The Summer Olympics are a festival of the world’s most popular sports. Those Games feature running, swimming, soccer, and other events that billions of people have attempted at some point in their lives. The Winter Olympics, by contrast, are smaller and more exclusive; all 109 medal events are contained within 15 sports, and all have one thing in common: They’re contested on snow and/or ice.
Only a very small portion of the Earth’s habitable area—a portion that grows smaller every day—is covered in snow and ice. And if you’ve been on or around ice much in your life, you know it has one defining quality that sets it apart from the grass, dirt, water, and artificial surfaces of the Summer Games: It’s slippery.
I’ve watched this 19 times this morning. pic.twitter.com/zsdt4vN7DU— Tashy McTashface (@TashP351) January 7, 2022
Out of the 15 Winter Olympic disciplines, 11 are at least partially about completing the course in the shortest period of time. And sliding quickly is an essential part of every Winter Olympic event except the three curling competitions. That makes this one of the scariest sporting events conceivable, because the speeds these athletes achieve—frequently while hurtling through the air like a goddamn cannonball—make it possible to get extremely hurt.
So here, for the discerning sports fan, is a subjective ranking of the Winter Olympic events by NOPE Factor—an aggregate estimation of two considerations: (1) how likely it is that a novice could participate in the sport without being maimed or otherwise traumatized, and (2) how much paralyzing, pants-shitting terror a normal person would experience if they were somehow magically along for the ride with an elite athlete. Let’s hop in.
30. Singles Figure Skating
Given the immense pressure this sport places on its (frequently extremely young) competitors, you could make the argument that singles figure skating is the most arduous mental and emotional challenge at the Winter Olympics. It combines the pounding and physical contortions of gymnastics with the unforgiving exactitude of ballet. No, thank you.
But it’s contested on a relatively safe, nonthreatening, level sheet of ice. Most able-bodied humans could lace up a pair of skates and toodle around a bit without incident. And even the most athletic medal contenders won’t jump more than a couple of feet off the ground. Odds are pretty good that unless you spend your entire childhood in an Olympic conditioning program, you can get on and off the ice without suffering more than a bruised backside.
The one Olympic sport that doesn’t involve jumping off of something or moving quickly is even safer than it looks. In contrast to the ice used for figure skating or hockey, curling sheets are sprayed with water to create pebbling, and those tiny bumps (which cause the rocks to, you know, curl) make it fairly easy to stay upright. Even a first-timer in rubber-soled sneakers can walk around easily on a curling sheet.
The scariest and most dangerous element of curling, then, stems from its origins as a bar game in parts of the world—Scotland, rural Canada, the American Upper Midwest—where the post-bonspiel drinks can escalate into a genuine threat to public health and safety. It’s a great game, and easy to learn. But if you don’t want to end your night by landing face-first in a Manitoba snowbank next to a snowmobile mechanic named Terry, then go straight home after you’re done playing.
28. Two- and Four-Person Bobsled
The three Olympic sliding sports—bobsled, luge, and skeleton—all involve hurtling down an ice chute at close to 90 miles an hour, with nothing to protect you but your wits, a motorcycle helmet, and an insulated bodystocking. It’s not for the faint of heart.
But the multi-person bobsled events are the least scary of these by far, for two reasons. First, the actual structure of the sled offers at least the illusion of protection. I have no idea whether the nose and fuselage of the bobsled would actually stand up in a highway-speed crash, but it looks safer than a luge—a device the late Robin Williams once described as “an ice skate in [the] ass”—and that’s important. Second, only one member of the bobsled team, the driver, actually has to look where they’re going while the sled is at speed. The rest do nothing after the start except stick their heads between their knees and kiss their asses goodbye. Does that sound like fun? No. Is it doable? Yes.
27. Speed Skating
I think TV coverage does speed skaters a disservice, because the camera angles, combined with elite skaters’ graceful, deliberate strides, don’t showcase just how fast these people are moving. The world record-holder in the 1,000 meters, Russia’s Pavel Kulizhnikov, completed the course with an average speed that tickled 34 miles per hour. And remember, that’s for a minute-long race that begins with a standing start—he’s topping out a bit faster, even around the track’s curves.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m going around a corner at 35 mph or more, I’d like to be inside something that passed some kind of federally administered crash test. The only reason speed skating is this low is that everything a skater could conceivably crash into is covered in foot-thick foam rubber padding.
26. Short Track Speed Skating
Not quite as fast as regular speed skating, owing to, you know, the shorter track. But a glorified time trial is one thing—dodging competitors’ skates is quite another.
Probably the most famous short track race in Olympic history is the men’s 1,000 meter final from 2002, in which the top four competitors had a giant Talladega-style wipeout on the last turn. Australian Steven Bradbury, who’d settled in well behind the leading group, was the only man left standing and cruised to an upset victory. American Apolo Ohno was able to scramble to his feet and fling one of his skates over the line to claim silver, but during the fall he cut his leg on a blade and would need six stitches to close the wound. Big NOPE factor there.
25. Ice Dancing
Have you ever held another person’s baby and been worried about dropping it? Now, imagine being responsible for lifting another grown-ass human being, while on ice skates, while spinning around at top speed. Or worse—being said grown-ass human who gets lifted and spun. I know we think ice dancing is all fun and crackling unresolved sexual tension, but it’s a dangerous sport for total lunatics and I would not want to participate.
The newest—and funniest-sounding—Winter Olympic event is the monobob, a one-woman bobsled competition.
Obviously the pros make this look easier than it is, but with only one person pushing, and with gravity pulling just one person down the hill, these sleds aren’t traveling as fast as their multipassenger counterparts. Now, any sport that takes place on ice at upward of 70 miles per hour scores high on the NOPE scale, and anyone but an expert driver would probably flip the damn thing on the first corner. But compared to some of what is to come … this doesn’t look that scary?
23. Alpine Skiing—Mixed Team
Most elite alpine skiers turn their noses up at the team event for reasons that become apparent quickly upon watching. Rather than a typical winding high-speed course, the team event goes straight downhill, with turns that are shallow enough that many skiers keep their torso in place and merely hook their skis around the gates, punching the flags out of the way as they go.
Far be it from me to say we should have fewer sports, but … who asked for this? Make no mistake, I’d fall and/or soil myself if I tried to get from one end of this course to the other, but it looks positively tame compared to the other skiing and snowboarding events.
22. Snowboarding—Parallel Giant Slalom
21. Alpine Skiing—Slalom
20. Alpine Skiing—Giant Slalom
These are among the calmer, more technical methods of getting down a hill at the Olympics. Terrifying, sure, and certainly next to impossible for anyone but experts. But you can probably get from here to there without flying 50 yards through the air at 80 miles per hour if you lose your balance.
Which is not to say these events are safe. As the saying goes, speed isn’t dangerous—it’s the sudden stop at the end. And skiing and snowboarding events take place on courses that are chock-full of stuff to run into. Just ask French skier Yannick Bertrand, if he’s regained his ability to speak all these years later.
Pedants might note that Bertrand took that famous shot in the Lillehammers on a super-G course, not a giant slalom—but the risk remains in the technical events.
19. Ice Hockey
Few athletes in any sport are as well-protected as ice hockey players, who take the ice wearing plastic and foam armor from the tops of their heads to the tips of their toes. But most Olympic sports are about avoiding stationary obstacles at high speed. In ice hockey, the obstacles hit you.
It’s a great shame that the NHL won’t be sending its stars to Beijing, but the KHL, AHL, and European leagues are nevertheless contributing their own crop of gigantic human wrecking balls. Take Team Finland’s Teemu Hartikainen, a 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound power forward who, in one 2011 Oilers-Avalanche game, did this to an opposing player:
That’s not even a particularly brutal hit. But, like, falling on your ass is unpleasant enough, even in hockey pads. Imagine being plowed through by a bison-sized Finn, flying into a wall, and then landing on your ass. It’s not fun.
And before anyone pipes up about how there’s no body-checking in the women’s game, someone tell that to Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who positively Steve Atwater’d American forward Brianna Decker in the slot during the Pyeongchang gold medal game. That hit—a high-speed shoulder flush to the face—didn’t get called. So that “no body-checking” thing doesn’t make me feel a whole lot safer.
18. Cross-country Skiing
Maybe cross-country skiing has less acute risk of breaking every bone in one’s body in a crash, but it is the most miserable, brutal form of cardio ever devised by humankind. Let’s say you get going sideways on a sled at 80 miles per hour, or take a 30-foot fall on a snowboard ramp. You might die, but at least it’ll probably be over quickly. Cross-country skiers, meanwhile, will race for up to 50 kilometers at the Olympics, and the winning time in the 50K in Pyeongchang was two hours, eight minutes, and change. That’s longer than the world record in the marathon. Respectfully: Fuck that noise.
As for biathlon, that basically takes all the artery-hammering cardio of cross-country skiing and adds firearms! Just chugging around in the freezing cold for 20 kilometers at a time with a rifle strapped to your back. What’s wrong with you, Norway? Come here, I just want to talk.
16. Freestyle Skiing—Halfpipe
Watching someone like Chloe Kim take on the halfpipe, all I can think about is what happens if you catch the lip of the pipe after a jump. Instead of the graceful arc down the side in preparation for the next trick, your run ends with an abrupt thump and a visit to the trauma surgeon.
But then again, in Pyeongchang, a 34-year-old named Elizabeth Swaney, competing under a Hungarian flag, dropped into the pipe and delivered an anticlimactic, almost Dadaist performance for the ages.
Even Olympians, it seems, can occasionally eschew the spectacular demands of their sport and just get from here to there in one piece. I salute you, Elizabeth Swaney, for surviving.
14. Snowboard Cross
13. Ski Cross
Ski cross and snowboard cross look rad as hell. The exacting turns of alpine skiing, the knee-punishing bumps of moguls, the perilous leaps of slopestyle, and the elbow-to-elbow racing of short track, all rolled into one event.
Also: There are so many ways to get seriously hurt during this. You can fall on a jump, misjudge a turn and fling yourself off into space, or get impaled through the torso by a competitor’s pole. Keen-eyed viewers of the video above will note that the guy who won the bronze medal in ski cross in Pyeongchang didn’t even make it to the finish line upright. You just have to slide your broken body across the line faster than the next guy.
12. Freestyle Skiing—Moguls
Moguls: For when you want to fly down a 30-degree hill like an alpine skier, fling your body through the air like a freestyle skier, and completely destroy your meniscuses in under 30 seconds. The bumps are the actual name of the game, and they are nothing to sneeze at—one imagines a novice skier hitting the first mogul and careening off to the side like a pigeon that just hit a power line, equipment flying hither and yon.
But the jumps: remember Jonny Moseley? In 1998, the cool trick off the jump was to flick your feet back and forth in the air, and Moseley went to Nagano and blew everyone’s mind by doing a 360. Twenty-odd years later, this is the kind of shit people are doing.
The only saving grace of moguls is that the course is relatively short: just over 20 seconds for an expert. You’ll feel like you’re dying, but at least you won’t feel that way for long.
11. Freestyle Skiing—Slopestyle
Each half of a slopestyle run carries its own dangers. The top end isn’t that fast, but the course is festooned with ledges, rails, and other traffic furniture for competitors to crash into and wrap themselves around.
Anyone who navigates the upper section without coming to grief then has to pick up speed and fling themselves off a number of giant ramps. Even the pros get so high in the air that they sometimes have to pinwheel their arms to find their balance and land. No.
Going downhill at 80 or 90 miles per hour is scary enough in a bobsled, which has steering controls and a protective shell. Lugers and skeleton athletes (which is what they’re called for some reason, instead of skeletoners) steer instead by shifting their weight. Basically, push off, think happy thoughts, and maybe we’ll see you at the bottom of the slide. Or both of you, in the case of doubles luge, which combines all the health benefits of luge with the thrill of having a stocky Austrian man sitting in your lap.
Luge and skeleton remind me of something Alex Honnold said in Free Solo. He objected to the description of rock climbing as “high-risk,” preferring instead to call it “low-risk, high-impact.” By this he meant that the consequences of making a mistake were severe—specifically, certain death—but the chances of his making a mistake were relatively small. Luge and skeleton might be scary, but there’s zero risk of falling 40 feet through the air to your doom. Anyone who’s fast enough to risk serious injury would probably be competent enough to keep the sled on the track. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the worst injury I could inflict upon myself on a luge or skeleton is bad rugburn and broken bones.
With that said, the downside of a nearly unprotected 80 mph crash is severe. Luge accounts for two of the five in-competition fatalities in Olympic history, and the only one in the past 50 years. Any sport with even a very small probability of dying deserves a spot in the top 10.
7. Figure Skating—Pairs
We’ve covered lifting and/or being lifted in a figure skating context. But the lifts in pairs skating are bigger and more spectacular than they are in ice dancing. And we need to talk about the throws.
Behold: Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany, pictured here in December 2017, performing the routine that two months later would win them Olympic gold.
At this point, Bruno’s looking up at the sky, tracking his catch like he’s playing right field for the Milwaukee Brewers—only he’s not catching a baseball, but an adult woman! That’s just ludicrous. Look how high up she is—it’s like he got a frisbee stuck in a tree and thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll just casually chuck my coworker up there to knock it loose.”
That’s not a position any human being ought to find themselves in. And you know what’s really scary? Having the emotional vulnerability to trust Bruno here to catch you, so you don’t flop down and explode like an overripe honeydew. But that’s what pairs skaters do. Not 15 seconds after completing this death-defying move, Bruno picked Aljona up again, spun her around, and chucked her a good 10 feet horizontally. And rather than falling to the ground in tears of existential terror, like any reasonable person would, she executed a no-look landing on one skate blade.
I’m starting to fear not only pairs skating, but pairs skaters themselves. I don’t want to know anyone whose idea of a good time is nearly getting Pamchenko to death on international TV.
6. Snowboarding—Big Air
5. Freestyle Skiing—Big Air
4. Freestyle Skiing—Aerials
The phrase “big air” immediately calls to mind the skateboarder Jake Brown, who, at the 2007 X Games lost his board in midair and fell some 45 feet down to the trough of the ramp. A crash of that nature isn’t quite possible in skiing or snowboarding big air, but the sport still involves hucking one’s hapless body several stories off the ground and trying to land right side up.
Big air is new to the Olympics for 2022, but its cousin, aerials, has been around since 1994. The difference between the two disciplines, near as I can tell, is that aerialists don’t use ski poles, and take off from a shorter, sharper ramp.
Aerials competitors will flip end-over-end three times and rotate horizontally four or five times before landing. How do they even know where the ground is at that point?
3. Alpine Skiing—Super-G and Downhill
Everything I said about speed skating applies here: the athletes are so skilled, and the TV coverage so zoomed-in, that it’s hard to really understand the speeds they’re achieving—80 miles per hour as a matter of course, sometimes as much as 95 on fast tracks.
I vividly remember watching the men’s downhill at the 1998 Olympics on TV as a 10-year-old. The announcers had been talking about weather conditions making the course unusually fast and treacherous, and a relatively obscure Frenchman, Jean-Luc Cretier, had just set the fastest time. Next up was one of the gold medal favorites, Austrian Hermann “the Herminator” Maier.
Maier stormed out the gate and down the hill, but he overcooked a turn and more or less levitated off the ground, as if an invisible giant had reached down and plucked him off the surface of the Earth by his bib. Maier flew sideways, feet-first, hanging in the air for what felt like the better part of a minute. Then, with a crunch that sounded like a medicine ball being dropped into a crate of celery, he landed, tumbled straight through two layers of catch fencing, and ultimately slid to a stop.
I was completely convinced at the time that I’d just watched a man die on live television. Yet Maier somehow not only walked away, but also came back to win two gold medals in the following week. Later on in the event, another skier crashed not far from where Maier had left the course and had to be taken off on a stretcher.
Even when alpine skiing’s speed events are performed correctly, they involve steep drops and football field–sized jumps. Skiers withstand cornering forces comparable to those NASCAR drivers feel, and travel at speeds that would compel certain state police agencies to impound your car and throw you in jail.
2. Ski Jumping
The best euphemism in the Winter Olympics is “normal hill.” That’s the smaller of the two ski jumping launchpads, a chute some 100 meters long at a 36- to 38-degree incline, designed to help jumpers reach speeds of 60 miles per hour so they can turn themselves into human parafoils. What about that seems “normal” to you?
Over the past 30 years, the Olympics have added more than a dozen X Games–style skiing and snowboarding events in an attempt to appeal to the “extreme sports” market. But even the Chads and Scooters of 1990s California failed to capture the abject sphincter-cinching terror of ski jumping, which has been on the Olympic program since the first Winter Games in 1924, and was invented in Norway in the 1800s.
Norway, again. I guess you can invent sports like this when you have universal health care.
1. Nordic Combined
And yet it can get worse. Most combined Olympic sports—which is to say the “-athlons” you’ll find throughout the program—have some kind of narrative or historical thread tying them together. (Even modern pentathlon, believe it or not.) Nordic combined is ski jumping and cross-country skiing mashed into one event. It’s been around since the 19th century (guess which country invented it) and on the Olympic program since 1924, so nobody really questions it. Presumably the purpose of the event is to induce a fatal heart attack through either terror or sheer exertion.
First, you have to travel two and a half times farther through the air than the Wright Flyer did. Then, if you survive that, you do a 10K cross-country race. Like many things that are unpleasant to experience—playing football, fighting criminals, acting opposite Jeremy Strong—Nordic combined makes for pretty entertaining TV.
This is in part due to a scoring system introduced in the 1980s by—and I swear to God this is his real name—Norwegian Olympian Gunder Gundersen. The Gundersen method gives athletes who performed well in the ski jump a head start, making the race an exciting chase, rather than a somewhat-confusing aggregate scoring affair.
But as far as participating? I’d rather die. And no doubt if I tried to complete a Nordic combined event, I would.