Big air, fast games and crowded tracks: the new Winter Olympics events explained
Ever watch a curling match and wish it was faster? Or that a snowboard jump was higher? Or that a speedskating race included more high-speed covert shoving?
Then you should be excited for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Four new events make their debut in PyeongChang in February: mass start speedskating, big air snowboarding, a team event in alpine skiing, and mixed doubles curling. Each of them resembles an existing Olympic event, only amplified.
Here’s a look at each:
Mass start speedskating
Canadian competitors: Ivanie Blondin, Keri Morrison, Olivier Jean
Mass start speedskating isn’t entirely new: it was in the Olympics once before in 1932, but it hasn’t been back since until now.
Mass start is just what it sounds like. Sixteen skaters all start at once and share the track for 16 laps. In that way, it looks a lot more like the rough-and-tumble short-track races than most long-track events.
The top three skaters across the finish line make it to the podium.
For the rest, it gets a little complicated. There are three “sprint laps” in the race. The winner of each sprint lap is awarded five points. There are three points for second place and one point for third. These points get added together to get a score for each skater, which then determines their rank.
This is where the strategy comes in. Every racer obviously wants to win, said Canadian national speedskating coach Mark Wild. But many of the top athletes will hang back a little at first, not winning the intermediate sprint laps, so that they can save their energy for the finish and a chance at the podium. So they might not be ahead until the very end.
But with 16 skaters whipping around the track at speeds of over 50 km/h, there’s a chance of a spectacular wipeout and injury. “It’s about as non-contact as basketball is,” he said.
“You do have some hands-on, but anything blatant would cause you to be disqualified.”
A big wipeout hasn’t happened yet, he said, but if it does, the skaters are protected. Everyone has to wear a helmet and cut-proof gloves in case of collision or someone skating over their fingers with an extra-long, extra sharp speedskating blade.
They also wear a cut-proof undersuit, with reinforced patches “over the major arteries” said Wild, like the thighs, neck and underarms.
It’s a “thrilling” sport to watch, he said, and unpredictable with a big push at the end. “There’s so much happening out there, that nothing is written until those three skaters cross the finish line.”
“Sixteen people going by at 55 kilometres an hour, it’s like watching rush hour traffic on the 401,” – except, obviously, much faster.
Big air snowboarding
Canadian competitors: Mark McMorris, Max Parrot, Laurie Blouin, Tyler Nicholson, Spencer O’Brien, Sebastien Toutant, Brooke Voigt
Big air snowboarding all comes down to one jump. Snowboarders drop down a long ramp to a big, high jump, and perform spectacular tricks during the roughly two seconds they’re in the air.
They’re scored based on difficulty, amplitude, execution and landing, said Canada Snowboard performance pathway manager Adam Higgins. “It’s a very big spectacle and everything happens in one spot. So it’s very easy to follow and get a good understanding of how it can go.”
In preliminary rounds, each snowboarder is given two chances to land a single trick, and keeps the higher score. In the finals, each athlete performs three jumps and must get at least two different tricks.
And they’re big jumps. The ramp in PyeongChang is the largest in the world, with a total height from start to finish of 49 metres. The athletes themselves typically go about 20 to 30 feet above the deck during their jump, said Higgins.
That much air can mean a rough landing. “Of course, people get hurt doing this sport,” he said. Canadian star Mark McMorris broke his femur during a landing in California in 2016.
But even with the risks and injuries, the athletes keep coming back, he said. “These guys love jumping.”
“The feeling you get when you’re flying through the air, it’s part of the adrenaline and the attraction of snowboarding. It’s close to flying.”
Mixed doubles curling
Canadian competitors: Kaitlyn Lawes, John Morris
Mixed doubles curling is “a lot faster” than the curling you might be used to watching on television, said national mixed doubles coach Jeff Stoughton.
“It’s quick. So it’s not like you can go to your fridge and grab a beer and sit back on your couch and pick up where you left off.”
The ends go by quickly and the entire game is finished in about an hour and a half, instead of the three or more hours for a standard game.
Each team has just two players: a man and a woman. There are eight ends, with only five rocks thrown per end. Each end begins with two stationary rocks in play – one as a centre guard, and one at the back of the four-foot circle of the house. The team with the hammer chooses which goes where, which also affects who throws first. These extra rocks can count for scoring.
One player throws the first and fifth stones, and the other throws the second, third and fourth ones. Generally, Stoughton has his female player start and finish the end, with the man in the middle. “There’s no slight to the women here but the men can throw it harder just because they’re a little bit bigger so they have that ability to clean up the house if things get in trouble. It’s a little bit easier if they’re throwing the two, three and four rock,” he said.
Having just two people doing everything makes the game more demanding, he said. “Each player not only has to call the game for the other person, they sometimes have to sweep for the other person or for themselves, they have to execute the shot, and then they just do it all over again really quick. So there’s not a lot of downtime for either player.”
A miss can completely turn around an end, he said. “That’s the key to this one: just don’t miss.”
He likes Canada’s podium chances though. Aside from fielding two former Olympic gold medallists, there are only eight countries competing in the Olympic tournament – for three medals. “It’s a good number. I like the odds. But you’ve still got to execute.”
“All eight teams probably think and feel that they can get on the podium.”
Alpine skiing team event
Canadian competitors: To be announced in late January
The new team event in alpine skiing also has men and women competing together. Two men and two women for each country take turns skiing head-to-head down a short course.
The skiers go two at a time down matching courses, each aiming to get to the bottom before their competitor. If one country wins more of these races than the other, then they win the match. If they win two each, then the winner is decided by time.
“It’s all timed, but basically it’s really spectator-friendly because you can see people racing right beside each other. So whoever gets down faster wins,” said Canadian skier Erin Mielzynski, who has competed in the team event at the world championships.
In a normally solo sport like alpine skiing, a team race provided something new for her: camaraderie. “It’s amazing to race as part of the team,” she said.
“When you stand there and you might have butterflies in your stomach, it doesn’t matter because you share them as a team.”
She’s usually been the first skier down the hill, so she’s able to watch her teammates do their runs behind her. “It’s pretty great to go through the finish line and watch the rest of your team, and you celebrate as a team. You lift each other up, and that’s something I’ve been missing my whole life and I’m so happy that it was added this Olympics.”
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