Let’s face it, the Winter Olympics are largely a collection of niche sports that are thrust into an international spotlight because they’re called the Olympics.
These sports go on every year, but for many of them, interest rises only once every four years, and even then some surge in popularity more than others.
So as the 2018 Olympics begin in PyeongChang, South Korea, we decided to rank the Winter Olympics sports that will suddenly be front and center in your living room and the topic of discussion around the office. At a lunchtime discussion in the fall, we each made a list of the 15 sports, compared them, and debated their merits before settling on a consensus (OK, really it was more like Powers saying why his list was right and Pepin’s was wrong, but Pepin did score on a few volleys).
We looked at the sports as a whole rather than breaking them down by disciplines or events, although speedskating is separated into long- and short-track because of their major differences.
The criteria to frame the debate are also important, and we settled on the following factors as key talking points: drama, watchability, intensity, personalities, competition format, and fan interest.
It’s subjective and open to debate, for sure. That’s the fun of making lists.
1. Alpine skiing
Ski racing checks all the boxes. There’s drama — even the best ski racers can fall at any time — and danger. There are fascinating personalities such as Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn, who are both teammates and rivals. You can see the skiers’ faces, and the format is as simple as it gets: fastest one down the hill wins. Plus, you have instant knowledge of where they stand. A skier crosses the line, and a number flashes up. Someone sits on the top of the podium until they get bumped.
What’s also good about ski racing is you don’t need to know a lot about the sport. You know whether you’re seeing a great performance. And fan interest is amplified because of all the Winter Olympic sports, skiing is one many viewers have tried, so for many it’s easy to relate.
2. Figure skating
It’s one of the marquee sports of any Winter Olympics, surely a contender for the top spot because of its grace, elegance, athleticism, compelling cast of characters, and the way the music selections give it a Broadway feel. It’s undoubtedly one of the highest scorers in the fan interest category.
But a major con is the confusing scoring system. How can a skater who fell twice beat someone who didn’t fall at all? It’s because the scoring favors degree of difficulty and a skater can get more points for a splattered quad than by completing a triple, but that’s not exactly common knowledge.
It appeals to a younger crowd and was designed to interest that demographic in the Olympics. A strong personality factor is amplified by the popular X Games, and the variety of snowboarding events, from slopestyle and big air to halfpipe and snowboardcross, puts a range of athletic skills on display. However, a lexicon that is difficult to understand is a downside for the average fan.
4. Short-track speedskating
Short-track’s appeal is its universality. Asians are good at it, Europeans are good at it, and North Americans are good at it. There is a level of drama and uncertainty because anybody could win. It’s fast, there are thrills and spills, and you know who wins quickly so it’s more gratifying than its long-form cousin.
While immensely popular, hockey slots in below two other ice sports because the field of true contenders is more limited. Without the NHL in the men’s field, rosters are going to be almost as anonymous as those in the rest of the sports. The women’s field features the compelling US-Canada rivalry, and the nation-vs.-nation team concept taps into the allure of other international team events. But on the downside, hockey is a two-week commitment before you know the medals outcome.
6. Freestyle skiing
Danger is very attractive to Olympics viewers, and freestyle skiing events such as aerials, moguls, and halfpipe are loaded with danger. There’s incredible athletic ability involved — who hasn’t wondered how a moguls skier’s knees tolerate such torture? — and while these events are judged, they are easier to understand. Plus, American success in this sport elevates it.
Among the sliding sports, bobsled is the most dangerous. You have four people involved in pulling off a fast-paced, choreographed start, and those athletes often can come from all walks of sporting life. Plus, bobsled is becoming more diverse and attracting competitors from the unlikeliest of places, such as Jamaica, Nigeria, and Brazil. Underdog stories such as that add a lot.
Anyone who has ever gone sledding can relate. Kind of. In a that-looks-crazy kind of way.
9. Ski jumping
One of the classic Winter Olympics sports continues to fascinate anyone who remembers “ABC’s Wide World of Sports,” and it also gives them the chance to educate a younger generation on where the phrase “the agony of defeat” was made famous. But it is judged, which brings it down a bit.
See luge, except headfirst.
11. Long-track speedskating
The 10,000-meter event can take as much as six hours to complete. There’s a reason a mass-start event was added this year.
Go ahead, dust off the jokes, but curling has a high curiosity factor. Land on curling and your clicker gets a momentary break. Land on any of the next three and, well, click.
13. Nordic combined
Cross-country plus ski jumping > just cross-country.
Cross-country plus shooting also > just cross-country.
15. Cross-country skiing
A lot of people go cross-country skiing and it’s great exercise, but it’s just not that compelling to watch.