs; and (3) HOLY CRAP THIS IS FREAKING AWESOME.
Bobsled is the best sliding sport because of the goofiness that comes with watching four athletes pile into a clown car on ice. It isn’t as fast as luge, but it’s far sillier. When a luger crashes, I fear for their life; lugers have died at previous Olympics. When a four-person bobsled teeters over, though, it usually looks like a fat comedian pratfalling. You can play whimsical tuba over most bobsled crashes.
I also appreciate that while the other sliding sports are limited to weirdos who spend their lives consumed by the quest to get a sled down a hill a few milliseconds faster than they have in the past, bobsled has a version that requires only one of those weirdos per four-person team. (It’s much more entertaining than the one- or two-person bobsled.) That leaves three spots open for any fast and strong people who want to be in the Olympics. The U.S. bobsled teams are home to football players, track stars, bodybuilders, and active-duty military members who happen to be assisting winter-sports obsessives on their paths to gold. I still believe Sam McGuffie can lead Michigan football to greatness.
Tier 4.5: The Less-Interesting Speedskating
There are two types of speedskating at the Olympics, speedskating and short-track speedskating. They are of such varying quality that despite grouping most sports in these rankings into larger categories, I couldn’t justify putting them near each other.
You would think speedskating would be exciting; after all, it has “speed” right in the name. But it tends to be more soothing — speed skating looks effortless and graceful.
The Olympic speed skating trials are on and I'm sure it's incredibly grueling but man it looks like they're having the absolute chillest time pic.twitter.com/zPZGh8PgCH— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) January 2, 2018
Only two racers compete at a given time, and while a speedskater can’t win gold without beating the other person on the ice, the real enemy is the clock. Racers attempt to shave milliseconds off their time with each graceful lope around the track.
Every single person from the Netherlands thinks this is the greatest sport on earth. I’m not sure I get it, but I wish I did.
Tier 4: Various Methods of Doing Tricks
Some people see mountains and want to race down them as quickly as possible. Other people see mountains and think, “Holy hell, I could do such cool jumps on that thing.” (Others still see mountains and choose to stay the hell away. I’m in this group. We have cocoa.)
The downhill-racing sports reward athletes for shaving every possible millisecond off their mountainous descents; the extreme sports reward competitors who do the most interesting tricks. I’d rather hang out with the latter bunch, who prefer coolness to efficiency.
Here is a take that’s hot enough to melt all the snow in Pyeongchang: The greatest lie about the Olympics is that snowboarding is the coolest sport.
Yes, snowboarding is cool, and snowboarders are cool, too. But the very nature of a snowboard restricts how fast someone can travel on it. People can make skateboards move faster by propelling themselves with their feet; they can make skis go faster by using their poles. Neither of these things is possible on a snowboard, and that’s before factoring in how snowboarders have to ride with their bodies perpendicular to the direction in which they are trying to go. Nobody would ever choose “snowboard” as their preferred method of arctic transportation. You can do cool tricks on a snowboard, but a variety of logistical factors ensure you can do bigger tricks on skis.
Snowboarding is America’s thing: The U.S. entered Pyeongchang having won 24 of the 90 overall medals in the sport’s winter Olympic history. No other country had more than 12. All three of America’s gold medals thus far in this year’s games are in snowboarding. Our teens, like Chloe Kim, are breathtakingly good; our adults, like Shaun White, have lived lifetimes on top of the sport.
I’m just saying the skiers can do more flips, OK?
5. Figure Skating
The selling points of figure skating are hypothetically the grace and beauty of the competitors’ routines. Whatever, sure, yeah, that’s great. It’s cool that figure skating is graceful and beautiful.
But if skaters wore aerodynamic uniforms while showcasing all of the beautiful jumps, spins, and lifts in their arsenal in silence, almost nobody would love figure skating. The real reason that this is a top-notch Olympic sport is that it gives viewers an opportunity to trash the artistic choices of incredibly talented athletes from around the globe. Their outfits and song choices reveal more about their personalities than any feature stories about their determination and grit ever could.
Some people criticize figure skating and sports like it for this reason. Sports are supposed to be objective, and figure skating never will be. But if you don’t treat judging people for their life decisions like its own sport, you’re not living right. (I mean, how could any humans get to the Olympics and choose to perform to FREAKING COLDPLAY. This is the biggest moment of your life! Why do you want the world to know how bland you are?)
There are some skaters who make good musical choices, but sometimes they fall, and we judge them for that. There are some skaters who make good musical choices and also land every jump, and these are the routines that stir us in a way that more objective sporting performances simply cannot. BRB, knitting an Adam Rippon sweater.
4. Freestyle Skiing
As previously noted, people can do more tricks on skis than they can on snowboards. My personal favorite freestyle skiing event is aerials skiing, a competition featuring one huge jump that allows skiers to flip and spin approximately 47,000 times.
I appreciate that the IOC adds more freestyle skiing and snowboarding events to the Olympics every few games. In theory, the directive is to make the Olympics accessible to a younger and hipper audience, but this also conveniently allows the United States — the country that pays the most to broadcast the Olympics — to win a bunch of gold medals on prime-time TV.
Tier 2: Games
There are 102 medal events at the Pyeongchang Olympics. By my count, 72 are races and 25 are judged contests, some of which have timed elements. That leaves five — three curling and two hockey — that are contrived games.
Maybe I’m not getting into the Olympic spirit by having hockey ranked so high. While every other sport on display in Pyeongchang tends to disappear into anonymity during the non-Olympic years, the NHL is on TV from every October through every June.
Of course, there’s a reason why North America has a popular hockey league and not a popular luge league. Games are typically more enjoyable to watch than races are. The variety of roles for players and the complexity of strategies for teams make for a more appealing viewing experience than the ones offered by sports in which the lone strategy is GO FASTER.
The premise of the best players in the world representing their nations is supposed to make Olympic hockey stand out. In an apparent desire to slip farther out of the mainstream sports conversation, though, the NHL opted not to allow its players to take part in this year’s games. If the NHL doesn’t want the publicity, we should focus on the women’s tournament, featuring an awesome U.S. team that could use the exposure.
The Olympics are a black-tie event, and yet curling keeps showing up in a tuxedo T-shirt. Curling boasts many lovable elements — the sweeping, the frantic screaming from player to player about when and how to sweep — but the reason for its greatness is simple. This is essentially Olympic Ice Shuffleboard. This is a game best played while drinking with friends, and about 80 percent of Olympic curlers look like people who enjoy curling while drinking. (The other 20 percent, inexplicably, are among the most beautiful people on the planet.)
The rules of curling are basic enough to pick up, so viewers can quickly understand which shots are successes and which are failures. This is the fourth consecutive Olympics that Team USA will be led by 2006 bronze medalist (and 2010 and 2014 very far from medalist) John Shuster, and let me tell you: There is an expression that comes across Shuster’s face when he realizes he’s misthrown a shot that speaks to my soul in a way no other emotion expressed by an athlete ever has. I don’t think I’ll ever connect with the feeling elite skiers experience when they win or lose the race they’ve trained for their whole lives, but I deeply connect with the “ahh, whoops” look that Shuster gives during internationally televised moments of disappointment.
Someday, I believe the Olympics will expand to include more beer sports; I cannot wait to witness America capture the first cornhole gold. Until then, I will cherish Olympic curling, a chill game that somehow snuck into an event that takes itself extremely seriously.
Tier 1: The Absolute Best Winter Sport
1. Short-Track Speedskating
There is a problem with the majority of winter Olympic racing events: Races are most interesting to watch when people race against each other. By their very design, though, most races in the Winter Games feature only one competitor going at a time. Two bobsleds don’t fit on a sliding track; any downhill skiing event that asked multiple athletes to speed through a course simultaneously would almost certainly result in death. There are dozens of events that feature contestants racing against the clock, with their victory or defeat revealed when their final time is compared with that of their peers.
Short-track speedskating is an exception. Whoever came up with it had to know it was a recipe for constantly entertaining disaster. It’s thrilling to watch skaters execute split-second maneuvers at top speed to squirm past opponents also going at top speed. It’s even more thrilling when those maneuvers don’t work, and just about everybody racing crashes into the heavily padded boards.
Short-track speedskating led to one of the greatest moments in Olympic history: The triumph of Australian skater Steven Bradbury, whose admitted strategy of “skate far enough behind the other racers so that he will win a medal if everybody else gets into a massive crash and falls” resulted in his country’s first gold medal in the Winter Games.
The women’s 500-meter short track final took place Tuesday, producing a frenzied minute of chaos, a 10-second final lap that resulted in a crash, an attempt by Korean Choi Min-Jeong to squeeze past Italian Arianna Fontana into the lead, and a photo finish.
It’s great to see the best athletes in the world achieve greatness, something that is possible in every event. Only short-track speed skating additionally offers the possibility of the greatest athletes in the world getting sideswiped and crashing into a wall at 30 miles an hour while somebody else speeds away with their greatness. This is the perfect Olympic sport.