The 22nd edition of the Olympic Winter Games will bring together an estimated 6,000 athletes from 85 countries, who will compete in 89 events in Sochi, Russia – 12 of which are new to the 2014 Games – in a grand total of 15 sports categories. Like the Summer Games, many Olympic Winter Games sports are not only steeped in tradition, but have some fun facts connected to them.
Here's a sport-by-sport look -- an outsider's guide, if you will -- at the events many of us will watch on TV or in person over the next few weeks:
Debuting in the 1936 Olympic Winter Games in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with just downhilll and slalom, alpine skiing has since evolved into five distinct Olympic events – Downhill, Super Combined, Super-G, Giant Slalom and Slalom – for men and women. Reaching speeds of 80 miles per hour and more, these events sometimes lead to spectacular crashes – like when Austria's Hermann Maier wiped out during men's downhill in 1998, at Nagano, Japan. Amazingly, Maier went on to win the gold in two other alpine skiing events, the Super-G and the Giant Slalom, in those same Olympic Winter Games.
Two sports in one, Biathlon combines skiing with shooting, and has its roots in Scandinavia's winter hunting practices. Along with all-out cross-country skiing, the event requires athletes to shoot .22-caliber rifles at targets 50 meters away. Missing a target in the individual events adds a penalty to the competitor's final time. First seen as a demonstration sport in 1948, it became an official Olympic event at Squaw Valley in 1960. The Biathlon is divided into men's and women's categories, and also has a mixed-sex relay event.
Reaching speeds of around 85 miles per hour, today's carbon fiber and steel Olympic bobsleighs – or bobsleds – are a far cry from the wooden, four-man vehicles used in 1924 at the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix, France. There are currently three bob-sled categories: two-man, two-woman and four-man. The two-man sled event was added in 1932, and the first women's bobsleigh medals were awarded in 2002 at Salt Lake City, to Americans Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken. Flowers also became the first African-American athlete awarded gold in the Olympic Winter Games.
Another sport with roots in Scandinavia and northern Europe, men's cross-country skiing, debuted at the 1924 Winter Olympics in Chamonix (the women's event started in 1952 in Oslo). Olympic cross-country skiing is currently made up of 12 events: six for women, six for men. Given the first cross-country skis were believed to have been developed in Norway, it's no surprise Norwegians have dominated this sport from its start at the Winter Olympics. Norway's Bjorn Daehlie has the highest medal tally of any athlete in the Olympic Winter Games, with eight gold and four silver in cross country skiing.
This sport originated in 16th century Scotland, where it was played on frozen lochs and ponds. The first official rules for curling weren't formulated until the 1830s. Curling can be a hard sport to crack for those not familiar with its rules, especially regarding how the 42-pound, granite “stones” are handled. Then there are the techniques team members use with their brooms, to alter the speed and direction of the stones as they move across the ice. Curling was a demonstration sport at the Olympic Winter Games for years; it wasn't until 1998 in Nagano, Japan that it became an official Olympic event.
The oldest winter sport in the Olympic Winter Games, figure skating is believed to have started in the Netherlands in the 13th century, when snowbound residents came up with skates as a way to get from town to town via frozen canals. Figure skating is also the oldest event in the Winter Olympics, introduced during the 1908 Olympic Winter Games in London. In previous years, there were five events in figure skating: Men's singles, Ladies' singles, Pairs, Mixed Team Event and Ice Dancing. But a new event has been added for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games: a figure skating team event. At the 1998 Games in Nagano, 15-year-old American Tara Lipinski became the youngest athlete to win gold in the Winter Olympics.
Skiers in the U.S. are given the credit for starting this sport, using new ski technologies and equipment starting in the 1960s to show off with acrobatic flips and somersaults. This early “hotdogging” was officially recognized as a sports discipline by the International Ski Federation in the late 1970s, which also helped set up rules and regulations. Brought to the Winter Olympics as a demonstration sport during the 1988 Games in Calgary, Canada, the mogul category of freestyle skiing became an Olympic event for men and women in 1992 at Albertville, France – while athletes became competing for medal in freestyle aerial at Lillehammer, Norway in 1994. Another freestyle category, ski cross, made its Olympic debut at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Canada is considered the birthplace of this sport, which was first assigned rules at Montreal's McGill University in the late 1800's. Surprisingly, men's ice hockey made its Olympic debut during the Summer Games in 1920, in Antwerp, Belgium, but was switched over during the inaugural Olympic Winter Games four years later in Chamonix, France. It took more than 50 years for women's ice hockey to make its debut, during the 1998 Games in Nagano – the same year the event was opened for the first time to professional hockey players. Olympic hockey, however, follows the rules of the International Ice Hockey Federation, which differ significantly from those used in the NHL.
Often called the fastest sport on ice, with speeds reaching 90 miles per hour, luge is not for the faint-hearted. Athletes ride on tiny sleds, starting in a seated position and then lying flat while plummeting, feet-first, down steep courses. Luge made its Olympic debut at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. There are currently four events in the Luge category at the Winter Olympics: Men's Singles, Women Singles, Mixed Doubles and a Mixed Team Relay event that's making its debut at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
A sport that brings together cross-country skiing and ski jumping, Nordic Combined was one of the original events at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924 in Chamonix, France. The athletes' ski jumping results determine their positions in the cross-country skiing leg of the event. Nordic Combined is the last remaining, male-only event at the Olympic Winter Games. Norway has been the perennial favorite in this sport, having won 11 gold, eight silver and seven bronze medals since the start of the Olympic Winter Games – with Finland and Austria also having a history of strong national showings.
First seen as a sport in the U.S. and Canada starting around 1905, short track speed-skating takes place on indoor tracks and features athletes racing against each other instead of the clock. Featured as a demonstration sport during the 1988 Games in Calgary, short track speed-skating officially appeared as an Olympic event in 1992, in Albertville, France. Asian countries have especially strong in the category's eight events (four for men, four for women) in recent years, with South Korea winning 10 medals, including six golds, at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Sometimes described as a face-down, head-first version of the luge, skeleton is considered one of the oldest ice sports. While zooming downhill on a track at speeds around 80 miles per hour, athletes steer and brake the small skeleton sled with only their feet and body movements. There are only two events, individual men and individual women, in Olympic skeleton. The sport appeared at the 1928 and 1948 Olympic Winter Games, but was then dropped and didn't reappear until Salt Lake City in 2002.
This sport has been part of the Winter Olympics since the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in 1924. Experiments with new types of skis and jumping techniques have allowed ski jumpers to reach lengths of 200 meters and more. Scored on style, distance and landing, ski jumping features two events: the 90-meter large hill and 70-meter normal hill. And, after years of controversy, the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games will welcome the debut of women's ski jumping as an official Olympic event.
Bringing together the elements of surfing, skateboarding and skiing, snowboarders were often considered a nuisance by skiiers when they first came on the scene at ski resorts in the late 1970s. But within a few years, snowboarding was accepted as a serious international sport, and it became an Olympic event in Nagano in 1998. There are currently four events in the snowboarding category at the Olympic Winter Games: Parallel Giant Slalom, Snowboard Cross, the very popular half-pipe and – starting in Sochi in 2014, slopestyle.
Another sport born on the frozen canals of northern Europe, the Netherlands hosted the first speed skating championships in 1889 – and the sport appeared at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games in 1924. It wasn't until the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, however, that women's speed skating became an official part of the Olympic program. Advances in technology (world-class speed skating venues, for example, use demineralized water, for example, to make the ice faster) and training have dramatically improved overall times and speeds in the event over the past 50 years.