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Winter Olympics

Ranking each Winter Olympic discipline by watchability

February 04, 2022

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Before we begin on what is sure to be a controversy-free list that everyone agrees with, we need to do some definin' (nothing like a good old definin'). When we say "discipline" here, we mean one of the 15 broad categories that encompass the 109 events being staged at this month's Beijing Olympics. It can be confusing, because some of those disciplines are things like "hockey," which is, well, hockey, and has just two events associated with it. (You'll never guess the events.) Others, like biathlon, have a ton of events, but they're all just people skiing and shooting at various distances. And a select few, like freestyle skiing, have lots of fairly different events and are least slightly harder to group.

But group we shall, for rank we must! And by the way, if you're looking for a handy daily guide for when the medal events go down, and when the U.S. and Canada play in the team sports, this should help. And of course you can stream all the events, find out where exactly each event is airing, and get a replay schedule if you're not on Beijing time, at NBC.

15. Biathlon

In theory, this should be awesome—psychopaths on skis with guns. In practice, though TV does a solid job of trying to present a coherent narrative, it's hard to follow just by the nature of the sport, which includes time penalties and a constantly shifting leaderboard. In many cases, there are also staggered finishes. There is one way to fix this, and I write a letter to the IOC proposing it each year: Have the competitors hunt each other. But nobody listens.

14. Nordic Combined

This combines two of the least watchable winter Olympic disciplines, cross-country skiing and ski jumping, and this is a case of subtraction by addition. I will not watch a minute of this.

13. Cross-Country Skiing

These are incredible athletes, the drama can be very good if there's a tight finish, and yet...it's long, and it's just people skiing. They're not even going downhill!

12. Ski Jumping

It should be cool, because it would absolutely be the most terrifying of any winter Olympic event for a normal person to do, and the one that would be 100% likely to maim you (with a great chance of death), but after you've seen a couple humans fly through the air like birds, it loses its appeal. I'm not saying it's terrible, just not as compelling as it looks on paper.

11. Skeleton

I still have no idea when this happened. I'm a massive bobsled and luge guy, as you'll see later, but this one feels like the IOC is trying to sneak one by me. It's like the greeting card companies inventing "Father's Day" or "Mother's Day." It's phony. It's a come-on. "Oooh they're headfirst now!" I refuse to engage. (Still, it's better than everything above.)

10. Speed Skating

This, to me, is like parasailing, an activity I've done once in my life. It looks fast and exciting, but ends up being mostly peaceful. There's nothing wrong with peaceful! Watching these ridiculously strong human beings with their enormous thighs glide around the ice is extremely zen, but perhaps leaves a bit to be desired in the excitement department.

9. Freestyle Skiing

Since I'm on a tear of comparing things to other things, freestyle skiing—which includes moguls, big air, aerials, halfpipe, and slopestyle—is a little like the Saturday at the NBA's All-Star Weekend. The very idea of it seems awesome, and in practice it is kinda awesome, but certain things—whatever lame skills competition they have—are not as good as the others, and the stuff that looks the most spectacular (here I am comparing aerials to slam dunks) gets kinda repetitive. I won't lie, it's still a blast, but not a top five event despite the absurd acrobatics.

8. Snowboard

See above, but it's slightly better due to the legend himself, Shaun White, who makes the halfpipe appointment viewing every time. This year, you can say the same about Chloe Kim.

7. Curling

I am a curling NUT, the proof is here, and it took everything I had to be objective and not put it at no. 1. (After I wrote that post, I was invited on about five different Canadian radio shows. They love an American who loves their weird sports.) I personally find it extremely watchable, but will hear out the people who don't want to spend two hours immersed in the tactics of four men from Minnesota talking about hog lines. Still, in my heart of hearts, curling is king.

6/5. Bobsled & Luge

When I presented this list to some friends, they were upset bobsled and luge were so high. Too bad! There's a romance to the noble bobsled and luge track, the concept of getting speeding down the ultimate sledding hill, sometimes with teammates, sometimes alone against the elements. The drama is off the charts, particularly with the way the timing works—you wait with bated breath to see if each new racer is going to beat the previous time, and not just at the end, but at each split along the way. The pressure and excitement accumulates, and also, the Jamaicans are back! Plus, luge boasts one of the historic Olympic GOATS, and an underrated hero my childhood: The legend, Georg Hackl.

4. Alpine Skiing

These are the craziest people on Earth, I'm convinced every time that many of them will die. It's also just a great sport to watch, as one after another tries to beat the clock. Like bobsled and luge, the experience of being on the edge of your seat praying for the timer to go in the red is extremely intense. There's also the lovely aesthetic quality of it all, just cutting through that snow, and the snow of skis on ice, which should be bad, is actually very satisfying. Five stars, alpine skiing.

3. Hockey

Olympic hockey can be spectacular, and to be honest, if the American men weren't such massive disappointments (one medal in FOUR Olympics???), this would probably be higher. Lucky for us, we can count on one of the most intense events of every Olympics, the U.S. vs. Canada women's gold medal hockey game, to deliver the goods. This is appointment viewing every four years, and I will never hate Canada as much as I do during that rivalry.

2. Short Track Speed Skating

A sport where people are constantly shoving, cheating, crashing, and getting DQ'ed, and where some guy who is about three business days behind can still win a gold medal because crazy s*** is never more than a second from going down? It's fun, it's fast, it's dramatic as hell, and as Steven Bradbury showed us, it can also be extremely funny. Just a classic Olympic sport.

1. Figure Skating

The GOAT. One of the key elements of a great Olympic sport is that the Olympics have to be the biggest stage possible for the sport, and this is nowhere as true as it is in figure skating. I know, at least vaguely, that there are other championships involved at other times, but for the vast majority of the sports fan universe, nothing matters but the Olympics. But there? It matters a lot. To watch figure skating is to have your heart in your throat for minutes at a time, to beg them not to fall, and to get angry at the judges—another key element of any good Olympic sport. It's also mind-blowing physically, beautiful to watch (even—no, especially—the ice dancers!), and the kind of sport that literally everyone, from hardcore football bros to your mom, can get into. Nothing tops it.