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A Brief Introduction to the Olympic Winter Games

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What are the Olympic Winter Games?

The Olympic Winter Games is a sporting event held every four years in which athletes from different nations compete in winter sports including skiing, skating, bobsled, luge, snowboarding, and ice hockey.
In many ways, the Winter Olympics are the most truly unique sporting event the world over.  Without the traditional restrictions of the Summer Games, nations of the Winter Olympics are able to create a look all their own, and each games is a completely new and different experience.


Following the success of the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, Belgium, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to stage "International Sports Week 1924" to showcase winter sports.  The event, which was held in Chamonix, France, was very successful, and was retroactively named the First Olympic Winter Games.
There have since been 20 Olympic Winter Games, the most recent held in Torino, Italy, in February of 2006.  The modern winter games span 17 days, and include traditional winter sports, such as Alpine skiing and ice hockey, along with more modern and unconventional sports, including snowboarding, freestyle skiing, and short track speed skating.
Power in the Olympic Winter Games
In the Olympic Winter Games, there are a number of nations that tend to preform best at certain sports.  Below is a brief guide to power in the Winter Olympics, giving fans a fair idea of what to expect when the games begin.
The country of Germany is quite possibly the most well-rounded of the dominant nations of the Winter Olympiad.  German athletes excel, and sometimes dominate in many winter sports, including Alpine skiing events, ski jumping, bobsled, luge, skeleton, and Nordic combined.
The Germans also tend to make an excellent showing in speed skating.  German skater Claudia Pechstein won three successive gold medals in the ladie's 5000m race, beginning in Lillehammer in 1994.  The Germans also dominate the biathlon, a sport long contested in Germany.
On an interesting note, celebrated figure skater Katarina Witt was from Germany.
The Norweigans have enjoyed a sound dominance of the Olympic games for quite some time.  Since the earliest winter games, Norway has been a powerhouse in all forms of skiing as well as long track speed skating.  Historically, Norway has won more Olympic Winter Games than any other nation.
The strength of Norway lies in cross country skiing, often called Nordic skiing for good reason.  The Norweigans generally make a good showing in speed skating as well, and often have a strong ski jumping team.  In recent years, the Norweigans have been a major power in Alpine skiing as well.
The Netherlands
The Dutch invented speed skating, a feat in which they take great pride.  Every winter in Amsterdam, the city's streets are covered with ice for an annual marathon on skates.  To this day, the Dutch are a major power in long track speed skating, and continue to be the major innovators of the sport.
Though the Swiss excel at skiing, as all Alpine nations do, their specialty is sliding.  The Swiss are often the biggest rivals to Germany in bobsled competition.  The Swiss also produce excellent ski jumpers, and their jumpers often engage in a three-way competition with Germany and Austria for dominance in the sport.
The Alpine Nations
Six European nations lay within the Alps: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Luxembourgh.  All of these nations generally enjoy the same strengths in Olympic Winter competition. 
Most all Alpine nations excel in Alpine skiing and sliding.  Most also have strong ski jumping teams, and traditional snowboard is strong in Switzerland.   
The Nordic Nations
The Scandinavian region includes the nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and The Netherlands.  The people of Scandinavia invented many of the winter sports we know today, and have been holding competitions in these sports for quite some time.
The Norweigans tend to be the best all-around Olympic competitors, exceling in both Alpine and Nordic skiing, as well as speed skating.  The Swedes generally make a good showing in cross country, and in recent years have been a major competitor in ice hockey.
Though they excel in ski jumping, the Fins have found their own unique niche: snowboarding.  The Dutch, as mentioned above, have long been experts in speed skating.
The Canadians have long been a major power in Winter Olympic competition.  Their athletes excel in both short and long track speed skating, as well as snowboarding.  In recent years, the Canadians have enjoyed dominance in the sport of curling, which has become something of a phenomenon in Canada.
Still, the sport in which Canada is strongest is the sport they claim as their own: ice hockey.
South Korea
Since short track speed skating was added to the programme in 1992, the South Koreans have been the dominant power in the sport.  Short track speed skating is a major sport in South Korea, as well as a source of national pride.
The Asian Nations
In recent years, the Asian nations have been a rising power in winter sports.  The Japanese are enjoying a newfound success in figure skating, while the South Koreans have continued their dominance in short track speed skating. 
Perhaps the greatest success story of the Asian nations is China.  In Torino, the Chinese enjoyed newfound success in speed skating, short track speed skating, and freestyle skiing.
The United States
In 2002, something changed in the United States.  Since then, the US has been a rising power in winter sports.  Now, after Torino, the US has established a commanding role in Winter Olympic competition, exceeded only by Germany.
The US is a well-rounded nation in winter competition.  In addition to dominance in snowboard and long track speed skating, the US also makes excellent showings in short track speed skating, ice hockey, Alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, and bobsled.  US figure skaters have long been the centerpiece of Olympic competition, and continue to impress the world. 


The IOC officially recognizes seven winter sports in Olympic competition.  These sports are in turn divided into various disciplines.  Though many disciplines have been added over the years, only one new sport has been added: the luge was first introduced in Innsbruck in 1964.
As of the Torino Games, the Winter Olympic programme includes:
Since 1998, Olympic skiing has included six disciplines:
Alpine Skiing
An Olympic sport since 1936, Alpine skiing is the type of skiing most would associate with the sport: a fast, downhill race that emphasizes speed and agility over endurance.  Alpine skiing requires exceptional reflexes and technique, and is one of the premiere events of the Olympic Winter Games.  All Alpine events are held for both men and women.
The downhill race features the longest course and highest speeds in Alpine skiing.  The few turns on the course require a little maneurvering, but the true sport of this event is maintaining control at punishing speeds.
The slalom event is a short race that emphasizes maneuvering.  Precise control is required, as athletes pass through "gates" (small flags) on the course.  Athletes must pass the gates along the inside, taking care to avoid "straddling" the gate, allowing it to pass between their legs.
Giant Slalom
The Giant Slalom is, as the name implies, a longer slalom race.  The course is longer, and the turns are a bit wider, allowing for greater speed.
This event's name is short for super giant slalom.  It combines the maneuvering of a slalom course with the speed and length of the downhill.  The super-g is a punishing test of precise maneuvering at high speeds.
Alpine Combined
The combined event in Alpine skiing is composed of a downhill run and two slalom runs.  After the event, the times are added together, and the athlete with the lowest overall time wins.
Cross Country Skiing
Also often known as Nordic skiing, cross country was one of the original Winter Olympic sports in 1924.  Cross country skiing is an endurance sport, requiring precise technique and physical stamina.  All cross country events are held for both men and women.
As the name implies, the sprint events are focused on speed.  The competition begins with individual time trials.  The fastest 16 athletes then move on to elimination heats, as in speed skating.  There are two types of sprint events: individual, and two-man team.
Pursuit events begin with a mass start, and allow the athletes to change skiis during a pit stop halfway through the race.  As with sprinting, pursuit is contested individually and in two-man teams.
Mass Start
A simple, marathon-style race in which all athletes begin in the same place at the same time.  The first one across the finish line wins.
Interval Start
Similar to mass start, with athletes starting in intervals of 15-30 seconds.  The athletes are timed individually, and the fastest time wins.
A race in which four athletes race as a team, with each team member running one leg of the race.  The first athlete across the finish line wins for their team.
Freestyle Skiing
A relatively new skiing event, freestyle was exhibited at the 1988 games in Calgary, and was on the programme in Alberville in 1992.  Freestyle skiing combines Alpine skiing with acrobatics, as athletes perform elaborate flips and twists in mid-air. All freestyle events are held for both men and women.
In mogul skiing, athletes ski down an Alpine course riddled with moguls, or small ramps, which they launch from to perform short aerial stunts (usually flips or twists with the skis crossed).  Athletes are judged on techinque, speed, and jump difficulty.
Aerial competition is conducted much like the ski jumping competition: each athlete takes a single jump at a time.  Athletes launch themselves from a single large mogul and perform complex aerial stunts.  Two jumps are taken, after which judge's scores for both jumps are totaled, giving an overall score that decides the winner.  Athletes are judged on technique, landing, and jump difficulty.
Ski Jumping
The harrowing sport of ski jumping involves athletes skiing down a long ramp and launching themselves into the air, then controlling their posture and the position of their skis so as to glide further.  Athletes are judged on lateral jumping distance from the end of the ramp to their landing point.  Though the Federation International de Ski (FIS) recently introduced women's ski jumping, in the Olympic Winter Games ski jumping is only offered for men.
Normal Hill
Until the 1964 games in Innsbruck, the normal hill was the only ski jumping competition in the Olympics.  A normal ski jumping hill has a K-point (jumping point) between 75-99 meters high.
Large Hill and Team Event
The large hill event sends athletes on jumps from a height in excess of 100 meters.  The large hill is also used for the team event, in which teams of athletes conduct single jumps to add to a total score.  The team with the highest total score wins.
Nordic Combined
The Nordic Combined event, which combines cross country skiing with ski jumping, was one of the original sports contested at the first Winter Olympiad in Chamonix.  Athletes in the Nordic Combined must display a rare degree of physical strength, technical control, and raw endurance.  As the sport involves ski jumping, Nordic Combined events are held only for men.
The first portion of the Gundersen competition sends athletes on two ski jumps on the normal hill.  The jumps are scored not only on distance, but also on technique.  The athletes then take part in a 15 kilometer cross country race.  The athletes start the cross country race in delayed start; the scores from the jump determine starting order, with the winner starting first.
The sprint event begins with one jump on the large hill, as opposed to two on the normal hill as in the Gundersen.  Athletes then compete in a 7.5 kilometer cross country race, with scores from the jump determining starting order as in the Gundersen.
The team event is conducted much in the same way as the Gundersen, beginning with each team member taking two jumps on the normal hill.  The athletes then compete in a 4x5 kilometer race, with starting order again determined by the Gundersen method.  The first athlete to cross the finish line wins the event for their team.
Snowboarding made its Olympic debut at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan.  The sport of snowboarding is a more extreme form of skiing in which traditional skis are replaced by a composite board similar in shape to a skateboard.  Snowboarding combines the speed and precise control of Alpine skiing with the aerial stunts of freestyle, creating a dangerous but exciting sport that emphasizes showmanship.  All Olympic snowboarding events are held for both men and women.
The halfpipe competition is the showcase event in snowboarding.  In halfpipe, athletes use the curvature of a snow-covered halfpipe to gain speed and launch into the air, performing complex aerial stunts.  Athletes are judged on jump difficulty and the height reached on their jumps.
Parallel Giant Slalom
The parallel giant slalom for snowboard differs from the skiing event in that athletes compete two at a time (hence "parallel").  The parallel giant slalom requires a high degree of precision and control at high speeds, and is generally the only snowboarding event not dominated by US athletes.
Snowboard Cross
Introduced at the Torino games in 2006, snowboard cross sends athletes down a winding Alpine-style course riddled with jumps.  Athletes compete in groups of four, progressing through heats as in speed skating, until a final four-man race determines the winner.  Snowboard cross can be somewhat physical, and two- or three-man whipeouts are common.
Since 1992, Olympic skating has included three disciplines:
Speed skating
Speedskating has been on the Olympic Programme from the beginning; the first Winter Olympic event held in 1924 at Chamonix was the men's 500 meter speed skate.  Since then, speed skating has quite possibly undergone more dramatic changes than any other Winter Olympic sport.  Speed skating was first open to women in Squaw Valley in 1960, it was held indoors for the first time in Calgary in 1988, and the signature "clap skate" was introduced in Nagano in 1998.
Speed skating is one of the premiere events of the winter games.  Until 1988, all Olympic speed skating competitions were held on outdoor tracks.  In the games since 1988, all Olympic speed skating competitions have been held in a special structure, called an Olympic Oval, specifically built for speed skating.  The Oval Lingotto was the site of speed skating competition in Torino, while the Richmond Oval will be the site of the events in Vancouver.  The Salt Lake City Olympic Oval, used in the 2002 games, has the highest altitude of any Olympic Oval in the world.
In speed skating, athletes race in tandem (side by side), but compete for the best overall time.  An athlete may finish behind his opponent, but still retain a decent position in the standings overall.
Modern speed skaters have no need to protect themselves from the elements, and thus dress for aerodynamics, not warmth.  They wear single-piece body suits that leave only the hands and face exposed.  Many often wear goggles or sunglasses to protect their eyes from the wind and ice spray.  All speed skaters since 1998 have worn "clap skates", so named for the sound they make when the skate meets the boot.  Developed by the Dutch, clap skates are hinged at the toe, so that the skate remains on the ice as the skater continues his stride.
In Olympic competition, men and women compete in mostly the same events.  The 500 meter, 1,000 meter, 1,500 meter, 5,000 meter, and team pursuit events are all contested for both men and women.  In addition, a 3,000 meter race is held for women, and a 10,000 meter race is held for men.
Note: The general term "speed skating" is most often used in reference to what is known as long track speed skating.  This is not to be confused with short track speed skating, which is considered a different discipline, and is listed below.
Figure Skating
Figure skating is argueably the best-known and most anticipated event of any Olympic Winter Games, and therefore is usually contested in the final week.  Figure skating is the art of skating to music, using a series of coreographed movements and spinning jumps to create a performance.  Athletes are judged on two main aspects of their performance: artistic merit (the skill and creativity of the coreography) and technical merit (the number, difficulty, and precision of the jumps).
Olympic figure skating is divided into three main competitions: one for men, one for women, and one for couples (a man and woman skating in unison).  Each competition is divided into two rounds.  The first round, called the short program, is just that.  Athletes perform to a short piece and are allowed only eight jumping opportunities.  In the free skate, or long program, athletes may perform an original program, consisting of whatever elements they prefer.
Ice Dancing
Though the IOC considers ice dancing a version of figure skating, it is listed here as a separate discipline due to its marked differences from the other sport.  In ice dancing, couples perform numbers similar to ballroom dancing, forgoeing jumps in favor of complex dance moves.  Ice dancing couples are judged on the creativity and complexity of their movements, their syncronization, and their skill of execution.
Ice dancing is always contested between couples, and is divided into three portions instead of two.  In the first round, known as the compulsory dance, the couple must perform a pre-determined dance.  In the second round, the original dance, couples perform to their own music and chose their own movements, but are bound to a selected rythmic pattern.  In the free dance, couples are free to choose their own music and interpretation.
Short Track Speed Skating
Short track is a relatively new event.  Having been offered as an exhibition sport in Calgary in 1988, it was introduced to the Olympic Programme in Albertville in 1992.  Short track is, in many ways, a very different sport from long track speed skating. 
Short track competitions are generally held in the rink used for figure skating.  Four athletes race at a time, but instead of competing against the clock, they compete against each other.  They must outwit and outskate their opponents, gaining and then holding the lead while maintaining their pace and stride.  Due to the confined spaces and aggressive nature of short track, falls are common, and in shorter races may lead to major crashes, similar to the crash in the 500 meter in Salt Lake City, when wounded American skater Apolo Anton Ohno crawled across the finish line to take silver.
All Olympic short track competitions are held for both men and women.  The Olympic short track programme consists of the 500 meter, 1,000 meter, 1,500 meter, and the 3,000 meter relay. 
Ice Hockey
Olympic Ice Hockey is one of only two winter events (the other being figure skating) that pre-date the first Winter Olympiad in Chamonix.  The modern game of hockey is believed to be Canadian in origin, though it is popular in both Canada and the US. 
Olympic Ice Hockey is held in the form of a single tournament spanning the duration of the games.  Since the 1998 games in Nagano, Olympic Ice Hockey has been held for both men and women.
Since 2002, Olympic bobsled has included two disciplines:
One of the original events held in Chamonix, bobsled is a truly unique sport in which teams of two or four men drive a large, aerodynamic, bullet-shaped sled down a tube-like track coated with ice.  The true test of bobsled rests with the driver, who must do his best to control the sled, keeping it off the walls of the tube to gain speed.  However, the men behind him must do their part; all riders must help push the sled at the start of the race.  Once inside, they must keep as much of their bodies inside the sled as possible to reduce air resistance.
Two-man bobsled events are held for both men and women.  The four-man bobsled, one of the most popular winter events, is held only for men.  Each team competes individually against the clock, and the best time wins.
Note: bobsled, skeleton, and luge are considered part of a unique group of sports, called "sliding sports", in reference to the way athletes use sleds to slide down an ice track
Though skeleton is considered a bobsled event, it is more closely related to the luge.  But while the luge requires athletes to lay on the sled face up and slide feet first, skeleton is performed prone: face down, with the athlete sliding head first.  While this position allows for far greater aerodynamics, and thus greater speed, it also makes control far more difficult.
Skeleton was first included in the Olympic Programme in St. Moritz in 1928, but in 1948 the sport was eliminated from the programme for fears that it was becoming too dangerous.  The skeleton was reintroduced to the Olympic Programme in 2002 in Salt Lake.
The skeleton competition consists of only four total runs: two for men, and two for women.  The fastest time down the track wins.
First introduced in 1964, the luge is a sliding event that sends athletes down the bobsled run while lying face up on a small sled.  As with skeleton, luge requires precise control with minimal movement.  While the luge position allows for greater control, it reduces the athlete's aerodynamics, making control that much more important.
Three luge events are held: the single luge for men and women, and the men's double luge, in which two men ride on the same sled.
The unusual Olympic sport known as biathlon combines cross country skiing with rifle shooting, thus requiring impressive stamina and skill.  The biathlon first appeared on the Olympic Programme officially in Squaw Valley in 1960, though a similar sport called Military Patrol was contested at Chamonix in 1924.  The first women's biathlon was held in 1992 in Alberville.
The sport of curling was on the Olympic Programme in 1924 in Chamonix, but was not included in another Olympiad until the 1998 games in Nagano.  Curling is a team sport, vaguely similar to bocci or shuffleboard.  In curling, one member of a team will slide a polished stone down an ice board, while the others use small brooms to "sweep" the ice ahead of the stone, creating a film of water over the ice and allowing the stone to slide farther.  The team with their stone closest to the target wins.
Olympic curling is held in the form of a tournament.  One tournament is held for men, another for women.

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