The Olympics are unique for several reasons. But what is especially unusual about the Games are the sports we’re willing and eager to watch that we would never consider watching at any other time. They’re sports of which few of us even know the rules and even fewer have ever played.
Take curling, for example. I recently found myself in a conversation about whether the sweeping slowed down or sped up the stones that each team’s curlers threw during the game. It turns out, the sweeping heats up the ice, allowing the stone to travel straighter and farther. I had to look it up because, like other Olympic events about which I’m completely confused, I plan on watching it anyway and rooting for Team USA.
To be sure, there are plenty of other mainstream Olympic events that hold more mass appeal, such as skiing, snowboarding and hockey. Then there are those events I pretend to understand, like figure skating.
Similar to gymnastics, figure skating captures Americans’ imagination every four years, but the terminology, rules and judging are complex. For single skating, there is a short program and a long program and the scores are combined from each. Judges grade everything from technical skills to how the skater is physically, emotionally and mentally involved in the program. It’s confusing, subjective and unpredictable. And when an American skater sticks a triple axel, I cheer like I know what just happened.
Many of these mysterious events have a rich backstory. The Scottish, who tossed flat-bottom rocks across icy ponds, invented curling during medieval times. They took the sport to Canada, where it really took off (it’s now estimated that 90 percent of the world’s curlers live just north of us).
Another event, with an even weirder origin story, is bobsledding. According to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation, the sport began “largely as an activity for the rich and adventurous who gathered at alpine resorts for weekends of competition and partying.” More specific, bored rich vacationers at St. Moritz, Sweden, in the late 1800s decided it was a good idea to pass the time by modifying delivery boy sleds and racing them down the street. The resort’s owner, Casper Budrett, worried someone might get hurt at the party, so he built an icy halfpipe to keep them off the road. The first bobsled club was founded there in 1923 and the event debuted at the first winter Olympics in 1924.
A sport more familiar to Northwest Montanans, skijoring, made it to the Olympics as a demonstration sport at the 1928 Winter Games. But the event, where a skier is pulled along the snow by a horse, was never added to the official roster.
Another demonstration sport featured in the 1992 Winter Olympics, speed skiing, also didn’t last. This competition consisted of competitors simply skiing as fast as possible. That year the men’s winner clocked 142 miles per hour, but tragedy struck when a speed skier died during a training run, and the event hasn’t returned to the Olympics since.
This year, the International Olympic Committee added four new winter events to its roster. Those include speed skating mass start, an alpine skiing team event, snowboard big air, and mixed doubles (you guessed it) curling. I can’t explain how mixed doubles will differ from regular curling, but I’ll watch anyway.